“I need people who can make good decisions without tilting it toward the forms they learned on or the skills they identify themselves with.”

I often ask editors and executives at news companies what kind of people they're looking to hire. These two answers I get a lot.

28 Jun 2015 1:39 pm 44 Comments

The first: “Know any developers who want to work in news?” (No, sorry.) The second is a little more complicated. The conversation goes something like this:

“You know what I need?” person who hires journalists will say. “I need people who can look at the news and information situation they are handed, look at what we know about our users and how they behave, look at what we say and believe about our brand, look at all the digital tools we have now… and just make good decisions.” This one is photos and captions, that one is a timeline and a 1,500-word backgrounder. This is a video explainer with some animation, that is a chart with a graceful introduction. Let’s live blog it. “Audio clip with a good headline.” Quick commentary piece that makes one point.

“And if they can make a lot of these things themselves, they’re hired.”

Me to person who hires journalists: “I hear this from editors a lot: First figure out what the story is. Then decide what combination of media best tells the story.”

Person who hires journalists: “But maybe it’s not a story. Maybe it’s an interactive where you can look up the data on your neighborhood. That’s not ‘story.’ I need people who can make good decisions without tilting it toward the forms they learned on, or the skills they identify themselves with. Some very good editors can’t do that. Some very good writers can’t do that. Anyway, that’s what I need.”

Right. What’s the name for that talent?

UPDATE: Michele McLellan builds on this post with some observations of her own about the same problem. “True digital expertise takes much more than multimedia skills.”


Journalism-media literacy? (Or, you know, j-media literacy for short.)

I’d say that should be everyone we turn out of our journalism schools. Every student learns every medium, yes, but more importantly they learn to judge what the public needs and the best way to deliver that given not only the story but also the context of a person’s usage and needs. That last part needs some work in both schools and the industry: building to use cases [that’s why I’m upset no one bought Cir.ca for it was designed for specific use cases in mobile primarily]. But I’d say we’re getting there. How do you think our schools and the field are doing at preparing people for what you describe?

But I’d say we’re getting there. How do you think our schools and the field are doing at preparing people for what you describe?

We’re getting there in the mix of skills and digital tools. In this part… ‘look at what we know about our users and how they behave, look at what we say and believe about our brand…’ not so much.

I think the role you’re looking for is ‘story architect’ – which really should not to be confused with ‘article architect’.

Deciding quickly how to treat each coverage opportunity could be the task of an Editorial Triage Director (or Manager).

Sticking with the medical model, newsrooms could emulate hospitals by using a News Intake Coordinator to separate critical-care topics worth several specialists from less-acute situations deserving different treatments.

Too over-the-top? Go with Content Manager, as several Twitter responses suggest.

It sounds like you need someone who can make objective assessments about which type of product is needed irrespective of any inherent bias they possess toward one type of product or another. Tough one.

It’s not a talent. It’s editorial judgment. And it’s more or less the same as it ever was, adjusted to meet the demands of contemporary society. Doctors today still need good bedside manner, even if how good bedside manner is defined is not exactly the same as it was half a century ago. Ditto the judgment required by lawyers, police officers, teachers, politicians, etc.

Todd Price says:

I agree. This is simply editorial judgment. Not so different, really, from a traditional glossy editor deciding if a story should be a brief, a listicle, a feature or a cover story.

What has changed, however, is the digital focused publication have a greater variety of tools they can use to tell stories. And because of that, more staffers are required to constantly make editorial judgments.

Not so different, really, from a traditional glossy editor deciding if a story should be a brief, a listicle, a feature or a cover story.

Yeah, that’s what everyone is telling me. Everyone except the people trying to hire such journalists. They’re telling me it is quite a bit different.

Here’s another “not so different” reaction.

Todd Price says:

I do not see how what Frank and I are saying contradicts what you’re hearing. The skills haven’t fundamentally changed. What’s changed is that the need for editorial judgment is no longer reserved for a smaller and seasoned managerial class.

