As recently as 150 years ago, the most important quality for someone who wanted to work in the water industry was a strong back and sturdy legs. Physical strength mattered more than anything when you delivered water from wells in buckets.
Technology took over. And soon the requirements for the water industry included advanced knowledge of math, geology and physics. The owners of water delivery systems started looking for workers in schools of mechanical engineering and sciences.
You can draw a parallel to American newsrooms. Technology has changed the way we gather and distribute news forever. And although there are fewer newsroom jobs than there were a decade ago, should we still be filling jobs by scouring smaller newspapers and journalism schools?
The answer—as it is with many questions—is “Yes and No.”
To begin with, the job of a journalist still is deep in the best traditions of the business— clear writing and photography, relentless reporting, and persistent questioning. But some things have changed. Our audiences—with greater access to information—are more informed. They often have more expertise than we do and if they don’t have it, such information is easy enough to gather. So finding journalists who are more narrowly niched and deeper in their knowledge might be the most important quality if we want to keep our smarter-than-ever audience. Additionally, today’s journalists need to be skilled in both words and images. The audience expects a story in prose and in appearance. They want to read it and see it.
The best journalism schools understand this and are producing talented researchers and storytellers who are comfortable in video and in verbs. They are proficient on any delivery platform. They can take apart a database. Many can write code for mobile apps.
But it might also be smart to also go deeper on campus.
My longtime friend and superb editor, John Temple, said, “I’ve been working in New York quite a bit and I find the candidates from the ITP program at NYU intriguing. The program describes itself this way: ‘ITP is a two-year graduate program located in the Tisch School of the Arts whose mission is to explore the imaginative use of communications technologies—how they might augment, improve, and bring delight and art into people’s lives. Perhaps the best way to describe us is as a Center for the Recently Possible.”
Imagine the reaction when you introduce your new reporter from the “Center for the Recently Possible.” But also imagine the results from someone who has different skills and even different goals for telling a story. Such a novel approach to routine news events might engage an audience in a more satisfying way.
Even in the more traditional collegiate fields of study, there are opportunities to break the bindings of tradition. When I was hiring, I confess that I always spent more time with the resumes and in interviews with those who majored in history. The skills of the historian and the journalist should often cross paths in an eclipse, although the journalist generally has the speed advantage while the historian wins on depth. High school history teachers on summer break often earned writing assignments at our papers.
That was easy because historians usually have to know how to write. At times I wondered about other fields. Could an economy major be trained in writing faster and better than a journalism major could be trained to write in depth about the economy?
Many editors already have begun to dip into the school of film. A handful of souls are after developers who build apps, tools and websites. They believe that the skills of the journalist can be taught more easily than these specialized skills can be taught to journalists.
Jerry Ceppos, dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, is approaching this question in a novel way: “We require a basic digital course for every single student. We are working on a capstone course for both computer-science students and our students; my deal with the engineering dean is that his kids will help ours understand coding if ours help the engineers learn how to string sentences together well.”
As our industry changes, a variety of skills can enhance—but not replace—core journalism talent. We should keep looking within and outside the traditional homes for the very best people.
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.