What online skills to teach

Just finished my second read of a really interesting academic report on The Roles of Journalists in Online Newsrooms, a new study by a Medill School of Journalism student, produced in cooperation with the Online News Association.

The report admittedly has some methodology problems, but provides a snapshot look at “which skills and intangible characteristics are most important in online newsrooms.” The author of the report points out that educators, especially, can look at what they need to do to prepare students for future online publication careers.

Educators might be surprised that they are doing a lot of right things already.

The report looked at four areas: Attitudes and Intangibles, Editing and Copy-Editing Skills, Content Creation and Online Production Tools. You might think the latter is most important. Not according to the study.

Attitudes and Intangibles

Read the full report to find out what skill sets were assessed. Here are some of the implications of what was found:

This set of skills is the most important to online journalists. It is also the most imprecise. Students must be taught to think like journalists — attention to detail, ability to work under pressure, communication skills– but they must also be able to “think online.”

Students should be encouraged to publish online…. Students should be encouraged to become engaged with online journalism by reading news Web sites (and) blogs.

New media journalism programs should have features that replicate the experience of working online with a daily deadline or multiple daily deadlines.

We can do that with our student publications, but not if we publish print editions every other week and then just shovel content online. The online has to come first and often. Start by doing mid-issue updates and pre-issue versions of the print stories.

Editing and Copy-Editing Skills

We spend a lot of time teaching writing, which is important, but how much effort do we put into copy-editing. Does everyone get trained, or only a few “literate” types.

One conclusion that can be drawn (from this study) is that online journalists should be prepared to be copy editors. A program designed to trained online journalists should be weighted in favor of teaching editing and copy-editing skills…. News judgment should receive a great deal of attention…. As much as is possible in an academic setting, online journalism students should be well-trained enough in this area that it becomes second nature.

Hmmm, sounds a lot like JACC’s copy-editing competition. Again, I think we do this to varying degrees with our student publications, as well as in our writing courses.

Content creation

Okay, admit it. This is the Holy Grail for us. We teach students to produce stories. The editing is spice. (But spice is important to a well-cooked story.) Actually, the report found that while some organizations have their online journalists produce content, particularly at small publications, others expect them to manage it.

Content creation skills are important for online journalists, but as part of a set of skills, not a primary focus…. Students aspiring to work at newspaper sites should not expect to do a lot of reporting and writing…. On the other hand, students who hope to work at or start their own unaffiliated sites should expect to report and write often.

I have problems with this message. If online sites are to become big at newspapers, SOMEONE has to do the reporting and writing. Or are we really to prepare two sets of students for the workforce?

Online Production Tools

I was a bit surprised at this outcome. Seems that while SOME mastery of technology is good, it is the least important. Shoot, it seems to have minor importance, to a point.

Editing and copy-editing skills and content creation skills should be at the core of online journalism curriculum, not online production skills. However, students should master HTML, Photoshop and content management skills…. Experience with any content management system while in school will likely help students more easily master the systems they will encounter as professionals…. Other technology skills –scripting languages, JavaScript and database design and administration– appear to be of more specialized importance and should thus be part of online journalism curriculum only on an elective basis. (emphasis added)

Oh, okay, I can go along with that. I still think writing, editing and news management are most important. But learning Photoshop and content management skills are pretty important, too.

Those papers that post PDF only or use non-content management systems are cheating their students. College Publisher is the cheapest, but not only content management system available. But perhaps more important, those schools that are not emphasising mid-issue updates and pre-issue versions of stories –in other words, online first, print second– are also cheating their students in preparing them for careers in our ever-changing industry.

Still, there is a lot we journalism educators are doing right. We just need to move a little deeper into the pond.

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