By: Martha L. Stone

ONA Study Suggests Employers Will Teach Tech Skills

Like all newsrooms, online operations need trained journalists. But trained to do what?

In an attempt to answer that question, the Online News Association (ONA) surveyed the industry to find out what skill sets are required of online news employees. For the most part, editors seem to be more interested in strong journalism training than in technical skills.

The study of 141 online editors, including 51 hiring editors, was conducted by Mindy McAdams of the University of Florida and Nora Paul of the University of Minnesota. The survey results are aimed at j-school professors who are preparing students to work in new media.

Online editors said they seek the following in job applicants:

a journalism background with a keen understanding of the Internet and sound news judgment

good newsgathering and organization skills

the ability to produce short stories and to cover breaking news

speed, meticulousness, flexibility and the ability to collaborate

“What you need when you are staffing an online news organization are journalists-plus,” said Rich Jaroslovsky, president of the ONA and managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Online. “‘Plus’ is new-media specific skills, including feeling comfortable around technology, with the ability to apply a journalistic mindset to technology.”

Thirty percent of the respondents had between two and five staff members, while 26% had more than 30 staff members. More than half of the sites (52%) launched their Web sites between 1995-97.

Of the 141 respondents, 109 are in a position of hiring employees. Of those, 53 responded to a battery of questions about the desired editorial and technical skill sets.

The biggest needs in online newsrooms include:

people who can update and maintain time-sensitive material (74% of the respondents said they need staffers who are good at this task)

staffers to edit, rewrite or copyedit text for online (70%)

people to find external Web resources for linking (51%)

editors to create multimedia projects (49%)

staffers to manage user forums (47%)

personnel to compile related internal stories links for news stories (47%)

journalists to write original copy (45%)

editors to write/rewrite headlines (43%)

fact checkers or online researchers (40%)

“Writing quickly – the time imperative – needs to be taught,” said Paul, the ONA board member in charge of academia. “[The survey’s message was] more people need to be able to manage and maintain time-sensitive materials. I think it speaks to the changing nature of news being shoveled over [from print] to the 24/7 imperative.”

Among the technical skills desired at online news operations:

efficient use of Web search engines other than Yahoo! (wanted by 91% of respondents)

hand-coding raw HTML (53%)

FTP/basic server-side management of files (49%)

database training, such as ColdFusion and ASP (45%)

Adobe Photoshop (45%)

Many employers said they would be willing to train journalists in technical skills. Rated less frequently as desirable skills were Javascript and other scripting languages; creative Web design; and use of WYSIWYG editor packages. The survey will be put on the ONA site in the future, but not until the site gets revamped and moved to a new server.

Paul, McAdams and Jaroslovsky hope they can continue to provide relevant surveys about the industry. “The need for [knowing] what’s going on in the real world is ongoing,” Jaroslovsky said. “I hope there are more surveys.”

Paul said the first survey’s results should be encouraging to those who worry about a lessening of standards online. “One thing that is comforting knowledge is that core journalistic skill is what people are looking for,” she said. “For the most part, core technical skills can be taught.”

Jaroslovsky confirmed that. “When I’m hiring, I’m looking for journalistic skills, plus the additional skills,” he said. “Going forward, that will be the real challenge for journalism educators: to turn out journalists who are not afraid of the new technology. That’s what it will take to be successful in this new medium.”

Martha L. Stone ( is new-media author and teacher based in North Barrington, Ill. She writes frequently for E&P Online.

Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher.

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