It’s not the tools, but how you use them

When I first made the switch from print reporter to Web producer, I never thought I’d acquire the initial technical skills that seemed so daunting.

That first month on the Web felt like purgatory, indeed the ninth circle. I was convinced I was not put on this earth to do HTML coding or understand the bizarre quirks of a non-user-friendly content management system (aren’t they all?). Was I just another “printie” sent to the Web side to die?

When I finally licked the essentials of posting stories, blogs, photos and other content, Webworld had another surprise in store. My steep learning curve had only just begun.

Nikki Usher of the Online Journalism Review writes that the most valuable skill set goes far beyond mastering the toolbox:

“It’s not the skills that you get that will save your job, or repurpose you for the future, it’s whether you can learn how to think like a journalist in the Web 2.0, or what some are even calling the Web 3.0 world.”

Not every journalist is going to be great at all the multimedia bells and whistles they may learn. I can vouch for that. She mentions the “Standing Up for Journalism” pilot I attended at the Poynter Institute in November where I learned audio and video skills that I found especially valuable. I haven’t managed to place my pinkie in the lens of a video camera yet, but give me some time!

But I know what my Web strengths are. After my initial freshman hazing period, I got to be very good at understanding what journalism works best on the Web and how the tools and the Web itself have altered the nature of that journalism. Most importantly, I was able to use my new expertise to help translate these concepts to other print-oriented journalists grappling with a formidable new way of thinking about their work.

Not only did this breakthrough re-energize me, but it prepared me for the substantive work of being an online journalist. Usher again:

“Multimedia training doesn’t need to incorporate new skills if journalists can find ways to think about including in their work opportunities for conversation through citizen journalism, crowd-sourcing, interactivity, wikis, blogging, and social network, as Beckett points out, “not as ad-ons, but as an essential part of news production and distribution.”

“Journalists don’t have to learn how to take photos, though maybe they should, but they need to think about new ways to connect to an audience that is increasingly connected to them.

“The truth is that most skills boot camps don’t turn the majority of the journalists who attend them into professional quality video editors or graphic designers; in fact, many of the projects they turn out in training sessions would not be fit for the Web.

“But the value of these training sessions is that they do help journalists learn to see the potential of what these new tools can bring to the work they do – so instead of making multimedia experts, journalists can learn how to think like them. But we ought to reconsider the goals of these training sessions and align them to change thinking to change practice, rather than use them to change practice and hope it will change thinking.”

You must get skills you don’t have. University of Florida professor Mindy McAdams has begun a series on multimedia proficiency for reporters that I think is ideal for any journalist new to the subject. Here’s her introductory post.  There are plenty of easy how-to tips on audio and video as well as starting a blog that she details in 101 format.

Here’s a helpful introduction to Web services by Shawn Smith at New Media Bytes that reporters would be wise to get acquainted with. I would add all journalists can benefit.

And if you’re as intimidated by all this Web stuff as I once was, the folks over at the Old Media, New Tricks blog are very good at explaining it in language you can understand.

Gina Chen of the Save the Media blog writes passionately about the need for journalists to embrace new media. It starts with the tools, of course, but there’s so much more to learn from there.

I learn from these sites, and many others, every day. I’ve listed some in my blogroll under “Online-J Tips.” The sooner you start playing around with the tools, the sooner you will gain the understanding and insight needed to do good journalism on the Web.

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