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Wednesday, October 16, 2013
Digital Media Toolbox

Journalism: It's not just about writing

By Gil Asakawa

I was appalled recently to hear a city editor from one of the top daily newspapers in the country tell a roomful of journalism students that they shouldn’t worry about learning multimedia or any digital skills, and that journalism to him was all about one thing: writing.

In fact, this well-known and well-regarded veteran editor told the students that “backpack journalism” is just “bullshit.” The only skill journalists need, he insisted, is to be a great writer.

I called him out on his statements and got him to at least acknowledge that photographers and videographers could be journalists too. He generously allowed that infographics artists could be journalists. He even admitted later during his visit that data reporting could also be journalism, but noted that data analysts still need journalists to put their information into context. He denigrated bloggers and called people who are hired in a newsroom for their ability to work online “IT guys.”

He was overstating his point to make an impression on the young minds in the room, a common trick of columnists who make over-the-top statements to get a rise out of readers.

Some of the students in the room were excited when he left, thinking that if they just concentrate on grammar and vocabulary, if they could write like Hemingway and have the nose for news of Woodward and Bernstein, the career of their dreams would unfold before them.

The editor and I agreed to disagree, and he was fine with me playing the part of devil’s advocate during his discussion.

The conversation echoed talks I had with journalists almost 20 years ago, and a decade ago, and even five years ago, when my job was to fly around the country to train newsroom staff on social media, blogging, search engine optimization and other basic tools of the online toolbox.

At many newspapers, I met midcareer journalists who resisted all the newfangled stuff. Mostly they were just scared that they wouldn’t be able to adapt to the new reality.

That sad attitude of preordained failure reminded me of a journalist even further back, in the early 1980s, who had the same defeatist attitude. That journalist was me.

I was the music editor at an alt weekly and had started writing news. I’m old enough to have begun my career on an IBM Selectric typewriter, and helped put the paper together using light tables, waxers, X-Acto knives, proportion wheels and pica poles. I also walked to work barefoot uphill both ways in the snow, but that’s another story (or a columnist’s overstatement).

At one point, management announced the paper would begin using networked computers, the kind with the green screen and “C-prompt” commands, to write articles and “send” them to editors.

I was terrified.

I was convinced I wouldn’t be able to learn the computer stuff and I would be fired. But you know what? I learned and adapted, and when easier-to-use Macs and PCs made their way into the newsroom, I adjusted just fine.

The point is, technology marches on, whether we want it to or not. The Internet happened and, as far as I was concerned, opened up an entire universe of media possibilities. I taught myself some basic HTML and made my first website in the mid-1990s. I began blogging in the mid-2000s. I learned how to use Photoshop’s basic tools and experimented with editing videos. I was an early adopter of social media and still sign up for new services and sites every week. I consider it part of my job.

I’m glad I feel at home with the digital side of news and think this is the most exciting time for journalism that I’ve lived through.

Do I think the digital stuff is more important than good writing skills or storytelling ability? No. I’ve written books and blogs and more articles than I could count, and I still consider myself a writer-in-training. Do I think just being a writer is enough to fuel a long and thriving career as a journalist? Nope. I love keeping up with the innovations that are changing our industry.

If you’re a world-class writer, you’ll always have a job somewhere, perhaps as a freelancer or a staff writer for one of the top 1 percent of newspapers like The New York Times or the handful of its peers, or for a magazine that values the written word. The editor whom I disagreed with had a stellar career as a reporter and editor at some of these top outlets. Good for him, but he has a cloistered, tunnel-vision view of the industry.

If you’re like many journalists and are competing for gigs every day, or hoping you won’t be laid off, having some coding skills, being familiar with a camera enough to shoot something more than a family snapshot, or understanding how to parse great stories out of a mass of data in a census report will only make you more employable.

And maybe, just maybe, a better journalist, too.

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