Meeting and Exceeding the News Business’ Hiring Needs

superpowers
At CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center, we just published a lengthy report on the job needs of the news business today, based on surveys, interviews, and analysis of employment ads.

It reveals much about the new jobs and entirely new skills and combinations of skills—journalistic superpowers, we call them — that news organizations need and want. It also reveals where — in my opinion — the news business still needs more innovation. Below, I’ll concentrate on that because it’s my job in a university to worry about what’s coming next, so in our Center we can help the industry shift strategy — exploring new business models and forms of news — and so in the classroom we can prepare our students for the new roles they will take on in a constantly changing industry.

The report was made by former NPR execs Mark Stencel (now codirector of the Duke Reporters’ Lab) and Kim Perry (now senior editor of the digital transition team at The New York Times) and overseen by Tow-Knight general manager Hal Straus. The survey’s sample, as they point out, is small and unscientific. Though detailed, the report is directional. I hope it provides a baseline so we can regularly revisit these questions with followups to inform both the industry and student (and teacher!) training in journalism schools. Note well how the report finds that the skills we once thought would swallow our journalistic brains — blogging! CMSes! oh, my!— are now just part of the fabric of a newsroom; imagine the changes we can track in upcoming years. Please give us feedback and tell us what else you would like us to address in future versions.

This work already has inspired a number of decisions at CUNY J+, the J-school’s new professional training program run by Marie Gilot, helping her decide what skills to offer to companies and individuals (including our own graduates, taking advantage of what we call our 100,000-mile career guarantee). The admonition in the report from Vice’s Drake Martinet — that “the best new employees are the ones who have a superpower” — has become her program’s watchword.

I’ll leave it to Stencel and Perry to fill you in on the demand for transformational and foundational skills. Their key finding:

When asked to identify five to 10 top hiring needs for the coming year, the news organizations that responded to our questionnaire prioritized skills in three areas: coding; audience development and data; and photo/video production. Two thirds of the organizations chose “coding/development” and “audience development/user data and metrics.” Nearly 60 percent chose visual storytelling/editing.”

When we asked survey participants to narrow their choices to just three top hiring priorities, the same three skills — coding, audience development/data and visual storytelling — led that list as well.

Here I want to explore three areas that might be underemphasized or missing in the industry’s thinking and what might come next. It’s the report that enables me to identify these syncopations.

PRODUCT: I am glad to see that product development ranked sixth in demand in the survey. Stencel and Perry report product ownership and development ranked as high as “journalism essentials” (which they defined as “reporting, writing and editing”). OK, but I’m greedy. Though the sample size is too small to quibble over statistical ranking, I will argue that product development should rank higher, perhaps even highest. I’m disturbed that in their wide-ranging sample of companies, old and new, Stencel and Perry found product development ranking much lower with newspapers and local news companies. In other words, digital startups skewed the numbers, ranking product development higher than the others. That is a lesson to us all.

Every day, I become more firmly convinced that product development is the key skill news organizations need so they can build new business strategies, saving us from the dying reach game of our dead mass-media business model and helping us provide greater relevance and value for the people we serve, generating our own first-party data so we can begin to compete with Google, Facebook, and ad tech for users’ attention and trust and so we can earn revenue not only from advertising but also from events, membership, and commerce. That, in one over-long sentence, is the strategic transformation I propose for our industry. (And I wrote a book about it.)

This is also why we at CUNY chose product development as the first new professional community of practice we convened and will support. A few weeks ago, we brought together almost 20 of the best product people we know in the business — from Vox, BuzzFeed, Quartz, The New York Times, The Skimm, Medium, Dow Jones, and elsewhere — for a private session where they could candidly compare notes and needs. (More on this another day.)

Though I do hear about product development when I visit newsrooms and news executives around the world — and that’s great news — I must say that I hear a different vision of what product means from them than I hear from the product leaders we convened. In newsrooms, product still often means making a new section or perhaps app based on the content they already make.
No, in my view, product development starts with identifying a community or use case for news and listening to people to discern their needs and goals, then and only then returning to the office to work with a small, cross-functional, fully empowered team representing editorial, commercial, technology, data, and design to formulate ways to meet those needs.

