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The Art and Science of Building Newsroom Skills

I once had a colleague who hated job interviews so much he would ask the prospective employee to interview herself.

“It is ridiculous to think I can talk to you for half an hour and decide whether or not to hire you,” he would tell the prospect. “So let me ask you this: If you were conducting this interview, what would you ask yourself?”

It is a great question. It would likely let you see how the candidate thinks on her feet. But it really doesn’t solve the problem.

When it comes to both existing staff and new hires, identifying the right people with the right skills is sometimes more art than science. And this is especially true in the newsrooms of the world, where digital transformation is the new normal and the need for new skills is constant.

We’ve all seen the emergence of new titles like “chief content editor,” “audience insight editor,” or “engagement editor.” There are many others. But often these titles are accompanied by vague job descriptions or emerge without any real understanding of what new skills are needed for a changing newsroom.

If you’re undergoing a digital transformation process, or thinking of doing so, there are many areas that need consideration simultaneously: audience, content and products, workflows and structures, tools and technology, and architecture, among them. But nothing is more important than people, because they make it all work — and without whose support any change process is likely to fail.

There are a wide variety of skill sets needed for new newsrooms. But whether you are seeking new staff or identifying existing staff to lead digital innovation and take you through transformation, the outlook of your staff is as important as their skills.

It’s all attitude and a little bit of aptitude. It’s all mindset — mindset that the audience understanding is important, digital is a chance for journalism, change means opportunities, and creative storytelling is important.

With this in mind, there really are only a few fundamental criteria that need to be applied:

  1. The attitude toward change and learning new things: The people who will be your best advocates are those willing to change and learn, are comfortable with it, and see change and new things as an opportunity and a chance to be part of a journey. As a rule of thumb, we find around 20% of staff will steadfastly resist change and are not interesting in learning something new, and maybe 20% will be keen to try it. The other 60% are waiting to see what happens. It is the 20% who are enthusiastic who will help you bring the 60% along.
  2. Journalistic skills, in terms of storytelling: It is no longer simply a question of who is a good writer or who is a good reporter, but who can use all the tools at hand to tell their stories in the best possible ways. Digital media and new formats provide an endless repertoire of tools to tell stories in a compelling way. The goal is to develop an editorial department with a storyteller-with-new-tools mentality.
  3. Digital mindset, in terms of understanding analytics or open to discussion about the value of real-time interaction and analytics: With analytics, it is easy to measure how stories perform at different times of the day, what topics are more appealing, and also what platforms people are using. But the data itself isn’t very useful if staff is unwilling to accept it as a tool to support and improve their work.
  4. Audience focus and understanding: This is an integral part of our journalistic culture. How you think about your audience will influence how you tell your stories. Newsrooms should be on the look out for staff members who easily integrate the audience needs and desires into their outlook, who care about serving what is important in their lives.

These general criteria focus more on mindset than on specific newsroom skills. The next step is to create job and role descriptions. But it makes sense to start by identifying people with the proper attitudes and outlooks.

One thing to remember: This mindset is not only found in young people, and it would be wise not to assume only digital natives have the right attitudes. Very often experienced people, with important skills and enthusiasm, embrace new approaches and fresh thinking sometimes even more than younger colleagues.

If you take this approach, you are likely to attract people who want to join you and want to stay. People who are excited by new projects and new directions, who want to grow and help build new things. People who are not interested in just working in an office, but want to shape the future, to make a difference.

That is likely what they would tell you if you asked them to interview themselves.


This article was also published on the INMA Media Leaders blogSign up here to our newsletter and stay updated on our activities and blog posts.

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IFMS Special reports
Kleine Zeitung Digital Transformation case study
Kleine Zeitung Digital Transformation case study
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