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Journalism Wants Pitcher to Be the Catcher Too

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I am truly an advocate of web journalism with all the multimedia skills it entails. However, there are a flood of new posts and speeches coming from the likes of Rob Curley, Doug Fisher, Brian Murley. Paul Conley, and Howard Owens, which almost disparage young graduates who say they really only want to be writers. 

First, we have to make a distinction between reporters and the writers who are writers and reporters too. I think in terms of a continuum from straight news reporting to feature writing to literary nonfiction.

The vast majority of people in the news business are reporters, they collect facts and write them in a coherent fashion. These fact collectors could shoot some photos, put together some audio and video, and have a better story than if they were just transferring notes to story copy. They are on the straight news side of the continuum. As we move across the continuum past the feature writer towards the literary nonfiction writer, we have a different breed of writers with different abilities and skill sets.

 These writers see the world in ways most of the rest of us cannot. It takes practice and it takes time because they do far more reporting and research than the reporter who runs out and collects information and instantly pushes it into the paper or onto the web.  It requires the ability to see little details, nuances. Once that writer has to start fumbling around with a camera and tape-recorder and spend times editing all those pieces together, there is little time for the finely crafted written story.

Here is my Kent Hrbek theory of writing. Hrbek, a former Minnesota Twin, was a great first baseman because he was tall, and could stretch, if he had thrown left handed, he would have been even been a better first baseman because it would mean throwing to home, second or third or would be a natural move. On the other hand, if you moved him over 30 feet and asked him to be a second baseman, you would have turned him into a bum. Everything that worked for him as a first baseman would work against him at second especially if he had been left handed, because that’s a not a natural throwing arm to first.

Think of any position on the field; who would want the pitcher to be the catcher too? But that’s what we want from our best reporter writers. We want them not only to play any position but also to play the equivalent of two or three sports — and video,  audio and writing for the page are indeed different sports.  

My advice to the journalism student who wants to be a great writer above all else is to then concentrate your energies in that area. Get some exposure to the other mediums media, but don’t let them turn you into another cog in the machine. Seek your passion. Do all that is necessary to become a great literary journalist, our democracy for sure, and maybe our trade, needs you as much and probably more than we do need all the jacks of all trades.

However, if great nonfiction literary writing, with all the reporting, research and observation skills it entails, is not your first passion, then follow the advice of Curley, Owen, Conley and Murley, learn all the web skills you can because that is where most reporting jobs will be.

Update:  See Rob Curley’s reply to this post. Also see what Mark Hamilton  and everyone else says in the comments below. It’s an excellent discussion. Bryan Murley says at his site:

The consensus would seem to be that there might be places for some pure-play “serious non-fiction writers” in the future of journalism, but they’re going to be few and far between.

He is another update, point of view from Paul Conley, who works with folks who hire young graduates:

…what I hear every day from my clients and other professionals — a college kid with a resume that could have been written in the 1970s is not worth hiring. I don’t care how well he writes. Writing well is not enough.

Earlier Mindy McAdams in a thoughtful post wrote from her Teaching Online Journalism site:

Journalism is a team sport, as Witt encourages us to imagine.

Being a writer is not.

Click on the comments button below and join the discussion,  as of this morning already 1,600 people have visited this discussion.

48 Responses to “Journalism Wants Pitcher to Be the Catcher Too”

  1. Jane Says:

    “Get some exposure to the other mediums…”
    Other mediums? Really? What about other “larges”?

  2. mark Says:

    Right on. Students with real strengths should nurture those strengths (and so should their profs). Because those students are usually the ones with the most passion, they’ll make careers for themselves.

    But I’m finding that my most passionate students, the best writers, are the ones who most willingly leap into other forms of storytelling. The ones who are reluctant to sign out audio or video equipment are the competent reporters and writers who can crank out solid written pieces that get them 80s and 85s. They seem unwilling to step outside that area of comfort, possibly because it means harder work and the likelihood of a lower grade for their initial efforts.

    And, not to be nit-picky (okay, I guess I AM being nit-picky): Oxford gives the plural of mediums as either media or mediums.

  3. Leonard Witt Says:

    Hi Mark:

    Thanks for the comment. As you will see, I just did another post with Rob Curley’s reply to what I wrote above. He agrees with both of us. Writing, passion come first. The rest will work itself out.

  4. Ryan Sholin Says:

    As crazy as it sounds, I walk around assuming that the craft of journalism and the art of storytelling translate to any medium without a problem.

    Writing is fun — I do it all the time — but if I started seeing more students walking out of J-School as skilled storytellers who could “do” journalism in whatever medium best suited a story, I’d be more than thrilled: I’d be trying to hire them.

  5. Bryan Murley Says:

    Len,

    Not sure it’s about being pitcher and catcher either, but being a first baseman who can also swing a bat when needed.

