I know a number of journalists who are growing increasingly concerned about the sustainability of their careers. Those working for offline publications tend to worry more than most, and with good reason, given the tide of bad news in this space.
But despite the problems with business models, there will always be a need for journalists. It isn’t game over for journalism, not by a stretch, it's just that the game is changing. Old media journalists will need to learn some new skills and adapt mindsets to accommodate changes in their industry.
As much as anything it is a cultural shift: a mental challenge for traditional journalists. And I’m not just talking about 20-year veterans of the industry, but those young pups who have completed their NCTJ courses and moved into the world of local journalism. To many, and despite their youth, the internet is a thoroughly alien place. But more and more journalists will end up writing online, and they need to embrace it while they still have the choice to do so.
Over the years I have evangelised about technology and the internet as something that helps – rather than hinders – journalists. But I’ve encountered literally dozens of offline hacks who sneer at 'the internet'. To them, journalism can only be considered ‘proper’ if it finds a home in newsprint. I assume many of these people have since been certified clinically insane, as it’s totally nuts to think that a newspaper magically improves the quality of a story.
Or is it? Perhaps there’s something to this. After all, a newspaper story doesn't just have to be about text... the format also allows for a large image, for example, which may lend additional weight to the story. But hey, if that holds true for newspapers then what about the internet? An article online can include video, audio, image galleries, links to further reading, a direct response channel in the form of reader comments, and it can be read in any number of ways (online, RSS readers, mobile devices, etc).
Considering all of the above, I think it’s up to the journalist to broaden their skills, to help futureproof their careers. It may mean figuring out how to write for the web, or simply using technology as a career aid. I see a future where journalists will need traditional skills and so-called new media skills, and will not be limited to writing for one media platform.
So here, in no particular order, are some suggestions that I often pass on to journalists who want to learn practical new skills and expand their horizons:
- Start a blog. Publishing anything on the internet used to be difficult, due to content management systems that were about as user friendly as Satan. They left a bad taste, but it's all change nowadays. It has never been easier to publish all kinds of content online. You don’t believe me? Try Posterous, which allows you to post articles online via email. Start your own personal blog today. Or better still, start a subject-themed blog. This will be very empowering if you haven’t done it before. Posterous will have you blogging within five minutes, and you don't even need to register and sign in to start publishing.
- Collaborate. If you’re worried about not having enough time to maintain a blog, then why not collaborate with some other people, or join an existing blog or some other publication? It will help broaden your experience, your CV, and is especially useful for offline writers looking to accumulate some online skills. People can achieve so much more when they work together.
- Big up yourself. You may choose not to blog, but you should definitely have a portfolio site. Show off your skills and experience, and link to your work via your own online portfolio. There’s no reason not to.
- Write about your passion. And we’re back to the first point, about starting a blog. I know a number of offline journalists who are stuck in rut, writing news stories that they’re not remotely interested in. People rarely become journalists unless they like to write, so why not start enjoying it again? What’s stopping you from writing about something that you love? Try to write about a passion at least once a week. It will help build out your portfolio. You’ll feel happier about your work. You’ll be able to express your opinions. And you may engineer a way out of a dead end job.
- Feeds FTW. Learn how to monitor your subjects, your stories, your top sources, keywords, competitors and so on. Do this easily by setting up RSS feeds for search terms on sites like Google News, Twitter and Digg. If you haven’t already embraced RSS feeds to subscribe to content (as opposed to visiting websites to read stories) then check out Google Reader and make the news come to you. I use the Byline app (iTunes link) for the iPhone to read these stories offline when on the move.
- Embrace Twitter. Twitter is simply a huge echo chamber made up of millions of people. It is absolutely a source of news, but it is not ‘journalism’. That's your job: to make sense of noise, to validate sources and stories, and to unearth the news. As such journalists should tune into Twitter. Follow influencers and use Twitter as a filter. People will follow you back and you can use Twitter to create an awareness of your work.
- Produce video. It is easier than ever to shoot and distribute video. There are inbuilt cameras in your phones and laptops. There are sub-£100 made-for-the-interwebs video cameras such as the Flip, and low-cost HD cameras for not too much more. There are loads of video sites to help you push out your content. Adding video you an online article is incredibly straightforward. Print-based journalists might find that some stories benefit from having a video element... you have the option of telling stories in richer ways.
- Mobile is a truly wonderful tool. It has never been easier to capture ideas, build out stories, and publish content. There are so many amazing mobile apps out there that will help journalists. Audioboo. Dictaphone apps. To-do lists. Workflow tools. Built-in cameras. Video capabilities. Notebooks. Mindmaps. Messaging. The mobile phone really is the journalist’s best friend. The iPhone is simply amazing (if your boss only knew he'd surely pay for it). Learn how to get the best out of your phone...
- SEO is the one acronym that you really need to learn. It stands for ‘search engine optimisation’ and it is the science of pushing your stories towards the top of Google. You need to know how to optimise your work for Google, to boost ‘findability’. Today’s news isn’t tomorrow’s chip paper: it is archived in Google forevermore. In the future, writers with some basic SEO skills will have an advantage over those that don't possess any. Do your (keyword) research and figure out what you want to rank on in Google. Once you start seeing success in the search engines you’ll get the bug, and will understand the value of tagging and online copywriting generally.