This view of the future of news enterprises — not just newsrooms — also teaches us that teamwork is a key skill we need to work on in journalism education and professional development. I will confess I have not cracked how to teach journalists to work with business people, technologists, data people, and designers when I don’t have those constituents in our student body. Any ideas?

But the fundamental underlying skill that all this talk of product development leads us to is listening. We’re not very good at that in the news business. Oh, yes, our reporters do pick up the phone and listen for the quotes they need to fill in blanks in their stories but that process begins with us; it is media-centric. We must shift so that news becomes public-centric.

AUDIENCE: In related news, I was heartened to see that audience development ranked high in our study as a necessary set of skills.

I’m afraid I despise the job title. “Audience” (as in “the people formerly known as”) is a passive, media-centric concept. “Development” and its frequent synonym in the industry and this report, “growth,” are also media-centric: But enough about you, please come read/like/share/comment on my story. Too much of audience development is about using so-called social media to market our content. This is the last gasp of the old, mass-media reach-based business model.

I am relieved to hear again and again in the newsrooms I visit and the conversations I have with media executives — including business heads — their acknowledgment that the reach model is doomed by advertising abundance and commoditization, not to mention competition from the platforms and ad tech.

So I shouldn’t quibble. “Audience development” is a critical, strategic start toward putting the public first in our work. What we need to explore now is where it goes next (and that is why we at Tow-Knight next plan to convene a community of practice around audience development). At our community of practice meeting of product development geniuses, I heard the rumblings of yet another new job on the horizon: audience advocate. That is a critical role in the early stages of product development — observing, listening to, and discerning needs of the communities we serve. The product development folks said this is also an important skill to invoke once the product is built, so a product team doesn’t revert to defending their product against change and improvement.

Here is a case where we in a journalism school tried to get ahead of the industry. Seeing the need for developing richer relationships with the communities we serve — or more accurately betting on the come — CUNY developed a new degree in Social Journalism, led by Carrie Brown, to prepare journalists for this new and strategic skill of becoming servants to the public’s needs. We frankly could not guarantee that they would be hired. After graduating our first class, I can report with great relief and pride that our graduates are being fought over by innovative news companies. The bet paid off.

MANAGEMENT: The next frontier in my own thinking revolves around the need to produce more innovative leadership for the industry — and not just in newsrooms.

In their report, Stencel and Perry note that demand for management ranks low in their surveys. But as they interviewed some of the smartest (young) innovators and leaders in our industry — see comments from Elizabeth Green of Chalkbeat and Brian Boyer of NPR — they heard a strong desire for better management and more management training.

I am hearing this again and again: As our industry is finally smart enough to promote younger innovators or fund their visions, we are leaving them ill-prepared to handle tasks that are still required of managers, from motivating staff to negotiating partnerships to driving revenue growth. I also see an urgent need to teach change management to our news executives of today and tomorrow. I’m asking myself how we can help meet this vital need in my school. Please help me think this through.

Two more notes:

First, I’m not sure what to do with the report’s finding about newsrooms’ hunger for coders. Since we started our school, I’ve argued that we should not strive to produce the elusive unicorn, the coder-journalism, the hack-hacker, in all students. I think that was right when it comes to every student; we don’t have time to squeeze comprehensive coding training into the curriculum for all. But I’m glad to be proven wrong when it comes to some students’ desire for specialization. The other day, I was delighted to hear that the coding courses my colleague Sandeep Junnarkar has developed are selling out. My friend at Columbia, Emily Bell, tells me they are having similar success now in their combined journalism/computer science program. All students leave CUNY able to work with coders; they are literate in it. Some students leave able to code; they can become leaders just as those who specialize in data or VR or social journalism will.

This is one example of how I now believe we need to offer specializations and certify students’ skills in them — whether in coding or visual storytelling (much about that in the report) or what’s next (VR and immersive experiences? ubiquitous live reporting? advocacy? platform relationships?).