    Kent Hrbek would never have kept at it in the bigs if he hadn’t been able to swing the bat when he needed to. And for tomorrow’s journalists, that’s much more an issue than it was when I came out of school.

    And I haven’t met *anyone* who wants beginning journalists to be better trained in multimedia who says that training should come at the expense of basic reporting and writing skills – I mean no one. Not that you’re saying that, but I have heard people who have, and that’s what’s known as a “red herring.”

  6. Doug Fisher Says:

    Len:
    I think you misrepresent what I wrote in “Generation Intransigent?” (And the question mark is very important there.)
    I was not disparaging those who want to be “writers.” Most of my students want to be exactly, that, but my point was that the students I work with are not GI. They are smart. They are passionate. They want to tell stories, and they find ways to tell them in whatever medium seem to work.
    I was reacting to the portrayal in some other posts of the 23-year-old who is so focused on being a “newspaper writer” that he or she won’t recognize that storytelling is the key, no mater what the medium. I don’t find that among most of our students. Their focus is still on “print,” because that’s our primary medium. But as the links in my post show, they are quite willing to stretch into other areas and learn them.
    -Doug

  7. Leonard Witt Says:

    Hi Mark and Doug:

    Okay, let me ask this question. If a student came to you and said, “I only want to be a great nonfiction writer, I am not interestet in multi-media, what would you tell the student? “

  8. Bryan Murley Says:

    Len,

    I’d tell that student the same thing I’d tell someone who said “I only want to be a still photographer, I’m not interested in video or audio.”

    Be prepared to work your ass off and fight and scratch for anything you get, because there are going to be fewer slots for your highly specialized skill and lots of people who are also great non-fiction writers who *can* do multimedia as well. And there are also non-fiction writers who are being laid off or downsized who are competing for the same slots. As Paul Conley says, “I expect considerably more out of (a recent college graduate).”

    By all means, pursue your dream. But also be prepared to accept that you are going to have a tough row to hoe.

  9. Paul Conley Says:

    Len,
    I think it should be clear by now that none of the folks you mention in your post believe that multimedia skills replace writing skills. This isn’t an either/or issue. (On the other hand, I do believe that reporting skills trump all other skills. Being a good reporter requires a particular personality type. I can’t teach that. I can, however, teach anyone to tell a story in adequate fashion. Many professional outfits feel the same way. For example, Bloomberg News requires that every journalist they hire — even those with decades of experience — attend a month-long program where they learn to tell stories in the Bloomberg style. )
    What Rob, Doug, Bryan, Ryan and I are talking about is what students need to know in order to land a job. And the simple truth is that a kid who “only wants to be a writer” is unemployable.
    Life in the working media today is hard. Competition is fierce. The hours are long. And the single most valuable thing an employee can bring to the table is flexibility.
    I know dozens and dozens of very talented “writers” with decades of experience that have lost their jobs in recent years. I’m sure you do too. And it’s insane to expect that an industry that has laid off thousands of 40-year-old “writers” would be interested in hiring 22-year -old “writers.”
    We expect something more from the next generation. We expect basic skills in Web journalism.
    There is also another ugly truth here. I’ve met these kids. I’ve read their clips. And, as Rob Curley said, “they?re not nearly as hot as they think they are.”
    When I meet someone who “only wants to be a writer,” this is what I tell him:
    1. Good luck.
    2. Sell your work. If you have any writing ability at all, you should be able to sell your stuff on a freelance basis. A byline in the college paper doesn’t make you a writer. If you haven’t sold some pieces by your senior year, you either can’t write or you don’t work hard enough.
    3. Find a way to pay the bills. Because no one I know will hire you as a journalist. Just like a struggling actor, get a job as a waiter and practice your craft in your free time.
    4. If writing is the only thing you want to do, then write. Do it every day. Try to do it well. Do it because it makes you happy. But don’t expect me or my clients to subsidize your passion with a paycheck and health insurance. We’re not in the writing business. We’re in the journalism business.

  10. Leonard Witt Says:

    Hi Doug, Ryan, Bryan, & Paul:

    There's a parallel discussion going on at the Beltway Blogroll about backpack
    journalism
    . The writer there contends:

    It's only an editor's nightmare when he hires reporters who can't do more than one narrow aspect of journalism well — or worse, who won't learn how to. It's an editor's dream when he finds the total package, a journalist who can report, write, record and film a story.

    I would argue he is right, only in his dreams will the editor find a journalist who can report, write, record and film a story –and do each extremely well.

    My next question: Do we want only generalists who can do a lot of things okay or do we also want folks in the mix who are outstanding in what they do be it writing, photography, sound or videography?

    My answer: I know how to write feature stories, shoot and edit short video clips, take photographs and record sound and edit it with Audacity. So in Conley's book if I walked in the door and the next John McPhee or Joan Didion, who only wants to write, walked in the door, I would get the job.