Now those same skills are necessary for a reporting working a beat. I see this on a daily basis in my job.

Can you teach editorial judgement? I have no idea, but I have no education in journalist so I’m not the one to ask.

I will add that my wife is a law partner, and she often talks about judgment as the characteristic that defines the best lawyers. It’s about be both efficient and effective. It’s learned over time, but even experience isn’t enough. Some people have it and other, equally smart and well-trained, do not.

Wesley Rolley says:

I am not a journalism professional, just a consumer. But I find myself going back again and again to those who have done the time to know the background of the stories, events that I am interested in. Living in CA, I need to know about water. So I read The Fish Sniffer, follow Dr. Peter Gleick on twitter, read Paul Rodgers from the SJ Mercury News and follow the blogs of LLoyd G. Carter and Chris Austin. Do that daily and you will know more than any talking head or legislative committee. I am not sure how the person you journalist hirer is looking for is going to deliver what I need.

Jen kopf says:

Is it a case, Wesley, that each journalist source is going to give you a piece of what you’re looking for, depending on story and context? Do you go to one format over another — such as an expert tied to a traditional media news source like San Jose MN (whether online or print) vs a specialist — again, depending on what you’re looking for? Do you find one story-telling format works better than the others, in general?

Wesley Rolley says:

Actually, Jen, it is a case that I trust those individuals to know what they are doing. One was a journalist with over 15 years of working for Reuters and Fresno Bee and then became a lawyer who has a blog on water issues. I have to rely on these sources to let me know what I did not know I should be looking for. Events in context that I would not otherwise even know happened.

William Ockham says:

Unicorn? Kal El? The Green Lantern? The person they are looking for doesn’t exist. An organization who can put together a team of people who, between them, have those skills is an incredibly lucky organization.

Assume for a moment that such a person exists. I can think of a half dozen organizations who would pay them 10 times what a newspaper could.

John C. Calhoun says:

They absolutely exist. Unfortunately — in my oh-so-limited experience — many of them face the same problem professionals have faced since time immemorial: the younger ones (more of them) are stuck in the lower stages of their career ladders doing more basic work without the organizational support to make such decisions, and the older ones… don’t have the organizational support to empower more people to make such decisions. That is, at each newsroom where I’ve worked, there’s lip service given to the idea that journalists should be able to do anything, but precious little practical opportunity for them to actually TRY. For example, I was allowed to do audio projects only after assuring everyone it would be done on my own time in addition to other responsibilities, if I managed the tech team’s involvement myself, and with zero financial commitment from the company. And this was a web-only publisher aimed at younger people!

All I’m saying is, it’s not a supply problem; it’d be BRAVE to empower those employees in that way.

William Ockham says:

Examples, please. Point me towards their work. I think we may be interpreting Jay’s words very differently. I see a team of people at ProPublica doing this. I see the skills at NYT, but the management infrastructure getting in the way. I don’t know of any other site that does all this consistently, but the internet is a big place.

John C. Calhoun says:

Unfortunately, by definition, I can’t show their work because my point is that in the several places I’ve worked the organizations may talk about letting people do those multiple things and make those decisions, but in practice they’re scared to actually let them do it and revert to “you write, you edit, do your jobs”. Which means I think we agree on what we see.

Wendy Conway says:

I believe are are talking about a content strategist.

BrennanL says:

> “I believe are talking about a content strategist.” — Wendy Conway

Good point.

Or more precisely a “Marketing Strategist” which always includes content management sub-skills. Professional Market Strategists connect means to ends. They evaluate the business environment, both internal and external, with an understanding of the specific business strategic objectives and constraints. They are management, not rank & file journalists.

Sounds like the referenced “editors and executives at news companies” are somehow seeking new hires to do part of their very own (executive/editor) job of higher level “management”. Illogical but a common human tendency in bureaucratic organizations — seek underlings to do the heavy lifting.

