When it comes to getting your first job in journalism, there are a number of qualities all potential employers will be looking for.
You need to be able to write with accuracy and clarity, for example, and at times at speed (without – importantly – losing either of the first two staples of good reporting). It is also generally important to be well-versed in media law. Shorthand? Well, we will come to that later.
But assuming you possess all the important underlying abilities, having some digital sensibilities on top could help to set you out from the crowd, and where you are applying for an online or otherwise-digital position in particular, having key digital skills and tools under your belt could be vital.
For a podcast on this subject last month I spoke to Alison Gow, editor of the digital content innovation team at Trinity Mirror Regionals; Cate Sevilla, homepage editor for BuzzFeed UK; John Barnes, managing director for digital and technology at Incisive Media; Anna Doble, head of online at Channel 4 News and Jon di Paolo, executive producer of SkyNews.com.
Their comments covered skills within the following areas: social media, multimedia, newsgathering and fact-checking, digital innovation, interactivity and specialisms. They also shared some advice on qualifications and other non-digital skills which can help to put your application in strong standing.
Being on social media is not just a chance to show you are up to speed with the different networks being used today, but it is important to use these platforms to engage with others, particularly around your subjects of interest.
So make sure your accounts reflect your stated interests. And if you are going for a social media-focused role, make sure your social media activities demonstrate your ability to communicate well with others and share interesting content effectively.
"You might have a Twitter account and a Facebook account, but you actually need to use them because you need to have that deep level of understanding," Alison Gow explained.If somebody comes along to us and says I'm really switched on, I've got the potential to be a great journalist and they don't have any form of social media interaction at all, no followers, nothing, it is highly suspiciousJohn Barnes, Incisive Media
"If somebody comes along to us and says I'm really switched on, I've got the potential to be a great journalist and they don't have any form of social media interaction at all, no followers, nothing, it is highly suspicious," John Barnes added.
"Simple things like do they have a picture on their account? Do they actually describe what they're doing? Do they have a consistent level of tweeting or commenting? Is it in and around a subject that they're developing an interest in or an expertise on? We will look at those things to get a more general picture of what a person is like.
"Obviously, in my day, it was 'had you worked on the university newspaper or magazine', and now blogs are slightly like that. But any experience that has been gained along the way, whether it's more formal experience through publications at college, whether it's work experience through courses that have taken place at college or holiday jobs, or whether it is actually just things like a really keen interest in a subject and therefore the go-getting nature of writing a blog or having a good social media profile, they're all things that definitely help."
And if you aspire to write for viral content sites such as BuzzFeed, being social media-savvy is obviously vital.
"If you're applying for a community management role and your Twitter feed is only updated once a week or has been left to rot, that's a bad sign", Cate Sevilla said.
"So having all of the usual profiles you expect people to have, having a blog where you talk about this stuff you claim to be interested in or be a specialist in, is really important.
"If you're coming to an employer like Buzzfeed and you want a job, when we look at what you've done in the past we should be able to find you on the internet and find that you are talking about the stuff you claim to want a job in."
Given the rise, and continuing growth, of social media as a traffic referral for many news sites today, being able to share content effectively is also a valuable skill to be able to demonstrate. And again, your potential employer may look to your existing online activity to see how well you are already doing this, Sevilla said.
For sites like BuzzFeed, which also include platforms where anyone can submit articles, such as BuzzFeed Community, they are also impressed to see you have already been getting yourself published on their own site.
"That's the best way for us to see if people get it and can create BuzzFeed-style content that we enjoy," she added. "We've actually published some of it to our homepage because it's been so good."
Having some basic video, image and audio skills in capturing, editing and publishing are all useful additions to your toolbox. Late last month we published some best practice tips on mobile multimedia creation from documentary maker and photographer Christian Payne, @Documentally, and Sevilla added that Photoshop skills in particular are important for those coming to work at BuzzFeed.
Meanwhile Alison Gow said being able to exercise some multimedia talent would impress her as an editor.
"It's lovely when somebody comes in for an interview and they've brought along a tablet or something they can show me some multimedia they've done," she said, "for example, video around a story or a podcast they've made".It's lovely when somebody comes in for an interview and they've brought along a tablet or something they can show me some multimedia they've doneAlison Gow, Trinity Mirror Regionals
"I really think people who do that show that they have thought more deeply about what the journalist's role is nowadays in storytelling, and have taken it on.
"I don't want to detract from text; 350 words of news story is sometimes all that a news story needs to be. But to have that added ability to do [video] - and I'm not talking about Spielberg level video here - but just to have thought to take a video, and add to the way that that story is told and to embed it in that article, says to me that's somebody who really has a skill that you'd want to bring into your newsroom."
If you are hoping to work at a broadcaster one day, video skills are of course incredibly important, and when also working online there are a number of different platforms at your disposal to share video in different ways, from a 6-second Vine, to a longer YouTube clip.
And being someone who is able to use their smartphone to gather video on the go, as well as fulfil their other responsibilities, is something that will serve journalists well, as Doble highlights.
"If I set myself up well on a smartphone, I can have Instagrammed a great shot and sent it to my newsdesk, I can have done a quick interview and done something fun with Vine, all in the space of about 20 minutes, and then get back to digging for the news itself.If I set myself up well on a smartphone, I can have Instagrammed a great shot and sent it to my newsdesk, I can have done a quick interview and done something fun with Vine, all in the space of about 20 minutes, and then get back to digging for the news itselfAnna Doble, Channel 4 News
"It's a balance. We don't want to waste producers' time messing about with Instagram when they could be getting a killer line from an interviewee. I think it's understanding that if you set yourself up and you understand the tools, you can use them really swiftly and then crack on. So you can have that digital presence while keeping to your journalistic roots."
