Skills training is not enough for the digital journalist

As an academic, I’ve been given a front row seat to the unraveling of the news industry without having to worry about my job. But if I were a journalist, the first thing I would be thinking about is what kind of skills I might need in order to retool for the digital age.

However, my 500-foot view from the ivory towers urges caution: it’s not the skills that you get that will save your job, or repurpose you for the future, it’s whether you can learn how to think like a journalist in the Web 2.0, or what some are even calling the Web 3.0 world.

I make this observation after working with newsrooms who have tried to implement broad training initiatives, as well as after interviews with many journalists who have attempted to gain new skills themselves. Here I get to take some license in that the journalists I’ve worked with cannot be named, as they are given anonymity for human subjects research protocol by the university.

But I can say that one of my major discoveries has been that training – learning to take a digital photo, the writing for the Web, the digital audio and video editing, the flash, and the social media, to name a few – is not for everyone, nor should it be the answer for everyone.

I don’t mean to disparage the excellent training that is occurring. Not to toot our own horn, but the Knight Digital Media Center’s Berkeley outfit has become somewhat of a standard bearer in multimedia training for journalists. Poynter’s News U offers courses in online and multimedia training. In November 2008, in addition to its News U offerings, Poynter nobly piloted Standing Up for Journalism workshop to retool and reenergize laid off journalists.

The skills, though, aren’t the answer. As one news executive said, “We need to take staff to Web 2.0 and beyond – to make learning more nimble and flexible.” This executive, after putting staff through training pilots, realized that multimedia literacy and a basic understanding of what it meant to work in a Web environment was what people needed – before they could go about learning the hardware.

What is this multimedia thinking that should be happening in these training sessions? Here are a few suggestions for journalists and their news organizations.

  1. Journalists need to understand how the Web and multimedia goals will work within their own organizations. News organizations need to clearly communicate how these Web goals will influence the work production cycle.
  2. Journalists at all levels of the news organization should believe that they can contribute to the multimedia vision of their organization. The future of the newsroom is also in your hands, and thinking like this forces journalists to think multi-dimensionally.
  3. Journalists are not alone in the newsroom. Even if journalists themselves cannot think about how to make their work relevant to multiplatform content, someone else in the news organization can. Most of your organizations have people on staff that can help you brainstorm, even if you can’t. Multimedia training is also about making new connections across your organization.
  4. Silos, departmental rivalries, and departments that don’t communicate with each other cannot exist if multimedia initiatives are to succeed.
  5. Journalists no longer control the distribution of the content they produce. This is a very scary thought for many journalists, but the reality is that once something is published (usually on Web sites), it belongs to the audience of readers and becomes part of a conversation about the news.
  6. Journalists need to rethink and reposition themselves the leader of this new conversation, which includes everyone from the traditional water cooler chat to bloggers.

Of all of these ways to think about multimedia in news organizations, perhaps the most important point to emphasize is that Web journalism means a journalism of conversation. London School of Economics professor and former broadcast journalist Charlie Beckett has come up with the term “networked journalist” or “networked journalism,” and explains the idea in his new book, Supermedia: Saving Journalism So it Can Save the World.

The idea is to take the best parts of the civic journalism and public journalism movements and sync these up with the possibilities of the Web. Through networked journalism, Beckett urges legacy journalists to think of themselves as participating in somewhat of a pro-am kind of relationship, where mainstream journalists share the process of production with everyday citizens.

Multimedia training doesn’t need to incorporate new skills if journalists can find ways to think about including in their work opportunities for conversation through citizen journalism, crowd-sourcing, interactivity, wikis, blogging, and social network, as Beckett points out, “not as ad-ons, but as an essential part of news production and distribution.”

Journalists don’t have to learn how to take photos, though maybe they should, but they need to think about new ways to connect to an audience that is increasingly connected to them.

The truth is that most skills boot camps don’t turn the majority of the journalists who attend them into professional quality video editors or graphic designers; in fact, many of the projects they turn out in training sessions would not be fit for the Web.

But the value of these training sessions is that they do help journalists learn to see the potential of what these new tools can bring to the work they do – so instead of making multimedia experts, journalists can learn how to think like them. But we ought to reconsider the goals of these training sessions and align them to change thinking to change practice, rather than use them to change practice and hope it will change thinking.

About Nikki Usher

Nikki Usher is a doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.


  1. I absolutely could not agree with you more. Many of my students get jobs and are successful in them, because of the way they can engage with concepts, be flexible and practice autonomous learning. Several years ago I developed this presentation regarding teaching technology to include integration of skills, judgment and perspective: Had a JMCE article to this effect, too (, and a book chapter is in publication. I’ll definitely be blogging about this topic later.

  2. says:

    After I got my “basic training” as a Web producer, this was where the real learning curve began:

    Learning what kind of journalism and reader interaction thrives on the Web, as opposed to the print medium where I had worked for many years.