    If that is the case, too bad for journalism. Yes, there will be more jobs for the generalists, and there should be because there are many more generalists who do okay work. But to slam the door on perhaps the next great photographer, writer, audio master or videographer because he or she wants to specialize, will, I fear, dumb down journalism.

    I believe in smarting up journalism and don't think this is the way to do it.

    I agree with Bryan and would give similar advice to my great specialist:

    Be prepared to work your ass off and fight and scratch for anything you get, because there are going to be fewer slots for your highly specialized skill and lots of people who are also great non-fiction writers who "can" do multimedia as well.

    I would also argue that in the traditional newsroom the people who wanted to do more than the daily reporting grind and be great writers also had to fight and scratch for anything they got, but they did it because that was their passion and ultimately I don't think those are the people who are getting fired — however, if those are the people who are getting tossed out, them god help journalism.

  11. Gone Says:

    Nice post, and conversation.

    I got into journalism for the writing as well as meeting people and getting involved in the community. The reporting only came along for me only after I had decided journalism was the way to go. I don’t much care for reporting, and that’s a problem as I’ve (finally) come to realize.

    However, I’m tech savvy and I’ve been blogging, producing podcasts and even working on some video. I can write, too. I’m exactly who you guys say papers want right now.

    But I’m leaving this month for another career after almost 10 years in newspapers because I can’t stand this jack of all trades junk (among other issues). Everyone is spread too thin. The idea that everyone can and should do everything is a fallacy.

    Not to mention the fact that I look around the industry and everyone over 45 is getting shown the door. It’s all about money. I’ll head for other pastures of my own accord — before the black-hearted bean counters kick me out in 15 years. Where are the ethics in this industry??

  12. BobH Says:

    My concern is for the quality or the product. As a writer, sure, I can take pretty good photos, and I’ve done some OK video. But true photojournalists, and true videojournalists, produce work that I have neither the talent, the creativity nor the experience to produce. They’ve spent years honing their crafts.

    Newspapers (at least the very good to great ones) have specialists to produce professional, high-quality work. If all we’re going to do is produce the work anyone with a computer and a camera can do, I think we’re giving the public even fewer reasons to seek us out.

  13. Paul Conley Says:

    Leonard,
    Neither I nor anyone else I know is saying that they would “slam the door on perhaps the next great photographer, writer, audio master or videographer because he or she wants to specialize.”
    What I’m saying is that I do slam the door on anyone who “ONLY wants to write,” or for that matter, “ONLY wants to shoot photos, ONLY wants to edit video, etc.”
    What I’m saying is that neither I nor any of my clients is willing to hire a 23-year old who is unwilling to do more than one of the dozens of things that need to be done.
    So I’m willing to hire a writer who knows search-engine optimization. I’m willing to hire a photographer who knows how to record audio. I’m willing to hire any journalist who also has programming skills.
    But I’m not willing to hire anyone who isn’t willing to do more than just one of the above tasks.
    I don’t mind specialists. Every journalist I know tends to specialize. But there is gigantic difference between specialization and “only wanting to write.”

  14. Mindy McAdams Says:

    Let’s say we have a 20-something person who can write very, very well. We see one of those once in a while.

    What kinds of stories does that person pitch? Is it the pet rescue — AGAIN? (Spare me!) Or the squirrels on campus? Kill me now.

    What kind of interview does that person conduct? Does she or he ask the right questions? Listen long enough? Well enough?

    Totally leaving aside the issues of multimedia and cross-platform competencies, what good is it, really, if all you are is a great writer?

  15. Bill M. Says:

    I tell my students, if they are interested in journalism, newspapers — in whatever form they survive — are probably the place to go, at least over the short term. The few who who love writing, who are set on excellence, are another matter. I’ve been gently pushing them away from newspapers because I don’t think there’s any future in newspapers for the kind of writing they want to do, not in the long haul. Here and there a few newspapers still run the long-form narrative, which is, I think, the acid test for a real writer. But the young writer’s fate more likely is to be handed a camera and a laptop and be sent to cover the school board or a fire.
    It’s a simple matter of accounting. An adequate reporter who can blog, shoot a video, and crank out a pretty good story on deadline will make money for the paper. A Joan Didion or a John McPhee will not. Very few managers read or care about John McPhee or Joan Didion. But all of them love a robust bottom line.
    So, as a teacher of journalism, what can I tell those young writers who care only for excellence? Write, by all means. Find your audience, that irreducible circle of people for whom writing still matters. Only don’t expect to find many of them reading newspapers.
    There’s been some talk on this forum about journalists who can “tell” good stories. I have no idea what a good story might be apart from the language it’s told in, whether that language is words or images. (The two are not at all equivalent.) Stories do not exist as Platonic abstractions. They have to be written — in words — or captured — in images.

  16. Joe Grimm Says:

    It’s interesting to look at reporting/writing as a continuum and to then load up the reporting end with a lot of backpack journalism tools.

    There is some validity to it.

