Retrain or retire

I’ve been thinking about Mark Glaser’s lengthy column on job opportunities in journalism. On behalf of my journalism students, I’m delighted.

But what’s appalling is that newspapers are not retraining their staffs in the new skills of new media.

There are lots of cynical excuses for that: The papers want to lay off expensive people and hire cheap kids. Or the old dogs won’t — or some would say can’t — learn new skills.

Well, why not try? I have been arguing — to little result … so far — that news organizations of all sorts should train every person in the newsroom in the skills of new media: how to make video, audio, and blogs. That wouldn’t take long, just a day or two. It’s that easy. That’s why everybody out here is doing it.

There are many benefits. Staffers might get an interest in new and social media and transfer over to the internet side, saving their careers in many cases. They might simply get an understanding of the new structure of media and get an appreciation for all the new opportunities the internet provides for gathering and sharing news and that can improve their journalism. They could start producing their journalism across all media, however it’s best to tell the story and however it’s best for the public to get it. And this influx of new thinking might help the organization advance and improve.

Instead, I see newspapers waiting until the budget ax falls and then they just lay off people or pay a fortune in buyouts. That’s too late to retrain. And it is a waste of resources, intelligence, experience, and precious time.

Let’s say that a year before they got rid of a quarter of their editorial staff, the managers at the San Francisco Chronicle saw it coming but took that the time to train the entire staff in new media. They could have identified those staffers who embraced new and social media and technology (allowing them to at least keep the forward-thinking ones and scare off the old dogs). They could have started to rethink their product and service — as a staff. They could have improved their reporting and distribution of the stories they printed. They could have gotten the public excited, too, about their new ways and maybe gotten some more audience and more advertising online and avoided at least a few of those still-inevitable layoffs.

Instead, newspapers are too often playing victim, waiting for the worst to happen or taking too-small steps away from the cliff. It’s a disservice to their staffs, their readers, their shareholders.

And I won’t put that onus entirely on management. Staffs should be demanding to be trained. Photographers should be ganging up on their bosses to learn video; ditto reporters. Hell, even ad sales people should be dying to learn video so they have something new to sell.

This is on my mind also — full disclosure — because I have been trying to put together the continuing education (professional development, call it what you will) program at CUNY. If you have any ideas how we should go about this — how to convince journalists that they should learn new ways now, before it’s too late — let me know.

  • I’m not sure it takes a few days to understand new media. Surely it takes a few clicks to set up a blog at blogspot and a few more to, say, put to together a post or embed a video. But it’s quite a slope in actually understanding the way e.g. blogs work. Back in Greece where the gap between tech-savvy people/bloggers and technophobes/journalists is still considerable, you can tell a journalist is writing a post or a comment from miles away. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but it creates a lot of antagonism: journalists turning over to the net think they know how to do things (‘hey it’s just like writing at my newspaper’) while experienced bloggers accuse them of flaming, trolling etc – or simply pick up on the bait to fight.

    Having said that, I fully agree that newspapers and traditional media should train their staff – and that staff should be quite vocal in asking about it themselves. I’m thinking workshops, seminars and lots of hands on projects to gradually ease the whole journalist’s function into whatever the new model to be adopted will be.

  • Jeff,
    I think you might be right about newspapers – but apart from re-training current staff at newspapers, what about making sure that students graduate with this knowledge?
    I can’t speak for the US, where I’m sure schools like CUNY and others teach people the proper, modern skills, but in the UK colleges are still in the dark ages, telling people that the only skills they will ever need is a pen and pad. And it’s just not true.
    As a result, recent j-school graduates like me are stuck with sketchy self-taught new media abilities and could even find ourselves thrown in the “must re-train” box at work – not even a year after graduating!
    It’s interesting that the Daily Telegraph here treats every one of its trainees as a multi-media journalist from day one.
    Why not colleges?

  • Dimitris,
    They won’t learn it all in two days, of course. But they would get exposed. And the point is that the tools are easy enough that you can learn on your own. I have so far. A curious journalist — which should be redundant, eh? — should take on the tools and experiment and be encouraged to do so by their employers.

    That’s exactly what we’re trying to do at CUNY. Every student there learns how to make video, audio, blogs, wikis, slideshows, photos, and so on and also uses this to examine the new architecture of news media and the new means of gathering news and telling stories. We strongly agree with you.

  • I think more papers than Mark mentions are trying to retrain. Well before our recent unpleasantry — known as the layoffs here — we established a week-long digital bootcamp for the staff and we’re in the process of cycling the staff through it. After a few days of the basics — filing directly online, for instance — they get three to four days of pursuing a specialty of their choice, including video, audio, etc. It works out pretty well and has vastly expanded our ability to extend our journalism to new audiences.

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  • Hi Jeff,

    One way of doing it is to force journalists to learn new media. I think many journalists now, including some that I know in my country, are blogging. And they’re now familiar with YouTube. But are they using it as tools in their jobs? Maybe not yet. Maybe it’s a good start to define what skills are necessary for one to be called a new media journalist? Basic computer literacy? Should have a blog? Internet-savvy? Video production but how sophisticated could it get?


  • re: “Staffers might get an interest in new and social media and transfer over to the internet side, saving their careers in many cases.”

    it’s unclear to me where are these “internet side careers” they are supposed to transfer to… there certainly appears to be plenty of money on the “internet side” of things but NOT in doing the work… (in getting hoards of *others* to do it or in profiting from it in some way… that “opportunity” doesn’t seem to be a realistic one when you are talking about large numbers of people — only a very limited number could successfully be that kind of “entrepreneur” and the whole affair is morally questionable to boot…)


  • John,
    I’d count on you to be ahead. That sounds great. Can I audit a camp?