Typical news companies have marketers/salesmen but not professional marketing strategists. Normal executive/editor management rightfully gets that critical default duty. News managers can certainly be qualified journalists also , but odd to expect or find skilled managers in routine new hires of journalists.

Readers want to feel like they have a relationship with whoever is bringing them the story. It is about starting or joining the conversation. The rise of social media has made this inescapable. I spent 30 years in newspapers. I suppose editors can still have their afternoon meetings where they decide what the news is, but news is a two-way street more,than ever. You want people talking about what you’re reporting on or you need to be reporting on what they’re talking about. Otherwise you’re just taking up bandwidth.

News Designer

Or “JUX”: a Journalist skilled in UX

Dean Miller says:

Judgment is what you are describing.
And the confidence to commit to the medium chosen for the story, since it is rarely clear-cut that only one approach will work for all the audiences for a story or new fact.
Hiring person is, what, 30? Too busy. Too surrounded by peons rather than peers.
Judgment is craft and neither Wall St nor VCs can sit still long enough to fund bespoke decision making in journalism. Uber don’t do no craft. Uber get ROI. Now.

Two necessary ingredients: critical thinking and story experience. By the latter I don’t even mean experience making stories — but simply seeing and using the kinds of stories your person described. Too many journalists and students do not consume innovative forms and formats. One must seek them out. Viewing winners of Webby Awards and other non-journalism collections also helps. Other than designers and coders, not many journalists or students do much of this.

I thought readers might like to hear some of the replies I have gotten to the last lines of this post and the general sentiment in it.

“It’s called an editor.” (Or editing.)
“It’s called journalism!” (Or digital journalism.)
“It’s called content manager.”
“It’s called digital marketing.”
“It’s called a producer.” (Or online producer.)
“It should be called ‘story architect.'” (Except, as the post says, sometimes there is no “story” at all.)
“And they want it all while paying peanuts!”

My own view is that we don’t have good language for what this post is describing. But I have to acknowledge: almost no one agrees with me on that.

I definitely agree that we don’t have the language yet but I like the fact that this comment thread is at least trying to get the ball rolling. I think it would be helpful if we start with the platform (Twitter, WordPress, etc) or the website (Wired, Politico, PressThink, Whitehouse.gov) and define some of the roles that those platforms make possible. From there we might be able to conceptualize more generally, and usefully define and name new job descriptions.

Blogger, of the Dave Winer ilk.

Fascinating question, Jay. It’s the old “new wine in old wineskins” issue. Rather than describing an entity within the whole, this IS the new whole. I like what Jeff Jarvis said, and when I taught “Ethics for a Networked World,” the protagonist in every ethical situation was a person running a blog, personal media, or small website. I think we’re heading for a day when journalism will be the practice of individuals separate from – not employed by – news organizations, and everyone will need these skills.

I’m the person the hiring manager is looking for. Except I’m busy running my own platforms. I use a network of freelancers to get to various skill sets I seek daily. I have a videographer I can tap into if I need video that day or I need furthering editing on video I’m accumulated. I have a web developer, graphic artists, writers, word editors or visual editor to tap into if their skills are needed that day. I have photographers to call. I call myself a journalist.

Jay … i like the simplicity of the word “story-teller” becaus that, regardless of the platform, the tectonic digital changes of the last two decades and the emergence and increasing influence on “the news” of what you once called “the people formerly known as the audience,” telling stories remains at the core of journalism. So, let’s encourage and reward multi-talented story-teller. For years, I told stories with a typewriter, then later with a web page, then with a blog, and now more with a camera than anything else. But, I remain a journalist. … Tim

Jay – You raise an important issue. KDMC @ USC Annenberg has been working with newsrooms to raise these skills and the ability to analyze and act on consumer research has been a pivotal element. More thoughts in this posth: http://www.knightdigitalmediacenter.org/blogs/mclellan/2015/06/journalists-true-digital-expertise-takes-much-more-multimedia-skills

Rosemary Goudreau O'Hara says:

There’s an assumption here that information just comes to you, and then you have to figure out the best way to present it. Yes, some information comes over the transom, from PR people, especially. But the most enlightening information comes from reporters who get out and dig it up. So before talking about the information is best presented in a photo gallery, interactive graphic or narrative, let’s not forget the fundamental step of reporting and finding out information people either want to know or should know. It’s a core value what separates us from the rest.

