Tips for aspiring journalists | #mediadev | DW | 08.05.2015
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Tips for aspiring journalists

Journalism is changing so rapidly that it's difficult for young reporters to know what they should learn and the best way to learn it. Renowned digital journalism professor Mindy McAdams shares her thoughts.

Starting out in journalism can be an overwhelming process. We should know. We are both young journalism trainees at DW – and as aspiring journalists, we've done our fair share of coffee-making internships, stood in the rain collecting vox pops, and run out of batteries for our equipment enough times to have truly learnt to always take spares.

Our journalism training here at DW is providing us with a huge range of skills: we have sent encrypted emails, attempted coding, produced TV reports a week after picking up a video camera for the first time, sung our own radio jingles, created data visualizations and put multimedia stories online in a matter of hours - all with varying levels of success! We are lucky enough to be able to try out everything, but when it comes to knowing what to focus on and what skills to develop further, we don't know where to start.

Recently, we metsomeone who has been thinking, and writing, about these things for more than a decade – Mindy McAdams, a former journalist and journalism professor who has been teaching online journalism since 1999.

As trainees, we get frustrated that the innovative skills we learn aren't yet part of what our employers want. On the other hand, a lot of employers say that journalism graduates don't have the skills they are looking for. What do you think about this clash?

Mindy McAdams: One of the things journalism educators talk about is whether we are training the students for their first job or preparing them for a whole career. We often hear that it's broadcast employers who are very focused on that first job. Because if the student doesn't have a good demo reel or doesn't know how to appear in front of a camera, use a microphone, edit tape or edit, an employer will be very disappointed if they hire that student.

So students spend all this time learning how to use equipment and how to set up a tripod and that's all about getting that first job. And then maybe those students don't really have the bigger picture. But can you fit both things into one program? That is the question.

Some people think if your training prepares you for the future of journalism, then you are the best hope for journalism and that everything else is just what you need to get your first job. You don't really need as many hours of that as the traditional curriculum forces you to have. I often say, you can learn to edit audio in about two hours and the rest of it is practice – the more audio you cut, the better you get at cutting. So we don't have to waste weeks and weeks teaching that stuff but a lot of programs seem to waste the time teaching the hard skills. It is really more important that you get the big picture.

Yes, you are going to go to places where you are the junior [journalist], so they won't let you run with all this great vision that you have. The idea is that if you survive the first two or three years, then you will become that person who can make change happen. I would say you have to pay your dues for a couple of years but after that you will get to be the person who can bring vision, a new direction for the organization.

Here at DW, we are trained to be all-rounders. Is that what employers want?

Not really, but … if you have all the tools in the toolbox then you can do whatever that first job needs you to do. If you are specialized – if you are only a TV on-camera reporter and you have always had a cameraman, and then you go to a place and they want you to be a one man band, you are lost and helpless and they will be sad that they hired you. But it also depends. You may go to a place where they want you to do an assignment which requires you to do many of the things you’ve learned, or maybe you won't get a chance to do many of those things in the job you get. I heard that once the Washington Post newsroom … needed to send somebody somewhere and they were asking who had a passport valid for six months. Some young person was like, “I'll go!” This person got that great chance because they were brave and they had a passport. A lot of Americans don't have a passport.

So you don't have to use all your skills everyday on whatever job you get but you don't know which ones they are going to need. The more adaptable you are, the more opportunities you have because you can fit into whatever slot they need you for.

As a professor of digital journalism, do you think there is still much value in learning more traditional skills?

A lot of places want you to have the traditional skills when you start. However, … students who discover that they are actually good at something like programming … will never have to go out and cover a fire. Nobody will ask them to do that because they have developed a different specialized skill and people want them to do that all the time. Journalists who are starting out can take a while to find out where their talent lies, sometimes because they don't know about a topic area. For example, you might have no interest in covering education news but then you get a chance to be an education reporter and you suddenly discover this whole world of bureaucracy and regulation and corruption and inequalities, and you realize there is this universe you didn't know anything about.

In a journalism school, we can't really show you the whole universe for each topic – for technology reporting and business reporting and health reporting. You find out by accident because of the job you get.

Is it more important to have a journalistic specialism like online or radio journalism for example, or to have a specialist topic area like politics or culture?

It’s nice to begin to develop the specialism in a subject area when you are still training but nobody will hire a beginner reporter for a specialism, even the business reporters, who are very much in demand - unless they go and work for a purely business publication where they don't anything else. The specialization will usually flower later.

With a technical or media specialty, it depends. Some people find out that they are really good at audio storytelling, for example; they are very good at face to face interviews or they are very good at cutting things together and striking emotional cores with the audience. Other people are very visual. They are really great with still photography or with videography. But some people do not find that out while they are training. Some of them find out on their first or even on their second job. It's like life. There is faith and there is accident. You just want to be ready for whatever kind of opportunity you get and if you do not like that one, there are all these other ones. You can change. Stay in that one for a year and move and do another thing.

Be flexible because there are all these opportunities. I know students and trainees are in a kind of a hurry to get started with their lives. Keep all your options open and try things out. Don't allow yourself to get stuck in something that you don’t enjoy. When you find out that you don’t enjoy it, then move in a different direction, try different things and you will find something that you really like and that you are good at.

A lot of aspiring journalists feel like they want a career that can help them have an impact on the world. Is that a good attitude to have?

Some have a passion and want to spend all their time surrounded by that passion. If so, they may have to figure out a way to make a reputation for themselves on the side while they do something else for money. Hopefully, journalism schooling will help them find a way to pay the bills while they are developing their real interest. Some of them [might] have a happier life if they go to government service or … work for an NGO. It depends what form their passion takes. They need to be open-minded enough to think about where they would feel most at home.

Some young journalists try to work a lot and get their name everywhere, others try to focus on original content but aren’t able to produce such a volume of work. What is a good strategy to build your reputation as a journalist?

I think it depends. I’ve seen young people who go off to freelance, often somewhere more obscure. Because you are in a place where there are very few other English speaking journalists, you can find stories and sell them and get paid. And because you’ll be writing real stories, you can build a reputation as a real journalist and it’s nice that you were also paid for them. While it might not be all about getting paid, it is about showing you have integrity, that you have these skills.

It's great if you’re doing audio and video, not just text because hundreds of people are out there writing text – so if can you bring these other dimensions to stories and get them published somewhere respectable, whether they pay or not, I think that looks better to a future employer.

What do you think about practical training schemes compared to university courses?

I think they are awesome! They’re hands on and you are always working alongside professionals. You are actually doing work all the time and seeing how professionals do their work. What could be better? I think it’s a much better option than going to get a master’s which is purely theoretical. We don’t really have practical traineeships in the US and I’ve always envied the Europeans who can have this type of training.

Mindy McAdams teaches production and theory courses about interactive media and online journalism at the University of Florida. Her course guides provide a wealth of information on teaching certain digital skills, as does her teaching online journalism blog.

Shora Azarnoush and Loveday Wright interviewed Mindy McAdams at the 2015 International Journalism Festival in Perugia, where McAdams took part in a discussion panel on how journalism should be taught today. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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