  • I don’t see why the dynamic that has affected all aspects of American business should be different in the news business.

    There has been a relentless push to eliminate the most expensive employees in every industry. This has coincided with the parallel effort to eliminate unions as well. In the few cases where the unions had enough residual clout to force some sort of retraining program the results have been lackluster.

    Even NYC has now done the same thing to the school system. Senior teachers are being forced out because they are “inflexible” and replaced by novices. This is going on even when these actions produce a shortage of teachers. The impetus to get rid of the feisty, unionized, older teachers is seen as more important than staffing the classrooms. The trend toward charter schools is also part of the effort. They usually aren’t unionized and in many cases the credentials required to teach are less than those in the public schools.

    The same trend can be seen in academia. It is almost impossible for emerging Ph.D.’s to get a full-time, tenured, position anymore. Only adjuncts or those on non-tenure track appointments are being hired.

    Some of this is motivated by authoritarian tendencies that have surfaced in this country over the past 40 years, but a lot of it is motivated by the bottom line. Those who worked in the professions frequently held themselves and their profession to a higher standard. They are now an impediment to those who want to control things. Ethics and professionalism have no place in a top-down society.

    It would be interesting to know if there is any ideological bias as to who gets fired in the news business. Are those who are personally more “liberal” more likely to be fired?

  • I know of a bunch of newspapers that have trained staff or are in the process of training staff. Including my newspaper, the San Antonio Express-News. They hired me specifically to do video, transferred two photographers to do video, and now more photographers are dabbling and so are reporters.

    There are many other newspapers that are already taking the plunge into video.

    I know there must be many that are not … Still, though, your post makes it sound like NO newspapers are doing it, which is not true.

  • Angela,
    You’re right. I should have asked what examples people know of. thanks for telling about yours. How is the training handled?

  • Andy Freeman

    > There has been a relentless push to eliminate the most expensive employees in every industry.

    That’s how it has always been.

    That’s one of the ways that we get more stuff (including food) for less. It’s how we get better stuff, and stuff that we never had before.

    That’s also the source of new interesting things to do.

  • O-Shift

    Mark Glaser’s column was a nice counterpoint to the overall trend. But there’s a number of issues at work that make it really difficult for a print journalist to move to online. I don’t think it’s simply a retraining issue. I’m assuming here we’re discussing making the shift to online specific jobs: editing/content management, content producing jobs including multimedia, possibly blogging and other types of writing.

    — For some of online jobs, you do need some tech skills, strong photoshop, video/online editing experience, and general comfort with html. Most of these can be picked up with experience and as a hobby blogger. But the training you are offering at CUNY is absolutely essential.

    — I know print reporters with tech skills who would be ideal candidates for online editing jobs, but for the same reason they never wanted to be an print editor, they don’t want to be an online editor. They know their print reporting job is potentially at risk, but all they ever wanted in life was to be a reporter. It’s too hard a move for them. It’s the hardest thing, really.

    — I think there is a bias against recognizing existing newsroom talent. Many reporters have secret or not-so-secret lives as bloggers. Most reporters totally understand what’s going on; they’ve picked up some of the technical skills needed, and they may be in sync with the newsroom mantra to focus on online first. But they’re up against management that is in a semi-panic state about shifting ad revenues and is focused on hiring people with experience. There’s no time for training in a 24-hour news cycle.

    — There’s a lot of mistrust. In an effort to build as much traffic as possible, freelance budgets are increasing. There is much worry that print salaries will be shifted, more and more, to freelance. The abilty of a story to generate traffic may be the first consideration. Editors may praise stories that bring page views, only to frustrate reporters with beats that have less drama or hope of getting in a Google news cluster. Online editors are evaluated on how effective they are at driving traffic and now reporters are being evaluated on that as well — and often by content managers who haven’t necessarily proved themselves as capable reporters.

    This shift in how newsrooms operate and the skills they need is, obviously, not going happen easily and there’s going to be a lot of blood on the floor. There all ready is. But while I think think there’s a lot more that managers can do to ease the transition, even for those mangers who have opened the doors to change to newsroom staff, the career implications for many reporters are just too hard to deal with. There’s resistance and misstep all around.

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  • Garbanzo

    The egoist, navel-gazing culture of newsrooms is one of the biggest problems facing both the newspaper and magazine industries. Why exactly do we want to encourage those who aren’t smart enough to adapt to make the transition? Sounds like natural selection at work. Maybe someday there will be senior editors who haven’t spent their entire lives in newsrooms (I have a $100 bill for the first newspaper that appoints a marketing or product development whiz as a top editor).

  • Patricia

    I think older journalists often believe that learning these new online skills, editing, video, etc., takes them away from their journalistic practice — robs them of the time they need to investigate and report. In the old TV news biz, the producer is responsible for the entire story but had a staff of editors, cameraman, etc, so the producer could focus on the journalism — and that old paradigm created a pecking order — producers are higher on the food chain and so that shooting, editing, etc. are seen as lower levels of skills. That way of thinking is ridiculous today but for older journalists to continue in the business – be they print or tv, it has to be grappled with because they carry that worldview in their heads. They need to understand that taking on these skills does not subtract from the time they want to devote to their journalism and that’s it’s not beneath them to learn these particular new skills. It’s almost as if a course needs to be created in the psychology of moving from old media to new. And this is not just about learning to shoot video, but how to incorporate the audience in your reporting, learning about journalism as a conversation — it’s an entirely different head space.

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