    When people have asked how to handle the job-interview question, “Do yuo consider yourself to be a reporter or a writer?” I tell them it is a false choice and that most people should say both. However, if we were asked to place ourselves on a reporting-editing continuum, the answers might be more telling and the question would be less of a trap and more like a lens.

  17. Leonard Witt Says:

    Extremely interesting comments from all of you. Let me ask another question. Ten years ago I would have felt extremely confident to tell an aspiring journalist, if you learn to be a great reporter and a great writer, you will succeed in this profession. Is that good advice, bad advice or inadequate advice today? Your thoughts would be appreciated. (By the way, this post is having close to a 1,000 reads, so your comments are being heard, and could have an impact on what we teach our students.)

  18. Beau Dure Says:

    I see another way to interpret Mindy’s comment: A good reporter, by the 20th century definition of the job, is already someone with multiple skills. That reporter can write, analyze, interview, pitch stories, etc.

    I know many reporters who are more versatile than the recent college grads who are technology virtuosos and can churn out a good narrowly focused blog. Those reporters may have a tougher time landing that first job in five years (not now, because if you check any you’ll still see far more reporting and copy desk jobs than multimedia jobs, but that may change). But good reporters will have more opportunity to shine and advance than a good technical genius.

    (I’d argue that Holovaty and company are good reporters, even if they never worked under that job description.)

    One quick note on Kent Hrbek, though — you should know he’s a villain in Georgia. Game 2, 1991 World Series, Ron Gant, incident at first base. Perhaps he was just demonstrating his versatility as a first baseman/sumo wrestler?

  19. Laurie Hertzel Says:

    hmmm… the kent hrbek theory…. that sounds so familiar. where have i heard that before?

    oh, yeah, from YOU, Len! years ago, when you were my editor at minnesota monthly!

    sorry to be so late to the party. i had no idea you had a blog. someone sent me the link last night, saying, “this is pretty interesting,” and i clicked on it and there you were.

    wow. looks like i have a lot of catching up to do.

  20. Leonard Witt Says:

    Hi Everyone:

    I had the privilege of working with Laurie Hertzel back in my Minneapolis days. She is one of those fantastic reporter, writers I was thinking about when I started this post. I do hope, Laurie, we hear your thoughts?

  21. Teaching Online Journalism » The future, for writers Says:

    [...] together to make a beautiful sentence, how to put sentences together to make a beautiful paragraph. Leonard Witt knows better than that: The vast majority of people in the news business are reporters, they collect facts and [...]

  22. Jack Zibluk Says:

    While Kent Hrbek certainly was better qualified to play first base than center field, he had to know the game inside and out in order to be successful at any position. The game — where and when to throw and to whom, when and where to run, etc. — had to be second nature.

    So , whether a journalist is a writer or reporter at heart (I was always the literary type), he or she has to know the field. Whether our love of words is primary or our love of information and the chase comes first, we need to know what we are doing. We need to know the value of good, straight journalism in society. We need to know the value of good information, good writing, fairness, balance, laws and ethics, ethics, ethics.

    I have to say I have started to de-emphasize teaching software in my classes. And maybe de-emphasizing technology, too. Journalism isn’t the latest version of flash or the new multi-function fully-converged platypus camcorder. It’s not blogs or citizen journalism or the new Gannett newsroom who-ha.

    Journalism is stories. It’s good information presented well and tightly. It’s for the benefit of the audience.

    Writing, to paraphrase Hemingway, is all about writing one good sentence. Journalism is taking that sentence and making it true and useful.

    And that’s always true in any format or platform. We need to start with that first and foremost and worry about the friggin’ technology later.

    Jack Zibluk
    Associate professor
    Arkansas State University

  23. Prescott Shibles Says:

    The question at hand is whether journalists view themselves as “writers” or content producers. I want to hire content producers, as I already have plenty of writers. Versatility is always an asset and makes you more marketable. New media skills are in high demand, and Paul is quite right to advise students to diversify their skill set. I would even venture to say that having even mediocre Web/multimedia skills makes you far more employable and valuable. Those skills will dramatically impact salary and the number of job offers.

    I put my staff through a group session based on the book NOW DISCOVER YOUR STRENGTHS. So, I consider myself an advocate of strength development. However, telling students to be a specialist in a world that values versatility is doing them a disservice. Buckingham even mentions that you should work to shore up weaknesses so long as it doesn’t become your primary focus.

    There’s a reason why media companies are getting killed by the Internet. It’s because seasoned vets in the various media industries didn’t adapt quickly enough. I don’t want that to be the future for journalism students. They should start adapting now.

  24. Chris Says:

    Oh god, you are so antiquated, Witt. Young journalists who want to write? Pah. Apparently you HAVEN’T HEARD THE NEWS: Elite Journalists of the Future must be ready to capture video with one hand while gathering sound clips on a completely different story with the other hand while coding up some HTML for a third story with one foot while typing some content with their other foot for a one-source report based on a Myspace posting while carrying coffee to an ad manager… in their buttholes. It’s a great workout–a good thing considering Journalists of the Future will not have healthcare plans. And journalism will only get better for all this. ADAPT TO IT!

