When asked in our questionnaire to narrow his list or hiring priorities to three, Bill Adee, vice president for digital at Tribune Publishing, chose product development, project management, audience development. But, he added, “I always say that clear, concise writing is the No. 1 skill needed and always will be.”
Many of the news leaders in our survey expressed some kind of pull between what we labeled Transformational Skills, like the ones Adee chose on his top-three list of hiring needs, and the kinds of Foundational skill he also mentioned.
That pull may seem somewhat sentimental. Worse, it may sound like lip service. But our survey and interviews suggest that it is not. Newsgathering skills remain critical, and their relatively low hiring priority in our survey likely reflects the fact that many of the firms surveyed still have employees with those skills. Practically speaking, the tension may simply reflect a difference between the skills that news organizations have decided they need to add and the skills they think they have already.
However, other evidence told us that there was a strong desire to hire people who had abilities that would bridge their organization’s Foundational and Transformational needs, no matter their title or primary job responsibilities.
Journalism Essentials was a fairly high priority for most of the categories of media organizations we surveyed, but especially for news outlets that began as digital publishers (8 or 13, or 62 percent). For the digital companies, Journalism Essentials ranked as highly as audience development and social media distribution and above visual storytelling. Only coding and development skills and product ownership/development know-how were needed more among these organizations.
In the open-ended answers to our questionnaire and follow-up interviews, we heard over and over an expectation that Transformational skills were grounded in some kind of Foundational experience or ability. And the job postings we collected and summarized above reinforced that impression. We saw that in the “passion for news and storytelling” that public radio station WBUR was looking for in its otherwise highly technical posting for a lead web developer, and in the “blend” of “strong news judgment” and sophistical understanding of audience data and various forms of user testing that the Gazette Company wanted from a news editor for its digital properties in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
These are the kinds of Transformational-Foundational combinations we’ve defined throughout this report as superpowers.
For Advance Digital’s David Cohn, who was executive producer AJ+ when we interviewed him, baseline journalism abilities are “non-negotiable.” You’re not useful, he said, “if you can’t do basic research and be accurate. Accurate, thorough and fair. (Thorough and fair are more subtle.)”
“Our core offering is great journalism,” said Chalkbeat CEO Elizabeth Green. “We need people to make it happen. That [skill] doesn’t disappear.”
Amid the tumult and changing needs of newsrooms, media leaders say they still need journalists who can tell a great story, no matter what tools they use to report or distribute it.
Emily Ramshaw, editor, Texas Tribune
“First and foremost is judgment and storytelling. You can train all these other skills — coding, data, multimedia — but not if you’re missing those fundamentals. I absolutely respect that journalism schools are working to make [students] highly employable by giving them coding skills, app development skills. But I see in some cases they’re not spending enough time on the essentials — plain and simple reporting and writing.”
Melanie Sill, vice president of content, Southern California Public Radio (KPCC-FM):
“The training people crave is still around fundamentals — storytelling, use of sound, public records and documents, using unnamed sources…. Those are the places people feel most insecure.”
John Temple, former president, audience and products, First Look Media
“There are a lot of mediocre journalists in the world. The challenge for young people, they should come out technically adept, but they have never worked for an editor that knows what excellence looks like and holds them to that.”
Alex Blumberg, co-founder and CEO, Gimlet Media:
“There’s so much media. To survive, you need to cut through. Which means focusing on storytelling and craft and execution. Aesthetics. Obviously, the journalism has to be top-notch. But presentation — super important as well.”
John Barth, chief content officer, PRX:
“There are missing cultural components and I cannot stress these hard enough: adhering to fairness and completeness; open-mindedness (an internal awareness of bias when reporting, assigning, editing and hiring); aggressiveness and follow through (courage!). An acceptance of the role that money, ads, grants and sponsorship play but the ability to state boundaries in a team environment so that the only result is purely independent, credible work.”