Second, the report makes me reflect on a shift in the locus of innovation in our industry. When we started the J-school almost 10 years ago, I pushed to include entrepreneurial training — leading us to develop a degree and advanced certificate in the field, a program run by Jeremy Caplan — not only to teach journalists the business of journalism but also to recognize that real innovation in news was coming from startups and we needed to support that.
Now, in this report, we see how startups — digital pure-plays in the inelegant argot of the day — are still, unsurprisingly, ahead of their media forebears in recognizing the importance of, say, product development, audience development, and innovation management. But the big news from this report is that the leaders of legacy companies are no longer smugly, curmudgeonly insisting that all that matters is preserving the fundamentals of traditional journalism: reporting, story-telling, editing, news judgment. Those skills are by no means outmoded. They are presumed. To preserve and sustain the fruits of journalism today and in the future, our news organizations need — and journalism schools need to develop — the host of new skills outlined in this report: the new superpowers.

The First Amendment and a couple of pricks

If the First Amendment does not protect offensive speech, it protects no one. Gawker is nothing if not reliably offensive, noxious, and cruel. Nonetheless, it deserves the defense the Bill of Rights affords.

Gawker lost that protection in the judgment Hulk Hogan won against it. I fear this is the First Amendment as Donald Trump would interpret it: “I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” 115 million moneys, to be exact.

My greatest disappointment in this case is Gawker proprietor Nick Denton himself. Some disclosure is warranted: I served on the board of Denton’s prior company, Moreover. Nick introduced me to blogging. He convinced me to convince my then employer, Advance Publications, to invest in and save Blogger, founded by the founder of this very platform, Ev Williams. Nick tried to get me to start a blog company that would be the Time Inc. of blogs to his imagined Condé Nast of blogs. I haven’t talked with Nick lately. Most recently, he asked me to introduce him to possible German investors, who could backstop him in the Hogan case. He went with a Russian instead.

Nick Denton is — was — a brilliant journalist and entrepreneur. He believed, quite rightly, that American journalism sucked dick to get access to power. So he started blogs — Gawker, Wonkette, et al — as blunt alternatives beholden to no man. Sadly, after a time, Gawker’s sites did not cover the shitheads; they became the shitheads. Gawker didn’t need to show us Hulk Hogan’s fornicating ass. It didn’t need to ruin a magazine executive’s life (look it up; I won’t link). It didn’t need to attack people for the glee of it (including me). It didn’t need to exist.

Nick proudly portrayed himself as the anti-journalist. Cute but useless. Nick Denton — former Financial Times and Economist reporter and accomplished entrepreneur — could have done so much more than show us Hulk Hogan fucking his best friend’s wife.

I don’t mean to come off as haughty. I am a great fan of Howard Stern. Thus I’ve heard Hulk talk about his fucking. But I never enjoyed it. The visual was too much to bear. I switched over to NPR.

On the demerits of the case, Hulk Hogan is a public figure and he cannot separate himself from his persona. Like it or not, he forfeited his privacy for wealth and fame. Like it or not, Gawker deserves the protection of the First Amendment like Nazis in Skokie. Gawker might well win on appeal.

But along the way, journalism and Denton both lost an opportunity to show what news could be with honesty and accountability to the public instead of the powerful. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a fucking shame.

STOP THE PRESSES! The Independent is Dead. Long Live the Independent.

I will sound like a native of some isolated tribe where death is celebrated — and I might well be accused of dancing on print’s grave — but I think it is wonderful news that London’s Independent is turning off its presses … yet living on.

On Facebook and Twitter, this news brought the predictable wailing and beating of breasts from journos and print moguls: how sad, how scary, they cry. But not from me. I’m happy for the Independent and for the example it can bring to others. At last, a newspaper has slipped the surly bonds of earth and can fly free online. There is life after the death of print. Hallelujah!

For more than a decade, I’ve been imploring newspaper people to set a date in the future — too close for comfort — when they will shut down the presses because print has become unsustainable. Becoming a sustainable digital enterprise before that day arrives is the definition of digital first.