There is so much wrong with this that I hardly know where to begin, but the key problem is self-defeating frugality. They want to hire young people who command small salaries, and they don’t want to hire editors with the experience to guide decisions about presentation. So they end up with lot of players but no coaches, then wonder why they lose so many games.

They’re telling me that a lot of editors with experience don’t think this way, and a lot of young people with digital skills don’t have the judgment.

If they consider only daily editors, that might be the case. Alt weeklies editors were thinking this way before anyone was publishing news online. The tools have changed; the craft remains the same.

Todd Price says:

Excellent point. So much of what the web needs was pioneered by the alts. The flip side is that many alts have struggled to find a clear mission when the web has taken over what they once did so well.

Where are these jobs posted? I’d love to apply. Every time I look for jobs like this I find these crazy HR-speak content positions that sound nothing like this. I have a degree in journalism. I’ve spent about 5 years working in newspapers, then public radio and television as an editor as well as the digital person. I’m also a software engineer. But I feel like I’ve never found a job description that sounds remotely like what’s being described above.

Richard Aubrey says:

“good decisions” About what? There’s a superfluity of stuff happening. Is the decision to be about
what needs to be communicated to the organization’s audience?
You could defame, for example Richard Jewell, with a goose-quill pen or the most involved network anybody’s ever seen. Who decides that? Who decides to double down? Who decides whether to apologize and how? Those are the decisions that will help or hurt the organization.

K McCoy says:

I hate to use a dirty word, but “content strategist” is the only title I can think of that gets to the heart of what they want: a person who draws upon experience and expertise to choose the best medium for any message.

Richard Aubrey says:

The Newseum’s study is interesting. I suggest the public’s view of credibility is more important than the office arrangements.

If you ask an editor what sort of people he is looking to hire, and his first answer is developers, I’m not sure it’s helpful to skip that and ask for his second choice. It speaks to your comfort zone, and you tilt the discussion to secondary issues. When I look at sites like VOX and The Intercept and 538, I can’t imagine a more impressive, skillful group of writers. And they certainly seem media savvy to me. My guess is that they’re exactly the writers that your composite editor would like to hire. But he is telling you that he needs developers. I wish you would ask him a follow-up question: why? What would he like those developers to do? I guarantee that his answer will be a revelation, probably more for him than for anyone else. Blogger and WordPress succeeded because they are brilliantly simple and they host themselves. We haven’t yet found anything that will take us to the next level. When we do, I guarantee that people with the skills to take advantage of those tools will emerge. So I think the conversation that would be most useful here is a collective brainstorming of tools rather than skills, an evaluation of what works and what doesn’t. And by tools I don’t mean entire platforms like WordPress. I mean simple things to clean up a sidebar so that a list of links doesn’t run the entire length of the site. So that modifying an egregious color scheme doesn’t require a trip back to the factory. So that buttons are a user-friendly size. And so forth.

Richard Aubrey says:

Deck. Chairs.

William Philpott says:

A “Full Stack Journalist” is what I would call the unicorn the “person who hires journalists”is looking for. I am seeing a trend in photo job postings for digital native companies (Vox and Medium of late) looking for the full stack photographer. They include the entire visual, design and graphics department’s duties packed into a listing for a single job. No one person has the time to do all of those jobs well even in the context of the old analog daily deadlines. The people who hire need to ask themselves, if you are willing to hire teams of specialists on the backend why wouldn’t you do the same for the public facing frontend?

I know that there are some students that know platforms better than their teachers. In my COMM 3050 class (Reporting for the Mass Media) we covered some platforms that you could tell the professor didn’t really know how to use, but the school wanted him to cover.