School's In Session: What Students Need to Learn

By: Steve Outing

A new school year has begun at universities and colleges, and many journalism students' thoughts are turning to preparing for careers in new media. Yet despite an increasing number of programs designed specifically for preparing students for new media, some journalism programs still don't offer the specialized training that graduates will need to find new media work. At many schools, it's up to students to make sure they learn the skills that employers will be looking for.

And what are interactive news media employers seeking from college graduates? As campuses open for business this season, I thought it would be worthwhile to canvass employers about what they are looking for in new hires -- while students still have time to get the training that's most desired in the new media job marketplace.

Last week, I surveyed some of the interactive media professionals who participate in the online-news and online-newspapers Internet discussion lists (which I administer). Here's what they say they look for in hiring recent college graduates:

Traditional news skills

Many respondents to my informal survey stressed -- predictably -- the need for students to become grounded foremost in traditional newsgathering and editing skills. Jack Lail, manager of online publishing at the Knoxville (Tennessee) News-Sentinel, says, "For editorial employees, I'm looking for the same things I liked to see when I was in the 'traditional' newsroom as an editor -- the ability to pick up things fast and roll with the changes, a quick mind, a wide reader, good technical writing skills." Beyond that, Lail looks for a "lack of fear of computers and technology, a good sense of how the Web works, some basics of HTML and graphics, and a good exposure to what's out there."

Ralph Frattura, new media manager at the Sacramento (California) Bee, says, "I'm pleased to interview any college grad with solid word and information-gathering skills and only a rudimentary knowledge of HTML, provided that person was smart, Internet savvy and open to new possibilities." Conversely, faced with someone with lower writing skills and more HTML abilities, "I'm probably not interested," he says.

Interest and skills in CAR, research

Rich Gordon, online services manager at the Miami Herald, looks for a "passion for journalism" as well as an interest in computer-assisted reporting and research. Add to that mastery of basic tools such as HTML and Photoshop. (And "some Javascript would also be nice.")

Specialized computer language, database skills

Most employers salivate when they find a college graduate who combines solid journalism experience with specific technical skills. Journalists who also have skills in databases, Perl, Unix, Javascript and Java are likely to have employers competing for them, and likely will earning significant starting salaries right out of school. Such talented students coming out of prominent schools with a graduate degree are sometimes starting out in the $40,000-plus range in new media jobs, compared to traditional newspaper print positions for new grads that pay only half that.

Recent college graduate Dan Berko, now with the online staff of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, Colorado, says that during his recent rounds of interviews, he found basic skills such as HTML and using Adobe Photoshop to be necessary, with the ability to use computer drawing programs (like Adobe Illustrator) a big plus. "Java seems to be becoming almost a necessity," he says, "and knowing Perl will definitely improve one's qualifications. The more programs and pertinent languages you know will definitely make you more marketable."

Good news judgment and editing skills

Joe Michaud, online editor for Guy Gannett New Media, says that the skill that newspapers call "news judgment" translates well to new media as "understanding what's important to your readers/users." He cautions students that most new media work today involves very little generation of original news stories and photos, independent of their parent news organizations. "I doubt this will change anytime soon," he says. "In other words, if you're turned on by writing and photography or chasing the story, then I strongly recommend that you seek work with a traditional news organization (print or TV) that has a strong new media component and then work closely with the new media staff to help produce your work online. This approach will be more satisfying and will truly connect you with the future."

Updated reporting skills

Robert Rosenberg of LINK Magazine believes that reporting skills in the future will require some additional skills, including the basic handling of (digital) video cameras. But even as technology pushes the reporting process to be a "holistic experience," he urges students to concentrate on the words and text component. "Words (text) remain the most important element in any news (intelligence) delivery," he says.

Ability to write the rules

December 1995 graduate Mark Hull, who now works at the San Jose Mercury News' Mercury Center Web site, says that the ability to be "dynamic, flexible, quick-thinking, innovative and ethical" are the most needed attributes for working in new media. "One of the exciting things I love about being an online journalist is that I've become one of many pioneers helping write the rules and standards for this uncharted territory," he says.

Good people skills

The Rocky Mountain News' Dan Berko says that good people skills are an absolute necessity at new media departments of traditional news organizations like newspapers. He says, "Many editors are very traditional in their outlooks of the newspaper and don't see the utility of the Web. Some are very busy in the day-to-day tasks, and place the needs of the Web site on the back burner. There are many situations that cause the Web site to be ignored and not considered when the time comes to get the paper out. All these things are going to make getting content and help from editorial hard. You need to be able to schmooze a little, butter egos, and be forceful at times. Sometimes it seems like the biggest car sales job just to get a copy of a photo or a story in advance to do some layout work. But that's what it takes sometimes. Even just monitoring the competition's Web site and reporting to the metro editor once in awhile with that information can do wonders."

Build a clip file on the Web

Several employers who took part in my survey emphasized the importance of building an online "clip file" of work done on the Web. Without it, most employers say they won't take a candidate seriously.

Fantasy hires

Lee Rozen, manager of new media at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, wrote in with his "fantasy hires" -- the next two people he would like to hire. (He emphasizes that he has no openings at present, and indeed, his newspaper seldom, if ever hires people right out of college; he will consider talented recent grads with the right skill set for online work, however.) Here are some of the skills it will take to work in Rozen's department for future job openings:

Program in CGI, Perl, C, C++, Java and ActiveX. Create and maintain databases. Create and manage Web interfaces that create pages from multiple databases. Create and manage chat sessions and bulletin boards. Use newsroom software such as Illustrator, Photoshop and Quark XPress. Create animations (animated GIFs, Java animations, Macromedia Flash and Shockwave). Create, edit and digitize video and audio files for use on the Web. Have excellent written communication skills and good knowledge of current events. Rozen's hires also wouldn't mind working late nights, early mornings or weekends. (Those do sound like fantasy hires!)

In summary

I last wrote about this topic more than a year ago, but I thought this was worth revisiting, since new media today is a more established field. A year ago, technical skills were still paramount in landing many a new media job; today, there has been a shift more toward interactive news media workers requiring more "content" skills.

What seems to be the case today is that employers are most in want of new hires who possess solid journalism skills plus some pretty serious technical knowledge and abilities with computer/Internet languages like Javascript, Java, CGI, Perl and Unix. (This is quite a contrast to my days in journalism school in the late 1970s, when the only exposure to computers I got was an elective course in Fortran. The knowledge gained then is long forgotten.)

It's the journalist/programmer students who will have the world knocking down their doors, while non-technical journalists face the usual stiff competition for lower-paying traditional reporting and editing jobs. One online editor at one of America's largest newspapers, who asked not to be identified for this column, told me that he has hired people right out of college with that dual journalism/online skill set -- at salaries much higher than what they would get at smaller papers owned by the same company. While in the print side of newspapers, recent grads must prove their worth at small papers before moving up to the "big leagues," in the new media side of newspapers, sometimes it's the new graduates that have the best skills and get the job.

In recent years, a debate has been going on within journalism schools about how much programming and technical knowledge to include in curricula. Employers with new media openings seem to be sending the message that they want not only a solid foundation of journalism skills, but some pretty serious technical skills as well.


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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