  25. Bryan Murley Says:

    And thus we have the first non-worthwhile response to this entire discussion. Thanks for sharing the ignorance, Chris.

  26. Doug Fisher Says:

    Len:

    Sorry to be a bit, so let me try to answer both at once:
    I would sit with that great writer and say, super. Now how will you deal with an editor who says “great story,” now about the Web version …
    It’s a reality that that question is likely to be asked. And I don’t so much want each person to be a digital ninja, but I do want them to be able to interact intelligently with other members of a team that might be assigned to help distribute their great work across media. So they need to have some clue how the rest of it works.
    The same goes for reporting, which I do think is actually far more important than the writing — if it isn’t in the “notebook,” you can’t write it, and more often than not, great writing flows from great reporting. If this person is going to operate in a digital stew of a world, then he or she has got to have some clue as to what is going on and how to deal with those various inputs (forgive me, please, the academic-speak).
    You just don’t get that from book-learnin’. When I was in TV, I was primarily an assignment editor and occasional anchor. But there were times I had to grab a camera and shoot. From that, I find I learned so much about visual storytelling that it improved my writing, too, especially when I moved on to print and the wire service, because I began to look for those things that I could use to make a picture come alive in a person’s head. It also let me, when I was working with a photographer, have a sense of what he or she needed and clued me in when to help and when to get the heck out of the way. (In the same way, those photographers who had some clue about reporting could be your greatest ally in getting interview subjects at ease to talk.)
    My original college work was in astrophysics. Haven’t used a lick of it since leaving school — except for teaching Boy Scout merit badges and all that computer work that lets me understand what the IT folks are saying and helps me navigate, even today, the digital swamp. Oh, and then there was that scientific discipline that helped when as a wire-service reporter I was covering the Air Force’s “skunk works.” And …
    You get the idea. I’m not saying the students we graduate should be jacks of all trades. But they need to have had some exposure to this stuff. It’s the new version of a liberal arts education.
    And that “team” I mentioned? Well, I think we know that in too many shops, that’s a mirage, too. So they may actually need to do some of this stuff to stay gainfully employed while honing their skills and tying to make it to the places where being a really great writer counts.
    The point of my blog post was simply to say, however, that I was not seeing this “generation intransigent” that others were talking about. I found students very willing to dip their toe in and try things out.

  27. Chris Says:

    Zing! What are you, like, the color commentator for egghead academic pontificators on the Future of Journalism or something?

    But seriously, you got me, Bryan. I was exaggerating about your technician/content producer drones carrying coffee rectally. They probably won’t have to do that… although as you point out, job definitions in the Future media will be fluid, just as they are at small-town newspapers you’ve work at. Never say never.

  28. Beau Dure Says:

    Bryan — One thing I like about this era is that satire is such a powerful tool of communication. (See Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, even South Park.) I would’ve stopped short of the, um, gastric reference in that comment, but I thought the rest was pretty good. Those of us in open enrollment periods surely got a good laugh out of the comment on health plans.

    If he/she is just trolling, then the only way to respond is to avoid feeding him/her.

    Doug — You raise a point I’ve been pondering for quite some time. The skills we need are so fluid that we can’t possibly teach them in school. We need to learn on the job, and employers and journalism schools need to adapt to that reality.

    My experience with a lot of J-school grads (I’m a liberal arts guy) is that many schools were always too enamored of the tools. I knew a page designer who bragged about learning Quark Express shortcut keys in class. That approach trains a kid for a five-year career at a newspaper that uses Quark Express, and nothing else.

  29. Leonard Witt Says:

    I hear two things in this discussion. One is about mindset, which Rob Curley was talking about in his speech that helped ignite this discussion. Students can specialize, but they really have to understand what all the other players are doing in terms of design, digital media and audience networking. They can understand that best by at least experimenting in those other media. I agree fully.

    The other thing I am hearing is if those great writers want to maximize their job opportunities, they better be more than just a writer. Above Prescott
    Shibles
    writes:

    I would even venture to say that having even mediocre Web/multimedia skills makes you far more employable and valuable. Those skills will dramatically impact salary and the number of job offers…telling students to be a specialist in a world that values versatility is doing them a disservice.

    It’s that word “mediocre” that makes my angst level rise. Newsroom are already filled with people who do mediocre work, and to officially sanction it, and we will if push everyone to be mutli-skilled, could do more harm than good.

    The perfect newsroom for me: lots of people with multiple skills getting all the daily news grind stuff done, and then a team of specialists who provide brilliant writing, photography, video or sound work for those special stories that require it. There is room for both. And I would not ask the specialist to do multiple tasks.