    As it turned out, it was the most energizing experience of my career. I’m not particularly good with some of the tools — I attended the “Standing Up for Journalism” workshop you mentioned. Visual journalism will never be my strong suit, but I have gone out and bought my own video camera and soon will start doing some podcasting.

    But I have a much greater understanding of the nature and difficulty of the work that goes into shooting and editing audio and video.

    That’s the value in learning how to do these things. Thanks for pointing that out.

  3. Nikki, great post. Training has to be about changing newsroom culture and developing new ways of communicating with readers — as well as learning the technologies that enable that change. Training that is based solely on techonology would be like teaching a police trainee how to shoot a gun, but not explaining the rules of engagement.
    A related questions Which technologies ned to be spread throughout the newsroom, and which are so specialized that will be handled by a small group.

  4. Tom Grubisich says:


    Your post will prove very useful to journalists who are emerging out of the 2.0 — or, as you suggest, 3.0 — chrysalis. I especially liked your No. 5, regarding how the wider distribution of journalism is breaking down traditional hierarchies. As this happens, and whole media structures shrink, if they don’t actually implode, journalists will have to become more business-savvy to thrive in this redistributed media world. I’m not certain this is being taught in journalism schools and other learning centers. The emerging journalist may not need to know how to do a video clip, but he/she should have a good understanding of the economic basics, which help the journalist/entrepreneur how to figure out paying the bill for producing content.

  5. says:

    Great post…the world is changing before our eyes, it is all about technology….it’s about speed of information and who breaks the story first…but let’s not forget about those in other countries that are just so far behind…the so called, “third world”…I think it’s time we bring them up to speed with these new technologies…it will make this world such a better place

  6. says:

    This is a brilliant post and squares well with my own research in newsrooms. I agree. I’m an assistant professor at the University of Memphis, and we’ve been grappling with this as we try to update the curriculum. Yes, we want our students to have Web skills (in part because we suspect that’s going to help them a lot in job interviews) but the thinking is really the key part. The best way to develop the thinking is – yes, play with all of these different tools and develop some basic level of familiarity with them, then think critically about how you can use these tools to better realize core journalism values e.g. accuracy, watchdog, etc.

    Carrie Brown

  7. says:

    The premise was clear, if journalism was about providing information/ facts, why wouldn’t we use everything we could conceive of to do that job?

    An expedition to Gallipoli to war graves in the Dardanelles from WWI resulted in a blog, article, radio piece for the BBC World Service, Video and promo. This was 1999, a few years before web 2.0.

    I had been a Videojournalist by then for five years and a network producer/ reporter for 11, having worked for the BBC, ABC News, WTN et al.

    Nice post Nikki. Like you today I’m an academic and other things.

    I’d argue, you might agree, this is a much deeper disco which requires more sustained attention in these transitional times.

    Firstly, the new art of journalism, multimedia and that’s how I view it, “an art” requires different creative modes of thinking – design, narratology, image aesthetics etc.

    Secondly,(Network)journalists at best can find the appropriation of terms such as “network” frustrating. That’s not (charlie) Becket’s fault. And when did a conversation become a conversation . How does that work? I’m not claiming ignorance. This shift to this new weburnalism is attitudinal.

    Can we teach creativity? No, correction, can we learn to be creative? For even teaching and learning aren’t the same.

    There’s semiotic and linguistic issues that are significant impediments and tend to alienate, just as I might get annoyed trying to learn a foreign language.

    In many cases it’s not that we don’t have the right tools, it’s the orthodoxy and methodologies that need rewiring and often that’s a lengthier, more radical process.

    p.s Would love to chat some more

    David, a senior lecturer, publishes – 2005 1st place Batten winner. Currently researching around innovative journalism and will be at Miami Wemedia 2009 discussing innovation and skills training etc.

  8. says:

    My graduate class at DePaul University is blogging about the media industry — the changes as a result of the Web and also critiquing coverage in Chicago.

    Why is it so scary that journalists do not control the distribution of their content? If they post it online for the world to see, why wouldn’t they want readers to share this information?

  9. Lisa Pavlovich says:

    Many classes I’m taking as a graduate student deal with the issues brought up here. Specifically, a class called “News Now: Journalism in the Information Age” is trying to prepare future journalists for what the field of journalism is becoming. The class website,, encourages students to look at ways in which Chicago media is covering stories in all mediums, but specifically online media. This article was really interesting.

  10. As a journalism student our curriculum consists of learning all aspects of journalism, including some basic technology. Although it is more about the writing and knowing how to be a strong journalist and reporter. I think it is important to know all areas because with all the recent layoffs in journalism, many companies want employers that not only have strong writing skills, but also have design skills.
    Great article!

  11. I’m a journalism student who believes that some of the best teaching comes from professors who can open up your mind to the reality that journalism is changing. I have a number of classmates who are convinced that since they know print and are good at it, that’s all they need to know. In understanding that this industry is morphing in to something undefined at this point, it’s seems commonsense that a basic level of skills across an array of media will pay off, but I don’t know that my generation of student journalists is convinced that change is coming and news is changing.

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  13. says:

    Well thought out – more like this please

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