- Learn to love links. Following on from the last point, links are what make the online world spin. They make Google tick. Links provide traffic and Googlejuice, so get into the habit of giving them out. Understand how to write quality links. Keep an eye on those people who link to you.
- Tag, tag, tag. Tagging content is a great habit to develop. Tags play a huge role in on and offsite search. They make it easier for people (and search engines) to find your content. Try to own a niche, because niche works best online.
- Online copywriting. It’s really not so different from offline copywriting, though there are a bunch of new things to consider. I wrote an A-Z of online copywriting, which should provide you with the basics.
- Readability rules. Journalists will already be familiar with Orwell’s rules of writing, and they should also be aware of the rules of writing for web-based readers. Huge paragraphs are out. Skim-friendly articles are in, and I think that's something that is transferring over to offline reading. I’m not sure that the trend towards list-based articles (like this one) is a particularly good thing, but lists work very well online because they are easy to digest and people click because they know what they’re going to get. Give the people what they want. In any event, figure out which formats work online (there are others), and experiment with new ones.
- Ignore the hype. You may have had your fill of phrases like ‘social media’ and ‘Web 2.0’. Alternatively they may give you The Fear. Just remember that some buzzwords are more meaningless than others. I loathe jargon and PRspeak but occasionally something that sounds terrible is actually full of substance and worth investigating.
- Exclusives are passe. All journalists love a good scoop, but an exclusive story doesn’t stay exclusive for very long these days. TMZ bagged the Michael Jackson exclusive but there were more than 1,000 copycat stories on Google News within an hour. Exclusives are great for kudos and links, but ‘scoops of interpretation’ are perhaps just as important. And if you cannot interpret the story then speak to people who can help. Try to join up the dots for readers.
- Objectivity is overrated. Only a very small proportion of published articles in the mainstream media can be considered ‘objective’. Journalists may work hard to file truly objective copy, but any number of editors and sub-editors - not to mention publishers, proprietors, commercial bulldogs and influential advertisers - can transform stories beyond belief. Perhaps it would be better to position yourself on one side of the fence, rather than trying to sit on it? Obviously this won't work for every kind of story.
- Subjectivity kicks ass. Considering the above, is there a way of training your brain to insert a little bit more opinion into your stories? It might be that you’re not allowed to do this right now, given your platform (go start a blog immediately!), or perhaps the story doesn’t allow for it, but my favourite writers all have a strong voice and are happy to holler from time to time. Back your own views. Develop your voice. And don't be afraid to express an opinion. After all, opinions can help put you on the radar, can help you find new work, and may in fact be the future of the news industry (if they aren't already).
- Participate. Be seen, be heard. Leave comments. Respond to comments. Get your name out there. Let people know that you're engaged and interested in developing stories beyond the point of publication. But whatever you do, don't try to fake it.
- Listen. Writers are getting much better at interacting with their readers, and at tuning into what’s being said. Many publishers now allow readers to comment on articles, and a number of mainstream media publications display author emails in bylines or footers. Readers like to have their say, and also to communicate directly with writers (I wrote to one last week to congratulate him for the use of the phrase “tang of urea”). Develop relationships and let your readers flag up news directly.
- Real time news. We’re moving ever closer to the world of the present. News is now. Just watch how quickly things are spread virally. It’s rare that the first time you read about a big story is in tomorrow’s newspaper. A major story doesn’t go unnoticed for long (though one of my friends had no clue about Jacko for two days…). Don't sit on stories, and update them as you go along (the ability to update articles is a big plus when writing for online publications).
- Embrace crowdsourcing. I’m not a big believer in the so-called wisdom of the crowd, but there’s certainly a real value in asking for help and pooling knowledge. The crowd can help you put the meat on the bones of a story idea. The crowd won’t write your story, but they can help you research it. The Guardian has crowdsourced to great effect recently for the MP's expenses scandal.
- Network. Get closer to your people! Make connections on and offline. Develop connections and go-to people to help you flesh out your articles with insightful comment. Join relevant groups. Follow interesting people. Do the LinkedIn thing and make it easy for people to hook up with you.
- Learn how to be thrifty. Why pay iStockPhoto $12.50 for the use of a picture, when you can grab something from Flickr? There are millions of quality pictures available for use under the Creative Commons Attribution Licence. Use them. I do.
- Be platform agnostic. As mentioned, there remains a divide between offline journalists and their online counterparts. 'Online' journalism is still viewed with derision in some quarters, for reasons I can’t fully understand (but then I do live on this side of the fence). A story does not become good just because something appears in print! The best journalists will be able to transfer their skills across platforms.
- Do it now. Don’t delay. Don’t fear the web. Don’t wait for your boss to tell you to learn some new skills. If you have a mental barrier and have filed yourself under ‘offline’ then slap yourself about the face, have a stiff drink, and then reset your watch. Forget about yesterday. There’s no time like the present. Embrace all that's available to you, the flexible journalist, and use the right tools for your trade. I promise you it won’t hurt a bit.
What did I miss? What suggestions can you offer to help journalists make the transition into the future?
[Image by gsfc via Flickr, various rights reserved]