One of the things I get asked most often – generally by university lecturers, or at least those who realise it’s good to talk to the industry into which they send hundreds of graduates every year – is this: “What do you need a good journalist to be these days?”
A similar, but slightly different, question sometimes gets asked by editors: “What does a great journalist in the future look like?”
Recently, I’ve been told on a number of occasions that ‘a great journalist will always be a great journalist’ and that ‘a great story will always be a great story.’ It’s comforting to think that will be the case, but I suspect it won’t. It’s a bit like a butcher thinking he’ll not have to change when Tesco opens up down the road.
Does the ability to ‘get’ social media now take preference to the ability to get a great story? It’s a bit chicken and egg. Social media works best when you’ve got something to share – like a great story – but there’s no point having a great story if you don’t how to share it and drive audience to it. That kind of sums up the way the world has changed for me.
It’s no longer enough to exhibit all the traditional strong traits of a journalist – story getting skills, a flair for writing, legal knowledge, accuracy – and assume that’s enough. The modern journalist has to be able to justify what they are writing to an engaged and active audience which will seek to hold you to account, and know how to get the largest possible audience to a story. When I began my career, promoting the story was the job of the sub’s desk. Me? I just wrote the stories.
Some skills transcend all changes. Curiosity, for example, is as vital now as it was in Charles Dickens’ day, as is determination. And the ability to pick yourself up and dust yourself down is perhaps even more important than ever before.
New skills have come along. Social. Video. Pictures. Blogging. Data. Coding – yes, we’ll be laughing in five years at the idea this was the job of someone else – SEO. All have similarities with the core skills of journalism – they are things you can probably teach, but those with a flair for them go furthest, and you never stop learning about them.
But when universities talk about dropping some skills in favour of others, or editors wrestle with what’s most important to them, it’s increasingly becoming more important to focus on one thing above everything else. It’s not a skill, as such, more of a mindset.
For me, to even stand a chance of opening a door into a newsroom job, a candidate has to be excited about the future.
If they are, then you’re on the right track. That’s when the conversations about SEO, story getting, social, writing, video, shorthand – yes, it’s still important for some roles – and coding can begin.
For each role created, different skills will be important. The NCE needs to reflect that – quickly – and I think ultimately we’ll see a debundling of the skills required to get into a newsroom. Should a lack of shorthand deny a newsroom a journalist with brilliant data skills?
It depends on the job of course, but I’d argue it shouldn’t result in a blanket exclusion for that journalist to regional newsroom roles. Likewise, should the ability to Tweet to 100,000 be more important than shorthand? For a court reporter, no!
These are challenging times for the regional media, but also exciting times. The Liverpool Echo is read by more people than at any point since 1979. A story on the Halifax Courier can find a fan in the Falklands as quickly as one in Farsley. The Tweets and Facebook statuses of thousands of people a minute can reveal untold stories at the drop of a hat.
If candidates aren’t excited about what the future holds for journalism, and how the digital age will keep changing what we do, then there’s not much point continuing a conversation.
And in my experience, that can be a higher bar than it might seem.