Anthony Moor is Associate Managing Editor/Online at the Orlando Sentinel, and editor of OrlandoSentinel.com. He also serves on the board of directors of the Online News Association.
So ten years into the Internet revolution, you are beginning a career in journalism. Odds are that means you are looking for a job in either print or TV.
What’s wrong with this picture?
One major newspaper chain was just frog-marched to the auction block by grimfaced money managers. The others have watched their stock price slide for two solid years like a metro daily tossed onto a pitched roof.
Network television doesn’t even have all its anchor chairs filled — forget about a clear mission. The cable outlets have hired talk-show screamers and now follow car chases and kidnap mysteries “live.” Much of local TV long ago gave up the ghost.
Maybe it’s time to consider the Web.
After a long freeze brought about by the dot-com crash and 9/11, Web editors are hiring and Web operations are expanding again. Safa Rashtchy, a senior research analyst at the securities firm Piper Jaffray, recently predicted that online advertising will reach its tipping point in mid-2006. That’s prompting news organizations to realign their resources to focus more on Web journalism.
What’s more, for a discipline with decades of tradition and well-defined standards of practice, there is a sense of excitement and rejuvenation about journalism as it is being practiced on the Web today. The rules are still being written, so the practitioners, by and large, are following their own muse as they explore new ways to communicate news and information.
We rolled out a blog at OrlandoSentinel.com for this year’s Winter Olympics, and our three columnists became diarists. They wrote about Big Macs, getting lost on the media bus and the fact that Florida’s top football draft pick had given up the gridiron for figure skating.
OK, the last one was a fabrication, but they did own up to it in their post. They wanted to know whether anyone was reading their blog and would comment. The readers did — heatedly.
We thought our bloggers would write about sports. But set loose with a new writing form in a two-way medium that allows readers to talk back, they invented something new.
“I enjoyed my first blog-o-rama,” veteran sports columnist David Whitley wrote to me when he returned from Italy. “If that’s part of the next generation of newspapers, I could have a lot of fun. Unless I get fired first, I guess.”
Our other online efforts are making newsroom staff happy as well. Sentinel photographer Ed Sackett practically crowed over the opportunity to capture the sound and movement of roosters at a county fair contest recently. Online producers Debra Minor and Kris Hey relish scooping TV, radio and the Associated Press with news called in from the field by Sentinel staff.
It is true that at the major news organizations, much of the Web work to date has focused on repurposing content from the legacy newsroom for a digital audience. But that is changing. In the same way that early television struggled to develop from radio-on-TV to something different, so is Web journalism.
Some are striking out in exceptionally creative directions. A young broadcaster in Britain melds magazine-style presentation with grainy, cinema-vérité video to create investigative productions of amazing depth and presence. A Chicago journalist-programmer melds public police data with Google maps to present an on-demand visual map of crime in your neighborhood. A pair of newspaper veterans dubs themselves “Baristas” and serves up a mix of community-contributed news and their own wry sense of humor to suburban New Jersey.
Preparing for the new job market
The privilege to innovate like this may come around only once in a lifetime. If you talk to those of us doing news on the Web, you’ll learn that we believe the Internet is finally beginning to deliver on its promise to transform journalism — but we’re also not sure what that transformation will bring. So this is your opportunity to shape the future.
Interestingly, the skills you need are just what you have been learning. A soon-to-be released study finds that online managers are primarily looking for detail-oriented collaborators capable of editing and copyediting, not technical producers. (The survey was prepared by the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, in conjunction with the Online News Association, and will be published on the ONA website in the next few weeks.)
So what could you do right now at school to give you an edge with Web editors? When I examine resumes of recent graduates, I’m looking for the journalism skills first, specifically news judgment. Have you worked as an editor at your college newspaper? Do you have clips that demonstrate a clear hard-news focus, in the classic, inverted-pyramid writing style? I want journalists who want to be editors.
Next, are you Internet literate? No newspaper editor would hire an applicant who didn’t know the function of the A-section. No TV news director would hire someone who couldn’t pick out a sound bite or define the term “B-roll.” While we don’t need code monkeys, we do need people who understand the unique attributes of the Web as it pertains to journalism.
So, have you built a Web page as part of a student project or on your own? Do you know basic HTML? Do you work on the student newspaper website? Do you frequent Internet news sites? Do you use an RSS reader? Do you podcast? Did you ask to shadow the Web producers for a few days at your last internship? An affinity for our medium is essential.
I also need people who think in multimedia. So if you’re a broadcast major, take print courses, or visa versa. Do a Web project. Have you ever storyboarded a reporting effort for a Flash presentation? (In truth, we don’t do much Flash at our shop, and you’ll find that’s normal at news websites, so Flash skills are usually a bonus, not a requirement.) You have to know how to take anything that can be digitized and present it in a uniquely compelling way for the Web.
This is essential because you will be mentoring reporters from your legacy newsroom who need insight into how to present their work for a Web audience. You must be the one who knows that source documentation can make a deep, rich Web piece or database. You should know how to write a TV-style voiceover script to marry to photos for a narrated slide show. You must dream up the idea to take the sales tax data a reporter compiled and make an interface that lets individuals put in their own grocery bill to find out in which county they get the biggest break.
Do you keep a blog? Why not? There has never been an easier way to publish your journalism for an audience. So become a journalist online. Blog your hobby or your summer in Europe — like a reporter, not an opinion columnist. An understanding of how the blogosphere intersects with news is increasingly important as we tackle the two-way nature of the Internet today. (One caveat: Your MySpace musings may make you a blogging expert, but it doesn’t qualify as journalism. In fact, you can count on us finding that frat party confession and photo en déshabillé, so ask yourself whether that’s the image you wish to project when seeking a job.)
There never has been a better time to get into Web journalism. We are making money, we are hiring, and we are actively searching for new, innovative ideas. After ten years, there are no veterans in this field. This is your chance to be among the first.