    I believe it was at the St Paul Pioneer Press, where they asked their brilliant religion writer to go cover a fire. As an isolated case, I guess, that is fine, but it never is an isolate case because in a newsroom there is always another fire to put out, causing the great specialists to leave to write books or join magazines, which in the end rises the percentage of mediocre folks who stay behind.

    I want the daily news provided immediately in a quick to read, see or hear format, but I also want the outstandingly written story which sticks in my mind, and maybe my very soul, for years to come. And I know from working with lots of reporters and writers that there only a few specialists in any newsroom who can make that happen. Let’s be careful not to send them them the wrong message because they are treasures that must be nurtured–and protected.

  30. Bryan Murley Says:

    I’m glad Chris responded, and provided a little more perspective on his original post. I certainly understand the frustration, but it would be just as easy for someone to post something about ostriches in the industry who say “blogs aren’t journalism” and “we’re professionals, so we know better” and make snide comments. I’ve really appreciated this particular thread because the comments have been so thoughtful.

    To Beau’s comments above, I remember the great InDesign vs. Quark wars of 2001/02 among college media advisers. Some said they didn’t want to move to InDesign because it wasn’t what the “industry” was using. My point was that the basic skills of page design were the same regardless of platform/software. Same goes for video/audio and understanding how the web works.

    FCP vs. iMovie vs. Avid? Not a problem. Editing is editing.

    Audacity vs. Garageband vs. ProTools? Not a problem. Editing is editing.

    Wordpress vs. Joomla vs. MovableType? Not a problem. Blogging is blogging. A hyperlink is a hyperlink is a hyperlink.

    Same goes for keyboard shortcuts. I encourage students to learn keyboard shortcuts for the programs they use most often because they save time. But understand that keyboard shortcuts (the concept) is not limited to keyboard shortcuts for a specific program.

    I don’t think the “skills” we need are necessarily so fluid that they can’t be taught in a classroom, however. I think the technical aspects are fluid, but the underlying principles are the same. Just like you teach basic reporting skills whether using a typewriter or a computer screen, you can teach basic multimedia skills using whatever software/tools you have available, with the understanding that there will have to be some OJT in the mix.

    In reality, the digital ninja is a myth for most of our students. They will still have some areas of specialization, but as Doug pointed out, they need to be *aware* of how all the pieces fit together, and contribute as they can. Some of this, a good reporter already does (you’re interviewing someone, take along a digital audio recorder), but other areas need more work (you cover education, you should have an RSS reader that has a folder for education blogs and news feeds).

    Just some more thoughts for the mix.

  31. Paul Conley Says:

    Len,
    I think perhaps you’re confusing romance with reality. You say that specialists are “treasures that must be nurtured–and protected” and that you “would not ask the specialist to do multiple tasks.”
    That’s a lovely sentiment. But it does not fit in today’s newsrooms.
    Remember, please, that we’re not talking about established pros. We’re talking about the inflexible 23-year olds that Rob Curley discussed at CMA. Remember, please, that we’re talking about the college seniors I met at that same convention who said they “only want to be writers.”
    Such people don’t need to be nurtured and protected. They need to be told the truth about the career they have chosen.
    It is a disservice to tell any young person that he can find a job as a “writer” and not have to learn some multimedia skills too. There is NO SUCH CAREER awaiting them in newspapers, magazines, newsletters or television. Even the most talented writers among the class of 2008 will be working in places where they will be required to produce for multiple platforms and do more than write. It’s probably safe to say that no single member of the class of 2008 will spend his career working only in print and only as a writer.
    Look: last month I spent several hours with a 60-year-old journalist who recently learned that his magazine is going Web-only. The print product he has worked on for decades is going away. He has no Web skills, no interest in the Web, and he cannot afford to retire. Later on I met with his boss. And I think I reached a deal that will allow that man to continue to work for a few more years.
    I was glad to do that. I liked this guy. And he has already paid his dues. But let me be as clear as I can be: I WILL NOT DO THAT FOR A 23-YEAR OLD.
    No one is suggesting that a recent grad be a master of all multimedia skills. Heck, I don’t expect a recent grad to be a master of anything. What I’m saying is what I hear every day from my clients and other professionals — a college kid with a resume that could have been written in the 1970s is not worth hiring. I don’t care how well he writes. Writing well is not enough.
    What Prescott is saying is true: “having even mediocre Web/multimedia skills makes you far more employable and valuable.” That’s not opinion. That’s fact. Look at the salary survey information published by Folio magazine. Having some Web skills — even mediocre ones — makes you more valuable than someone who has no such skills.
    A “writer” who can also do even the tiniest amount of search-engine optimization work is far more employable and valuable than the writer who can’t. A photographer who can also do a little work in Dreamweaver is worth more that a shooter who cannot.
    Publishers need entry-level staffers that can work in today’s environment, not in the environment that you and I came up in. And it’s wrong to tell a college student otherwise.

