Nieman Foundation at Harvard
HOME
          
LATEST STORY
James Pindell is trying to bring The Boston Globe’s election coverage to everyone by being everywhere
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Sept. 5, 2012, 1:30 p.m.
Reporting & Production
knife-cc

Bill Grueskin: News orgs want journalists who are great at a few things, rather than good at many

In the rush to build up training for digital skills, some journalism schools have asked students to go wide instead of deep, argues the dean of academic affairs of Columbia’s j-school.

Editor’s Note: It’s the start of the school year, which means students are returning to journalism programs around the country. As the media industry continues to evolve, how well is new talent being trained, and how well are schools preparing them for the real world?

We asked an array of people — hiring editors, recent graduates, professors, technologists, deans — to evaluate the job j-schools are doing and to offer ideas for how they might improve. Over the coming days, we’ll be sharing their thoughts with you. Here’s Bill Grueskin, dean of academic affairs at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, talking about the need for specialization.

For many years, striving journalists seeking their first jobs would consult the back pages of Editor & Publisher magazine. The Help Wanted ads went on for pages, filled with pleas from small-town newspaper editors who would often say they were seeking reporters “would could do everything.”

In those days, “everything” meant a day comprised of covering a town commission meeting, typing school lunch menus and, before leaving, emptying the tray of D-76 developer solution in the darkroom.

This one-size-fits-all approach demonstrates a lack of nuance about the tremendous transformations in our business.

Editor & Publisher is a much smaller publication now, alas, and the stench of D-76 no longer permeates newsrooms. But this idea of the “do everything” journalist has persisted into the digital age.

The phrase we hear now is the “Swiss Army knife” journalist. Meg Heckman, web editor of New Hampshire’s Concord Monitor, referred to this when quoted in an AJR article earlier this year, adding that reporters “need to know a little bit of everything.” LinkedIn features a number of journalists who tout their multiple skills. One describes himself this way: “Photographer, videographer, web designer, graphic designer….I was a Swiss Army knife in the office.”

Where the industry leads, journalism schools usually follow, and as a result, many of us have launched programs designed to imbue our students with a buffet of digital skills. Those have included photo, video, radio, web design, search engine optimization, social media, and data visualization. Thus armed with this wheelbarrow of talents, journalism graduates could tell employers that they were as adept at Final Cut Pro as writing nut grafs, as versed in long-form video as in short-form breaking news.

It’s true that some newsrooms do want one-size-fits-all journalists. And the reasons are clear and understandable. Many publishers face shrinking personnel budgets, as well as escalating needs to boost traffic to websites and apps. Given that advertisers are usually willing to pay higher rates for video pre-rolls than display ads, or that photo slideshows drive far more pageviews than articles, it follows that editors want young reporters who can cover meetings with a camera as well as a laptop.

But this one-size-fits-all approach demonstrates a lack of nuance about the tremendous transformations in our business. Yes, journalism is going digital. But that means many different things.

Crafting web video, deploying Twitter as a reporting tool, and presenting data-driven graphics all fall within the umbrella of “digital journalism,” but they have little in common with each other. Indeed, the skills barely overlap.

Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism has a robust Career Services office with a career expo that regularly attracts more than 100 employers a year. Those news organizations don’t often ask for “do-it-all” journalists these days, says Ernest Sotomayor, dean of students.

Instead, they are chiefly focused on students who understand the value of reporting, news judgment, and writing. They often say they want students who can demonstrate proficiency in a specific digital skill or two. Having additional skills is a plus, but without strong fundamentals, they don’t land top jobs.

And universal digital training belies pedagogical reality as well. Students usually come with, or develop over time, an intense interest in one or two formats. Asking them to become proficient at more than a few of them sets unreasonable expectations and, more importantly, deprives them of the need to excel at something rather than everything.

The Swiss Army knife is a useful tool on camping trips, but you’d be unlikely to use one in your kitchen if you have a great paring knife or corkscrew nearby. Journalism schools that send out graduates with rudimentary training in a large number of platforms are providing little value to their students, and are disserving the business that is fighting a battle for survival.

POSTED     Sept. 5, 2012, 1:30 p.m.
SEE MORE ON Reporting & Production
SHARE THIS STORY
   
Show comments  
Show tags
 
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
James Pindell is trying to bring The Boston Globe’s election coverage to everyone by being everywhere
“Whether it’s their inbox, whether it’s for Twitter, Facebook, Medium, Instagram — the idea is to reach audiences where they’re at.”
The New York Times collaborates with This American Life on a special investigative report
The New York Times is running its story Friday, while This American Life’s complementary report will air this weekend and be available for download as a podcast Sunday.
With an interface that looks like a chat platform, Quartz wants to text you the news in its new app
“The content type is always messages, and that’s always true whether you’re getting the message inside the app or as a notification.”
What to read next
0
tweets
Working with young reporters, City Bureau is telling the story of police misconduct in Chicago
“Those areas, more than any part of the city, have been disenfranchised over the past 100-plus years. Even though there’s coverage there, it’s often quick, one-hit coverage — parachute journalism.”
0The New York Times’ new Slack 2016 election bot sends readers’ questions straight to the newsroom
“Instead of asking you to come to us and be part of this massive room of people shouting over each other, you can bring us to you, and have us be, essentially, one more person in your conversation.”
020 years ago today, NYTimes.com debuted “on-line” on the web
“We all had a sense that something important was happening, but at the time there were actually very few users. So it was a bet on people getting online and buying more PCs.”
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
I-News
The New York Times
New York
Current TV
The Fiscal Times
Next Door Media
Plaza Pública
Bloomberg Businessweek
Gawker Media
Instapaper
Wired
PBS NewsHour