In the second part of this five-part series, I explore how adaptability has not only become a key quality for the journalist – but for the information they deal with on a daily basis too. This will form part of a forthcoming book on online journalism – comments very much invited.
The adaptable journalist
A key skill for any journalist in the new media age, whatever medium they’re working in, is adaptability. The age of the journalist who only writes text, or who only records video, or audio, is passing. Today, the newspaper and magazine, the television and the radio programme all have an accompanying website. And that website is, increasingly, filled with a whole range of media, which could include any of the following:
- Still images
- Audio slideshows
- Flash interactivity
- Database-driven elements
- Microblogging/Text/email alerts (Twitter)
- Community elements – forums, wikis, social networking, polls, surveys
- Live chats
This does not mean that the online journalist has to be an expert in all of these fields, but they should have media literacy in as many of these fields as possible: in other words, a good online journalist should be able to see a story and think:
- ‘That story would have real impact on video’;
- or: ‘A Flash interactive could explain this better than anything else’;
- or ‘This story would benefit from me linking to the original reports and some blog commentary’;
- or ‘Involving the community in this story would really engage, and hopefully bring out some great leads’.
The person who eventually films the video, or creates the Flash element, may be someone else, particularly as news organisations begin to understand that no single journalist can do all these things, or identify individuals and teams who produce the podcast, the video packages, or the Flash interactives, or who manage the community elements. But the ideas should come from every member connected with the online newsroom. And ideas always come first.
Skills come after, but the online journalist should have laid some foundations in a range of areas.
- They should be able to write well, succinctly, and quickly – for more than one medium, if possible.
- They should be able to find accurate information and reliable sources online and offline, quickly, and they should have a collection of RSS feeds keeping them in touch with their area.
- They should understand some basic principles of video, audio and still images.
- They should have played with editing software.
- They should have played around with examples of journalistic interactivity and web-based databases.
- They should understand online communities like Facebook, Flickr, YouTube or their own sector of the blogosphere – if possible, they should already be a productive member of one.
Some of these foundations only require some very light background reading, some just involve exploring good examples of online journalism, or tinkering on free software. The one area that does need time, attention and practice, are the core skills of newsgathering and news production.
The adaptable content
It is not only the journalist who benefits from being adaptable. In the new media age, information needs to be adaptable as well.
Adrian Holovaty, in his article ‘A fundamental way newspaper sites need to change‘, points out that much of what journalists gather is structured information that has the potential to be repurposed by either the reader or another journalist – his examples include:
- “An obituary is about a person, involves dates and funeral homes.
- “A wedding announcement is about a couple, with a wedding date, engagement date, bride hometown, groom hometown and various other happy, flowery pieces of information.
- “A birth has parents, a child (or children) and a date.
- “A college graduate has a home state, a home town, a degree, a major and graduation year.
- “Every Senate, House and Governor race in the U.S. has location, analysis, demographic information, previous election results, campaign-finance information and more.
- “Every known detainee at Guantanamo Bay has an approximate age, birthplace, formal charges and more.”
Once this information is made adaptable – for example, by inclusion in a database – it can be presented in a range of ways. A level results can be plotted on a map, for instance; sports stats can be displayed graphically; news can be displayed specific to the reader’s own location; or journalists can check to see how many crimes have occurred around a certain location.
The first way an online journalist should be making information adaptable is to tag it. For newsgathering, a social bookmarking site like del.icio.us is essential. These allow you to ‘bookmark’ any online source with a series of tags, enabling them to be quickly found when required (and that’s not touching on the ‘social’ element, which allows you to see who else has bookmarked the same page, and what else they are bookmarking, which can lead to some useful leads).
For news publishing, blogging services like WordPress and Blogger have a tagging (or ‘keywords’) facility built in; so do photo-sharing site Flickr and video-sharing site YouTube. And newspapers like the Liverpool Daily Post and Echo are starting to incorporate tagging in all stories.
You might also be working with a content management system that allows metatagging or mapping. These amount to the same thing: information about the story.
Beyond tagging there are a number of other ways to make information adaptable. Databases and spreadsheets are obvious ways. Managing the information on a big story using a spreadsheet can prove useful if you need to make that information public at some point, or need to hand it over to someone else who can work magic with it. In general, it’s just good practice that makes your life easier.
RSS is another way to make information adaptable. If your stories, a subject section or a search is available as a feed others can more easily combine it with other tools (e.g. mapping), aggregate it, filter it and do other things with it.
And of course the simple act of making your content downloadable or embeddable makes it more adaptable. The choice to stream video, for example, prevents users from doing potentially interesting things with it. Allowing a full download – even in different formats – opens up potential for all sorts of creativity from users and other journalists. All of which, ultimately, should drive more people back to your site and your stories.