In the U.S., some papers are now printing a few days a week because those are the days when they distribute coupons and circulars — which is the last good economic justification for producing and distributing a newspaper. But inserts are going away. See newspaper giant McClatchy’s earnings this week with a 22% drop in inserts from last year; another report found department stores’ use of newspaper circulars fell 24%. A confluence of forces — print circulation falling below critical mass; a new generation never coming to replace dying readers; consumer couponing habit shifting to mobile; Amazon (and box stores before it) continuing to kill local retail advertisers; the impending loss of legal advertising; abundant competition for advertising dollars everywhere — join to kill print.

Now the Independent is digital only. It claims its web site is profitable. Yes, print jobs will be lost but the company’s management says it will hire 25 new people to work on the digital future. They aren’t just shutting down the old; they are restructuring the company around the new.

Without a paper to dictate process, organization, culture, and economics, the Independent will be free to be whatever it needs to be to best serve its public. It need no longer always produce 600-word articles to cover any eventuality. I will bet it will take time — perhaps a newsroom generation — to realize this freedom. But someday, the Independent might not look at all like its newspaper forebear.

I’ve been talking with lots of newspaper editors and publishers who are trying to figure out how to make this transition while they still have — and, yes, depend on — print and its mass-media business model. It’s not easy. I believe that we must shift not only from print to digital but also from volume to value, building relationships with people based on relevance. The way we will do that is to listen to the communities we serve — communities of geography, interest, demography, or use case — and then find new ways to help them answer their needs and meet their goals with the tools we now have and the new products we make.

What if you have a newspaper that still makes money? Sure, milk it. But take that cash and reinvest it in the future — in new products and new models. And don’t put print on artificial life support. The New York Times’ pricing model, which makes it cheaper to subscribe to print and digital than digital alone, only props up subscriptions to the legacy product. Of course, I know why that’s beneficial to The Times — print readers are still worth more in advertising than digital readers. But the longer newspaper companies delay the inevitable, the weaker their transition to digital.

While you do keep the print newspaper alive, I’d advise rethinking it, too. Who needs a product conceived a century ago that today tells us what we already know from the web, let alone TV and Twitter? Just as I argue we must rethink news on mobile around use cases — summary, background, alert, engagement, action, collaboration — so should we reconsider the use case of the old newspaper. It could give us a quick view of the world, explanation, engagement (even fiction), photography, surprises: a different experience with different value. The risk of reinventing the paper is that staffs get excited by it again. But by separating the paper product from digital and mobile products, it also helps change the operation and culture of a newsroom, which must learn to regard print as a byproduct, not the end-product. The paper cannot lead the process of journalism if we are to get past it.

The Independent has taken one step — it might seem like a big one but it’s really just a first one — toward reinventing itself by breaking from its legacy means of production and distribution. Now it needs to realize and utilize the freedom it now has and, I hope, show the way for others.

Aaron Sorkin and the Technological Arts

jobs
I think I finally have figured out Aaron Sorkin. He had eluded me.

I remember liking The West Wing — so much so that I don’t dare watch it again for fear that, knowing what I know now, I might discover that Sorkin’s masterpiece was really just another soap opera with sermons. I liked Sports Night, at least for its effort. I was willing to forgive Studio 60.

But I despise what Sorkin did to the truth and to Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network and what he does now to Steve Jobs in his latest: demonizing them both. And I could not bear what he did for cable news in The Newsroom: worshiping it.

This week, watching Steve Jobs and listening to Sorkin as he was interviewed by The Verge’s Nilay Patel at a screening, I think I finally got Sorkin.

He’s jealous.

Sorkin admires those who change the world. In The West Wing, he imagined and brought to life the ideal, the impossible President that America could not — and God knows still cannot — produce on its own. He seduced us all to admire and adore Josiah Bartlet: Sorkin as kingmaker. In The Newsroom, Sorkin created people who would have changed the world with their high-minded journalism (if only they had not been such horribly flawed, misogynistic, pompous, wordy, preening, horny shitheads and disgusting sell-outs).