  32. Beau Dure Says:

    But I think the logical starting point is to teach someone a new skill that directly complements his or her primary skill.

    Going from photography to Dreamweaver strikes me as an odd first step. It’s not the same as a print photog learning Quark Xpress to lay out some photo pages. We don’t usually create “photo pages” online. We do “photo galleries” or some other sort of rich presentation.

    So a photographer should be easily persuaded to learn editing (Photoshop), photo gallery creation (pick anything — there’s no standard) and perhaps rich graphics (Flash, usually).

    Another logical path: Shooting video, then editing video. Then incorporating THAT into Flash.

    If a photographer can shoot still images and video, edit both and create rich content with either, I don’t think an employer should be asking, “Yeah, but can you design a site?”

    The late Mitch Hedberg once complained that he, a stand-up comic, was often asked if he could tackle other Hollywood tasks. Not fair, he said. “It’s like someone spends his life becoming a great chef, and someone else says, ‘Great! Can you farm?’ ”

    You’re always going to have a little bit of specialization. Five years from now, your star reporter may be racing around with a video camera and some editing equipment, but he/she probably won’t be redesigning the site. Your site designer might be doing some graphics, but he/she probably won’t be filing a live story from a basketball game.

    I’m curious about the 60-year-old: What skills did he need for the Web job? Was that transition any different than moving from a copy desk job with red pens and prop wheels to a job with a spanking-new pagination system?

    We all make transitions. Let’s not overcomplicate them.

  33. Prescott Shibles Says:

    Leonard,

    I’m not advocating being mediocre at all, and I think you understand that. I’m asking you to teach students to be open to adapting to a changing work environment, while continuing their pursuit of excellence in everything they do. It’s not about tools; it’s about new skills and the openness to acquiring them.

    I’m not suggesting students sell their souls to the Internet devil. My advice is:

    Be a great writer, AND be curious about other complimentary skills as well. If you find that you are adept at another skill in addition to writing, you’ve probably made your job more interesting and your paycheck a bit larger.

  34. Bryan Murley Says:

    BTW, just to throw this bomb into the mix: If “journalism” is dependent on the medium it’s delivered upon, i.e. “paper”, then we’re all up a creek without a paddle. I can rarely find a student who reads a printed edition of a daily paper, and I don’t read one myself (preferring instead the gatekeeping function of the NYT and WaPo e-mail editions).

  35. Bill M. Says:

    So — bottom line: What do we think is the future of extraordinarily good writing in this business? Not “story telling,” but actual sentence-and-paragraph writing. On the order of, say, McPhee, Didion, Kidder.

  36. Tim Gruber Says:

    As a student this has been a fascinating discussion to see unfold.

    It’ll be interesting to see where my classmates and I fit into this mix when we graduate in a few months.

    In the meantime I think most of us here have been working towards building a solid storytelling foundation.

    We have the skill set. Most of us can shoot video and capture audio. I blog and designed my own website. The tools and technology don’t scare me.

    I enjoy shooting video even though I came into this thinking my career would mainly consist of making storytelling images, but as I’ve matured I realize the tool doesn’t matter. My subject and their story matters.

    It’s the core skills that will always be essential. Can you shoot video? That’s great, but can you tell stories with it? You can gather audio too? Great, but as Mindy highlighted earlier do you know the right questions to ask? We’re storytellers at our core.

    I had a decent grasp of Final Cut Pro after a weekend with it. Becoming a better storyteller on the other hand? I’ve been working on that for years now.

    As others have mentioned the technology and tools will evolve and I have no trouble evolving with them.

    The need for a solid journalism foundation will hopefully always remain.

  37. Leonard Witt Says:

    Bill:

    My answer, exceptional writing in newspapers has always been difficult to find. The time is rarely given, nor the space and few reporters know how to do the long narrative piece well and even fewer editors can help the writer produce a great piece of narrative writing.

    The New Times, now Village Voice alternative papers, gets a lot of bad press, but they want their reporters to excel in writing, story telling. So my advice especially after a reading the comments here, if you want to be a great writer, go to magazines or books or create your own online space. Or get hired by a newspaper and spend a big chunk of your life trying to change the culture. That’s what I have been doing.

    However, you still find that story here and there in newspapers that is memorable in reporting and writing. And in general the quality of newspaper writing, I think, has improved. I am a little worried after reading the comments here that that trend could be in jeopardy.

  38. Bryan Murley Says:

    Len,

    Okay, first of all, I have to qualify this with the statement that I started out as a feature writer – writing long-form (40-inch or more) pieces. And I admire the New Times’ emphasis on writing. But I have to admit that if their storytellers don’t know how to produce their production notes (i.e., provide a hyperlink, or a PDF or an audio soundbite of an interview) then I’m sorely disappointed. Nay, I’m NOT reading the New Times.

