In a guest post Alexandra Stark, Swiss journalist and Head of Studies at MAZ – the Swiss School of Journalism, argues that it’s time for journalists to take action on business models for supporting journalism. Stark proposes a broadened set of skills and a new structure to enable greater involvement from journalists, while also fostering further teaching of such skills.
Ask a journalist if his or her job will remain important in the future: “Of course,” he or she will answer while privately thinking, “What a stupid question!” Try changing this stupid question just a bit, asking: “How will it be possible that you’ll still be able to do a good job in the future?” It’s likely you won’t receive an answer at all.
Most journalists have never really thought about it. And if they have, they’ll probably tell you it’s not their job – it’s the task of someone else: perhaps the media owners, readers, foundations or even the state.
For the most part, journalists don’t count “thinking about the future” among their responsibilities. Yet is it really wise to leave our future to others – many of whom have interests in different directions? Shall we leave it to the media executives who’ve promised shareholders a 20 percent return on investments? To the audiences, who’ve grown accustomed to receiving everything for free, or simply taking what is presented? Shall we leave it to foundations or the state, which may change positions or run out of funding?
No. If we journalists want to be able to do a good job in the future, we should stop reacting – adapting – to what happens and start taking action ourselves.
Let me make this clear: basic journalistic skills – for example research, selection and presentation – remain crucial. We’re still talking about journalism.
But as the world becomes more complex, it is no longer sufficient to simply know how to write nice articles or to use a video camera.
Our potential to do what is now considered a “good job” has dramatically decreased due to technological changes, reduced pay and transformations in user behaviour.
Journalists need to take responsibility
Until recently, most of us journalists didn’t especially care about these catalysts of change. Nor did our bosses, as a recent study* from the University of Applied Sciences of Winterthur shows. The study is based on the Tartu-Declaration, which lists 50 skills for journalists, accepted Europe-wide. When asked about the most important skills, 360 editors in chief from across Europe ranked the competencies as shown below:
|good general knowledge||2|
|ability to select information on the basis of reliability||4|
|ability to work under time pressure||5|
|ability to distinguish between main & side issues||6|
|ability to interpret selected information||7|
|knowledge of current events||8|
|willing to take criticism||9|
|ability to take responsibility for the product||10|
Source: Koch, Carmen; Wyss, Vinzenz (2010)*
This ranking indicates that the skills editors in chief consider important are those closely related to the heart of journalistic work – the day-to-day-routine of creating content. The Tartu-Declaration does not mention many skills dealing with the aforementioned drivers of change, and the few which are not considered important by the editors in chief are as follows:
|having the will to interact with the public||24|
|ability to work with technical infrastructure||25|
|ability to stimulate debate||34|
|ability to work within budget limits||41|
|ability to organise contributions from the public||44|
|ability to cooperate with technicians||45|
|knowledge of market conditions||47|
|mastering the basics of layout||48|
|knowing the practical aspects of being a freelancer||49|
|ability to reflect on a future career||50|
Source: Koch, Carmen; Wyss, Vinzenz (2010)*
It is of course understandable that the focus of editors in chief will be on day-to-day business. Many newsrooms were forced to reduce staff, leaving remaining journalists the task of filing more stories. Overall, the situation is growing increasingly difficult, and changing circumstances continue to restrict our possibility to produce good journalism.
Yet this is wrong: we should stop getting used to the pie shrinking. We need to help make the pie grow again.
This is – of course – much easier said than done. No one knows the “correct” way to go about it, and while a few have tried problem-solving, the majority simply scrutinize their efforts and indulge in schadenfreude when they fail.
Most initiatives are driven by the business-side, with journalists rarely taking action. Why is that so? Because we still think that it’s not our business. If we really want to do our job in the future, we journalists should not only provide content, but also be involved in securing the possibility to create good journalism.
In a world where it is not clear where we are going, we need completely new skills. We should know about and be interested in the drivers of change and how they’ll affect journalism, that is: how the economy evolves, how technology develops and how our users change their habits.
A new set of competencies is required
In my Master’s thesis (only in German, sorry!) I worked out additional sets of competencies, based on the Tartu-Declaration (left side of the graph). Along the three drivers of change I developed three groups of additional competencies (right side of the graph): technological, economic competencies and competencies related to audience (for a larger file please click the illustration).
Journalism Reloaded: Extended competencies for the future of journalism.
We journalists need much more than basic day-to-day-skills. We need to develop deeper competencies to help us to influence the future of journalism.
For example, with regard to technological competencies (for a detailed description as well as the detailed list of competencies related to the economy and audience please refer to my thesis) this means journalists:
- are interested in the technological evolution in the media sector and the opportunities this evolution poses (for production and usage of content)
- accept that both tasks and work-processes change because of technical development
- can help, and thus want to shape and develop change
- know that not everything that is technologically possible makes sense, and may even be ethically problematic
- can use research, communications and production tools (hard- as well as software) efficiently
How do journalists acquire these competencies?
Not so long ago there were still many voices saying, “You can’t learn to be a journalist. You either are one, or you’re not.” That has changed.
Most people today agree that training helps make better journalists. But the old voices were not all wrong, there is a part of being a journalist one can’t learn. For example everything to do with willingness. You might be surprised there are so many competencies related to willingness. But they are crucial – if journalists are unwilling, you won’t be able to make them change.
Despite the fact that they’ll tell you the opposite, journalists don’t really like to change – this I learned in several change-projects I was involved with. As a colleague once told me, “Journalists love it when worlds collide, because that’s action. But pull their table ten centimetres over and they’ll get really annoyed!”
Therefore, I propose structuring competencies the following way:
Where do journalists get these competencies?
Since willingness is about attitude and cannot be taught, competencies in this category must play a crucial role in the selection process (of editorial departments hiring staff as well as schools/universities recruiting students).
To be able is meant both on an intellectual level and on the level of skills. While skills can be taught, intellectual ability can only be trained (in schools as well as on the job) and therefore has to be an element in the selection process as well.
To know refers to professional knowledge as well as general education and expert knowledge. While professional knowledge can be taught, broad interest and expert knowledge has to be a precondition and therefore should also be part of the selection process:
Let’s go for it!
If we as journalists really want to be able to do what we do well – informing the audience, telling stories, uncovering scandals – we must become active and journalism schools must teach us how to do so.
Not so much for the newspapers of today, but certainly for the media we will be working for tomorrow.
Alexandra Stark (firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @alexandrastark) is Head of Studies at MAZ, the Swiss School of Journalism. She is a trained teacher and holds Masters degrees in International Relations (University St.Gallen) and New Media Journalism (University Leipzig). She was a freelance Moscow-correspondent, and continues to work as a freelancer specialising in economic coverage.
* no download available. Koch, Carmen; Wyss, Vinzenz (2010): The weighting of different journalistic competences: A survey with European editors in chief. Winterthur: Projektbericht