But regarding his subjects from the Other Coast, the Lesser Coast, I believe I can hear Sorkin’s inner dialogue:

You just make toys, boys. Zuck: You get people laid because you couldn’t get laid yourself. Never mind that you had a girlfriend I chose to ignore. I decided you didn’t deserve one. That is my power. I am filmmaker. And as for you Steve: I had your daughter say it, but I believe it: Your iMac looked like a fucking Easy-Bake Oven. Your biggest invention, your only real invention was — as your technology tribe might say — Walkman 2.0. Toys, nothing but toys.

In Steve Jobs, Sorkin gives us a silicon opera, a telco novella, daring us to watch as he imagines and intrudes on horribly uncomfortable moments of his protagonist’s life: being a heartless cad to his daughter, to his every employee, and to his Rainman (Sorkin’s word), Woz. In Sorkin’s eye, Jobs is all but irredeemable. It makes for a most uncomfortable two hours, like being stuck in an elevator with the meanest, nastiest feuding family you know. Or at a board meeting of a bad company.

Again, I hear Sorkin’s voice:

Zuck and Steve, you two don’t even try to be charming. You don’t understand the obligation of celebrity. I know stars. Hell, I make stars. Stars seduce the public. So do my characters. Didn’t you love my President? But you two: You don’t seem to give a damn about earning anyone’s love. Zuck: You are just a weird, flat nerd. Steve: You were a nasty SOB. How the hell can people love you when you don’t try to be loved?

In his conversation with Patel, Sorkin said he was “astonished at the way Steve Jobs was eulogized.” Sorkin said he could not understand how people loved not just the things he made but Jobs himself. He thus could not understand the impact of the technology itself in people’s lives. Sorkin said making the movie is his way of catching up. Or perhaps, better put, it was his way of getting even.

Now, of course, it’s not fair of me to psychoanalyze Sorkin — just as it isn’t fair of him to psychoanalyze Zuckerberg and Jobs. But now I understand why he does it. It’s fun. Bullshit, but fun.

Yet I have to give Sorkin this: Somewhere down in his gut, though he might not want to admit it, he understands that both Zuckerberg and Jobs are artists. For that is the context that wraps around his anger about them. That is where he attacks them. That is what makes him so sputteringly jealous.

What gives you two the right to change people’s lives? Who chose you? Who made you? You are just technicians. I am the artist. Artists change people’s lives. You geeks don’t make art. You make gadgets and gimmickry. Yet people treat you as artists. They give you adulation and fortunes and credit and power. WTF?

Sorkin believes he works on a higher plane. He looks down on both technologists and journalists. When Patel dared challenge Sorkin about his disregard for the facts — pesky, fucking facts — in Steve Jobs, Sorkin the auteur — in his actual and not my imagined voice — responded:

“How do I reconcile that with facts? There is a difference between journalism and what I do…. The difference between journalism and what we do is the difference between a photograph and a painting. What we do is painting. Those facts are not as important….” As important as what Sorkin wants to say.

Sorkin also wants to believe filmmaking is a higher form by far than what Zuckerberg and Jobs do. But his films about them are his admission that he is wrong, whether he could bear to say that or not. Sorkin doesn’t change the world as his subjects do. Sorkin works in a lesser art — which he uses, nonetheless, to tear these boys down to size, to assassinate their characters.

Sorkin is Salieri to their Mozart. They are greater artists than he will ever be. They and their impact will be remembered for generations — and not because of Sorkin’s films about them, which will be soon forgotten. They have changed the world more than Sorkin or his beloved, imaginary President or journalists could ever hope to. Yet Sorkin is doomed to make movies about these damned, fucking geeks.

Pity.

To a faster — and distributed — web

Screenshot 2015-10-07 at 10.52.04 AM

Last May, shortly after Facebook announced its Instant Articles, Google held its first Newsgeist Europe and I walked in, saying obnoxiously (it’s what I do): “Facebook just leapfrogged you by a mile, Google. What you should do now is create an open-source version of Instant Articles.” Richard Gingras, head of Google News, has long been arguing for what he called portable content. I had been arguing since 2011 for embeddable content: If content could travel with its brand, revenue, analytics, and links attached, then it can go to the reader rather than making the reader come to it.

