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It's Hard Out There for a 21st-Century Future Journalist of Tomorrow

By Renay San Miguel
Aug 21, 2009 4:00 AM PT

I regularly preach in this column about old-school newsies making the transition to digital journalism, and lately I've actually been trying to practice all that as well. I've spent the last three weeks becoming friends with my Flipcam, conducting interviews while playing videographer, parsing out the content to Web site and broadcast, using social media to let everybody know where they can find said content, and then presenting it all on a TV news set.

It's Hard Out There for a 21st-Century Future Journalist of Tomorrow

For those keeping score, that's reportin', shootin', writin', promotin' and anchorin'. Yee-haw: Once again I'm riding the range as a full-service journalist, blending the best (I hope) of 30 years of experience with all the weapons in my digital bandolier. It's fulfilling and liberating, and it's putting money in my freelancer's pocket.

I'm hoping that more news types -- those with jobs in print and TV, those who just lost jobs in print and TV -- will join me on this journey. But I can understand their hesitation; change is tough. And it's not just the mindset that needs adjusting.

Sometimes the audio and video need tweaking, too.

With each story done this way, I step into my personal "Back to the Future" DeLorean time machine, set the flux capacitor to 1985, and I'm suddenly back in Television Market No. 192. I'm one-man-banding it again, re-learning all those harsh lessons about shot-framing and composition, lighting interviews and positioning subjects away from background noise. Of course, back then -- my larval stage as a TV journalist -- the equipment was much heavier, more cumbersome, non-digital. I'll take the Flipcam anyday.

The Flipcam Mino HD shoots in 720p resolution, which is plenty good for Web site streaming video needs and is also acceptable for broadcast (Some unions frown upon this, so check with shop stewards first). But it doesn't shoot a closeup worth a damn, and if there's an air conditioner going in the room where you're conducting an interview, it's liable to sound like you did the interview standing next to Niagara Falls. And holding the Flipcam steady for each five-minute interview can become a new adventure in muscle fatigue. (Note to self after second week; invest in a US$30 monopod.)

New Tricks

Each week has been another self-taught class in Digital Journalist of Tomorrow School. I'm comforted a little by what I wrote earlier this summer: a generation of Web surfers is becoming inured to less-than-professionally shot video, thanks to user-generated media bouncing around YouTube and MySpace. Yet my goal is to make things as broadcast-worthy as possible, even if the interviews will be seen on a TV station Web site, or maybe even a smartphone screen. Younger news consumers and those truly interested in the content of a self-shot interview may be more forgiving of shaky, dim video, but you expand the potential audience every time you nudge up that standards bar.

The best part: Interviews can run five, seven, even 10 minutes, as long as the conversation remains compelling. It's all juicy content, all the time on the Digital News Network.

I have no qualms about doing all this myself, or reacquainting myself with former skills while learning some new ones. It appears that it's becoming more of a requirement among traditional media, so I used to consider myself ahead of the curve.

Then I took a quick glance at just four openings via JournalismJobs.com:

"The candidate should have sharp news judgment, possess solid editing skills, know AP style well, have a basic knowledge of HTML or XML, have a basic knowledge of the software Ellington, be able to work well in teams and alone, have initiative and be a self-starter, and remain cool and competent under deadline pressure."

"Must have good news judgment and a great sense for how to put together a successful mix of photo galleries, news, sports and entertainment content for our readers. Must have experience producing a complex Web site, familiarity with HTML, Photoshop, content management systems, Twitter, Facebook, and other emerging Web tools and products. Must be familiar with the rules of SEO."

"Must be able to write headlines, blog posts, stories and other content with speed, accuracy, fairness, voice and flair. Must be comfortable multitasking and juggling complex workflows, must understand how and when to use maps, charts, video, audio and multimedia and be able to edit everything from a simple blog post to a complex news story."

"The position is responsible for directing a staff of 25 writers and editors covering business and local news for the print and electronic products of East Tennessee's largest news organization. A successful candidate will have a passion for breaking news and watchdog reporting, absolute integrity and devotion to the tenets of journalism, and at least five years experience managing in a multimedia newsroom."

HTML? XML? SEO? The alphabet soup of computer languages -- and acronyms for boosting searchable headlines to the top of the Google News pack -- are now up there with John Peter Zenger, New York Times vs. Sullivan and AP style in terms of must-have knowledge for new-century journalists. Some might argue that a true emphasis on multimedia product in newsrooms hasn't been around for five years, and that might drain the talent pool a little for that last job position. And I'm wondering if there are enough candidates who can both cover a fire and write the proper HTML code for the Web version of that story.

Letting Trends Sink In

Michelle Nicolosi, executive producer for Seattlepi.com, is wondering that too. "As you saw in our ad, we're trying to hire someone who can do it all -- reporting, editing and production," Nicolosi told me in an email. "What we're finding is that most of the candidates who apply are one or the other - either really strong on the news side and weak on the Web/tech front, or incredible on the Web/tech front, with little reporting or editing background."

Nicolosi is surprised that, considering the trends in news, there aren't more candidates who are as fluent with search engine optimization as they are with interview techniques. "It tells me that maybe print journalists with 10 years or more under their belt haven't gotten the message that they really need to concentrate on building that online skill set." She encourages traditional newsies to amble on over to the Web side of their newsrooms and ask if they can cross-train for three months. If that's not available, then start checking on adult education courses in HTML, Photoshop, content management systems. Nicolosi recommends webmonkey.com as a good place to begin.

"Given the shortage of candidates who have it all, we're leaning toward candidates with strong news background who are not tech-phobic and don't belong in that small class of people who seem to be unable to pick up new technology," Nicolosi said. (I would chime in: unable or unwilling?) "Our experience at Seattlepi.com has been that most people with a news background can learn basic HTML, pick up our CMS fairly easily, grasp the basics of SEO and learn fairly quickly all the other skillls they need to produce the site."

Keep in mind: Seattlepi.com is what's left of the former Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which ceased print publication earlier this year. Since the Web site version launched March 18, Nicolosi says the company has trained five reporters and editors to be able to run the site on their own, with the rest getting up to speed within the next six months.

Suddenly, my misadventures with the Flipcam don't seem so klutzy. And now I know what work lies ahead for me, considering I've never typed any HTML code and my idea of search engine optimization is to write a headline that screams "READ ME NOW PLEASE!!"


TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.


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