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Last year, the term 'newsroom unicorn' made a frequent appearance in the news industry – mentioned at conferences and in specialised books, it was used to refer to journalists with coding skills or technologists with an interest and aptitude for storytelling.

Offering new and existing reporters access to this type of specialist training could help them expand their portfolio and better understand the connection between their own work and that of the interactive, video or development teams. But how are newsrooms approaching this process?

Lisa Pollack, head of new projects at The Financial Times, oversees the outlet's internal digital training. "The best way to offer digital training is by not making an assumption about what form is going to suit everyone," she said, speaking in a recent podcast.

Towards the end of 2014, the FT conducted a survey among its journalists, asking how they wanted to be trained and what the best time of day was for them, with the majority of people expressing interest in classes that took place between noon and 2pm.

The practical sessions are taught both by FT journalists and external trainers as needed, and last between one and one and a half hours. They aim to tackle a variety of topics, such as the role of the FT's API, using productivity tools, or an entire series of workshops focused on spreadsheets, numeracy and charting.

"But even those one-hour courses didn't suit everyone, so we also designed bootcamps, as more intensive digital training that usually lasts between two and three days.

"This option is both for people based in London, who'd prefer to do everything in one go, but also for foreign correspondents."

As part of the training, journalists are also encouraged to attend conferences and events, to learn "how different newsrooms are doing things differently than us or the same, so sometimes, through that, we are made aware of something we should do more training on".

'The sympathy element'

Pollack said this approach has worked really well, with certain courses being offered regularly to accommodate specific requests from journalists or because people who go to a specific workshop want to follow up with more intensive training.

"The pitch to our journalists was that they were going to understand what their story looks like when it ends up in several different places," Pollack explained, outlining the aim of the API training.

"In the class, each person would pick a story they'd worked on, bring it up on and by the end of the class, they would've also brought that up as an API call, and they could evaluate why the two looked different.

"This isn't something that's going to help journalists with core reporting, but it will make them far more sympathetic about the work that our developers do, which helps us produce something better for our readers."

One thing I found resoundingly positive is that there is a huge spectrum of people who want to learnLisa Pollack, The Financial Times
Podcasting, video and coding training courses are designed in a similar way to help attendees develop a better understanding of what these entail, even if journalists who attend the workshops might not necessarily use that knowledge on a daily basis.

"But if they go through that experience of what decisions you have to make when editing a podcast, that might mean they turn in better audio or think more about how they structure something better for the producer.

"The sympathy element is really important to understand what you're actually asking someone to do."

So what approach should journalists take when they want to learn a new skill or develop an existing one?

Pollack's advice is to always ask your employer if you can do any particular training, and be specific about what course you have identified and what you can learn from it. And it's even better if you can show a willingness to become an expert later on and conduct training for others.

"It's never going to stop, there are always going to be new things to learn and the pace is probably only going to increase. So one thing I found resoundingly positive is that there is a huge spectrum of people who want to learn."

At NPR, the editorial training unit focuses on social media, podcasts and visual journalism across the NPR newsroom and its member radio stations throughout the United States.

A selection of these resources, learnings and tips are also published on the recently launched NPR Training website.

"If you go to the website, the big tag line there is 'hone your craft', which, to me, is what people should focus on," said Eric Athas, the team's editorial training manager.

"We need to get much better at what we do, whether that's audio, podcasts or writing, and increase the quality of our journalism, because that is the way to stand out as new platforms, tools and trends emerge."

Collective training also plays a big role in NPR’s newsroom. The team has developed ongoing listening sessions, for example, which consist of "people sitting in a room, listening to an audio piece and just talking about it and critiquing it".

Retrospectives and team get-togethers

"If someone works on a really great project and it illustrates a lot of the things that we want other people in the newsroom to be doing, we want to make sure we explain why it worked, what was so great about it and make sure that knowledge reaches as many people as possible," Athas said.

It's very easy to be doing the same thing over and over again and feeling good about it. But it's important to ask yourself if it's the right thing, whether you're reaching the right peopleEric Athas, NPR
The team also runs a monthly newsroom event called 'How we did that', where journalists are invited to hear about a particular story, project or series, to "not just highlight some of the great things people have done, but also to talk about the challenges".

"Building in a culture of experimentation is also really important. It's very easy to be doing the same thing over and over again and feeling good about it.

"But it's important to ask yourself if it's the right thing, whether you're reaching the right people. So that when something comes along that you want to experiment with, you will do that in a focused way that helps you learn something and decide whether or not you want to change the way you work," said Athas.

For news organisations who don't have the resources for a dedicated training team, he explained how to come up with "even small ways to incorporate training into what you do".

"It could be having monthly events to talk about a particular thing that you've done or doing retrospectives on projects, or finding space to get together and do a critique session on your work.

"We don't see [our team] as the only trainers in the building, we hope that we can help everyone in the newsroom think of ways in which they can share their ideas and expertise.

"There is so much knowledge in public media and we really want to tap into that and share it as widely as possible," he said.

Listen to the full podcast on skills journalists should focus on in 2016 below:

Update: The article has been updated to clarify that FT journalists taking part in the digital training bootcamps are not divided into groups according to their level of expertise, as previously stated.

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