Today, fairy godmother Google delivered our wish — thanks to Gingras, Google engineering VP Dave Besbris, and media partners inside and outside of Google’s European Digital News Initiative. Hallelujah.

Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) — as you can see from Google’s definition on Github, above — a simple way to dramatically speed up the serving of web pages (on mobile and on desktop) through several means, including:
(1) a shared library of web-page functions so that they can be cached and called and not downloaded with every new web page;
(2) the opportunity to cache content nearer the user — with Google or not and inside apps on user’s devices;
(3) the beginnings of advertising standards to get rid of some of the junk that both slows down and jumbles the serving of web pages; and
(4) the sharing of some functions such as gathering data for analytics.

Note that the publisher’s revenue (that is, ads), analytics (that is, user data), brand, and links stay with the content. Google emphasized again and again: It’s just the web, done well. It’s just a web page — but way faster. A link is no longer an invitation to wait. A link is just a next page, instantly and fully visible.

You can get a demo here. So far, it’s just a sample of about 5,000 new pages per day from the launch partners. Open that URL on your phone. Search for something like Obama. Go through the carousel and you should be amazed with the speed.

But I think AMP and Instant Articles are more than that. They are a giant step toward a new, distributed content ecology on the web … and a better, faster web, especially in mobile.

Here are a few ways I see this changing the way content operates on the web:

Imagine an aggregator like Real Clear Politics or an app like Nuzzel. Now, every time you click on a link, you have to load a browser and all the cruft around the content on a page. Now, the page — every page made to the AMP standard — can load *instantly* because the architecture and functionality of the page can be prefetched and cached and the content can be cached closer to the user — and the advertising and analytics will not be allowed to screw up the loading of the page. So the experience of reading an aggregation of content will be like reading a web site: fast, clean, smooth. If I were in the aggregation business, I would build around AMP.

Imagine starting a new media service without a web site but built around content meant to be distributed so it goes directly to readers wherever they are: on Twitter (via users’ links there), on Facebook (in a community there), on Nuzzel (through recommendations there), and elsewhere — via Reddit, Mode aggregation, Tumblr, etc.

Now there are a few key things missing from the AMP architecture that will be critical to business success. But they can be added.

The first is that user interest data needs to flow back to the content creator — with proper privacy transparency and consent built in! — so that the publisher can build a direct relationship of relevance and value with the user, no matter where she is encountered. That is more complicated but vital.

The second — and this is a lesson I learned working with shared content and thus audience in the New Jersey news ecosystem — is that we must value and reward not just the creators of content but also those who build audience for that content.

That’s a small matter of deal making. AMP is built with *no* need to make deals, which is critical to its quick adoption. You make your content AMP-ready and anybody can serve it instantly to their audiences with your business model (advertising, etc.) attached. But there’s no reason two publishers can’t make a separate deal so, for example, the Washington Post could say to the Cincinnati Inquirer: You can take our AMP-ready content with our ads attached but we will give you your own ad avail or we will give you a reward for the traffic you bring us and we can share a special, co-branded page. The Post is already getting ready to distribute all its content in Facebook. It is using its owner Jeff Bezos’ Amazon to distribute itself, too. (Speculation is that these alone will have it leap past The New York Times in audience.) Why not use AMP and make deals to reward other quality news services on the web to be its distributor? That is the new newsstand. That is the new site-less web.

I also see the opportunity to make AMP-ready modules and widgets that can be collected and aggregated *inside* web pages.

This is a big deal. It’s not just about speeding up the web. It’s about unbundling the web and web sites. If we in media are smart in exploiting its opportunities and if AMP and Amazon and others gather together around a single set of standards — which is quite possible — if we add more data smarts to the process, this could be big for us in media or for upstarts in garages. Your choice, media.

AFTERTHOUGHT: How should Facebook respond? I would suggest they have nothing to lose by joining the standard so publishers can publish both ways. I would also suggest that Facebook can now leapfrog Google by helping publishers with interest data and user profiles — that is where the real value will be.