    Ultimately, I think you’ve set up a false dichotomoy. It’s not like you can’t be a great writer and turn on the freakin’ digital audio recorder when you’re doing an interview. Or take a mug-shot when you’re collecting information. A good “reporter” should be doing that anyway. The question is – is that material for your eyes only, or are you going to let everyone have a look at it?

    Honestly, most of the “multimedia” reporting is about doing the things you’ve already done, but doing it in such a way that you could add it to a web site. I wrote about this recently, thinking about watergate, and I think it’s a valid question. People have often, in this thread, thrown out Didion, but last I checked, she didn’t write for a newspaper. And furthermore, there are few of her to list. Hunter Thompson was one of a kind. We can’t all be like him. And last I checked, he didn’t fit well in his last newspaper job.

  39. Beau Dure Says:

    Len -

    I agree with Bryan, but I’d add something else — length has nothing to do with quality. I’m reminded of that in the name of one of my favorite blogs, “Brevity is … wit.”

    My writing is usually hammered into tight spaces, especially now that I’m writing for USA TODAY’s print edition on a regular basis. Getting all the parts to fit in a 14-inch story is a difficult process, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t pull my hair out at times! But the final result, more often than not, is superior to what I would’ve produced with unlimited space.

    I appreciate the longer pieces. I grew up reading Rolling Stone and Musician, and I often find compelling reads in SI, ESPN’s magazine, Wired, Washington Post magazine, etc. But I can also appreciate those who use an economy of words, particularly in a fragmented media landscape.

    (If only I could do it in my blog comments!)

  40. John Russial Says:

    A very interesting discussion. I too feel that students and professional journalists should be open to learning new skills and should have the opportunity to explore different platforms or learn new skills. But I’m also in favor of their developing a real specialization (or maybe two) and try, as Beau Dure says, to learn complementary skills.
    There’s a good reason why you don’t find many reporters doubling as copy editors and designers doubling as photojournalists. At least not at medium- to large-size papers. Specialists on the whole do better work. For many professionals, doing something well is often its own reward, and in a field that is not the best for worldly rewards these days, that’s something.
    I’ve also wondered why some folks think multi-skilling/multi-tasking is the only approach that makes financial sense. In some ways, specialization can be more efficient. I remember when “pagination” appeared in larger newspapers. Soon we had design desks full of page design/pagination specialists. The result was better design at lower cost than the alternative–retraining and providing technology to all of the copy editors who used to do “layout.” I’m not saying the situation is exactly the same these days, but there are parallels. If you occasionally put together an audio slide show or a Flash package, you need to reinvent the wheel each time. Some one, say a producer, who does it often does it faster and probably better.

  41. Leonard Witt Says:

    Well it seems like this thread has played itself out — some 8,000 words later from close to 20 very smart contributors.

    My take away message:

    Words, even a lot of them, and writing will rule everything we do, so our students have to know how to use them. The more they learn about collecting information and using words and writing in all kinds of formats the better off they will be. It is probably a good idea to specialize in one of those formats. Along with that mastery, they will need to show some proof that they can be a player in the digital world.

  42. J’s Notes » Blog Archive » pjnet: Journalism Wants Pitcher to Be the Catcher Too Says:

    [...] Witt has started a great conversation over at PJNet’s blog about what is required of reporter writers: Think of any position on the field; who would want the pitcher to be the catcher too? But that’s [...]

  43. Joe Says:

    As a current journalism student, soon to graduate, I’ve followed this conversation eagerly. But, I can’t say it’s been too informative. I hear this same discussion in class and in the halls between classes, at beat meetings, eating lunch, on discussion boards, etc. Teachers always telling students what they should or should not do. As if they really knew anything. Professionals telling you to follow path “x” which happens to be eerily like the path they themselves followed.
    As one student to another, this discussion is important and it’s important to realize that. After that, walk away. If you want to learn video, learn it. If you want to write, write. If you want to do it all, do it all. But, don’t do something just because you think it will get you a job. In the first place, you won’t learn the skill well and, in the second place, you won’t like the job you get.

    The only decent advice any instructor or professional has ever given me is: 1. When in doubt, do the least passive thing. 2. Be confident that you can always start again from nothing. And learn to enjoy it. The rest is…well, you’ve read this far. How much of that will actually get you along in life?

  44. SÉRENDIPITÉ Says:

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  46. Innovation in College Media » Blog Archive » What if you just want to be a writer? Says:

    [...] discussion going on at Len Witt’s Public Journalism Network blog, inspired by his post: Journalism wants pitcher to be catcher too. Be sure to read the comments, and also Rob Curley’s follow-up piece: I’m not sure [...]

  47. Digital Journalism | Open Beat Says:

    [...] One of Mr. Witt’s colleagues weighed in on the topic of expectations of freshly minted journalism graduates.   Journalism consultant Paul Conley says that not being able to multitask with multimedia will make you a misfit in the newsroom of today.  Here is what he says: [...]

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