Fellow broadcaster, Jon di Paolo, executive producer of SkyNews.com, also referred to the value of having a "visual awareness" as a journalist, adding that so long as this is in addition to "the core" journalistic skills of having a good understanding of what makes a news story, and the ability to write well, "that is going to give you a big advantage somewhere like this".
Newsgathering and fact-checking
One skill highlighted by Anna Doble as being particularly valuable, was having the initiative to be proactive in how social media is used to gather original news stories, rather than solely responding to what is being said on the platform.
For example, she explained, a journalist could make a Twitter list of local politicians from a specific party and put a question to them relating to a hot topic of the moment.
"Within a relatively short space of time, purely by looking on social media from your desk, you could have a story," she said.Within a relatively short space of time, purely by looking on social media from your desk, you could have a storyAnna Doble, Channel 4 News
"Using the power of the crowd to actually create a line, create a statistic, it might not be utterly scientific, but rather than just going 'something's happened, someone's said this', I think it's turning it round, it's inverting the root to the story and using it as a starting point."
New journalists should expect to be asked in interview how they would find a story, Alison Gow added, and including both digital and non-digital techniques would show a diverse skillset.
"Somebody who would include in that conversation, 'well I would have made a Twitter list from local councillors and I'd be tweeting that I was new to the area and hashtagging it with #Liverpool and I would have already joined the Flickr group for the Liverpool city area, so I was talking to people on there' – that says to me that is somebody who has really thought beyond 'I would go and get the names of the councillors off the council website', because all these people are on social now.
"You can make the lists, you can use Tweetdesk columns, so you can actually have those story sources coming in. Similarly, someone who had put in some FOI requests before they came, so as they were starting those FOIs were coming to fruition – fair play, that would be a good thing as far as I was concerned."
As well as social media, journalists should also know how to use other online tools and platforms to contact and check facts with people, particularly if more traditional methods are not proving effective, as John Barnes explains.Increasingly, in a world where people don't answer telephones, double checking facts is very much onlineJohn Barnes, Incisive Media
"Increasingly, in a world where people don't answer telephones, double checking facts is very much online," he said. "So whether that's using online resources, other websites, whether it's using LinkedIn primarily as a social media tool to contact and manage people, or other tools like Skype.
"It doesn't really much matter but the fact that people are able to use a range of tools to double check those facts, to make sure we've actually got correct information, that we're not misrepresenting anybody and we're actually producing accurate, reliable high quality journalism, that's very important."
On a simple level, understanding "how to write for the web" is vital when going for a digital reporting role, Sevilla said.
And while potential employers are not going to expect all journalists in their first job to be digital innovation thought-leaders, they will certainly be impressed by those who can also think creatively about new storytelling formats, and the flexibility of digital platforms to deliver content in a variety of ways.
Doble said this is one of the key attributes she would look for in someone joining the newsroom – the ability to identify opportunities to do storytelling beyond standard structures.
"It's having the confidence to say online news can be anything," she added. "It's not printed in ink, it's not beamed out on a television set, it can be so many different things."It's having the confidence to say online news can be anything. It's not printed in ink, it's not beamed out on a television set, it can be so many different thingsAnna Doble, Channel 4 News
While having technical skills is a wonderful addition, it is "more important" to be able to demonstrate that "online journalism is a thing in its own right and not just a dumping ground for the newspaper, TV newsrooms of old".
It is also important to have an understanding of the different ways to approach various digital reporting platforms, particularly in the social web, rather than trying to run with a one-size-fits-all model.
"We're all guilty of just whacking out a link across social media," Doble said, but added that "the key skill for somebody new now is to show they have that awareness" of both the social network's own environment and distinguishing features, as well as the "user journey" and the impact that may have on the context experience expected on arrival.
"You've got to think about where they're coming from, what they are probably looking for when they arrive at your piece. And therefore one story could have 4 or 5 different looks to it, or different emphasis, depending on where you place it."
The added strength of a specialism
- Technical specialism
Having some form of specialism, such as an affinity for working with data, or even some coding skills, can give you that extra selling point to a potential employer, but the underlying reporting skills come first. Having a specialism is not necessary to secure a journalism job, but the point is that like many of the digital skills included in this article, they can help you stand out from the crowd.
For example, Alison Gow said just having spreadsheet skills and the ability to build visualisations gives applicants an "edge", but this is in addition to the "broad skills" of being a good journalist.
She also highlighted how specialisms can emerge once someone is working in a newsroom, pointing to former Wales Online journalist Claire Miller, who now works as part of the Data Journalism Unit at Trinity Mirror Regionals after her data skills got her noticed.
"She demonstrated absolute capability and expertise with data and as a result a job was created to make the most of her skills in that area," Gow explained.
Such skills are certainly valued in digital newsrooms. Doble, for example, said "in a dream world I'd absolutely have a specialist who's purely looking at graphics and data all the time".
Coding is also admired, but while some basic HTML will help you along as a new journalist, more advanced skills are certainly not expected in general.
"I don't think new recruits should be panicking about learning to be code-heads," Doble said, "because it's a huge, huge discipline in it's own right".
"But a basic understanding and a confidence around interactive graphics and how to make basic things like Q&As or polls, is a great skill," she added, or at least, "knowing which tools to go to to make that kind of content".
At Sky News, one recent recruit shone above the rest due to his abilities in data and coding, so having these skills is "a big string to your bow", Jon di Paolo said, but stressed that this is only the case if the "core" abilities as a journalist are there.
"I don't think you have to be familiar with coding and the back-end of things, but it doesn't do you any harm," he said.
"People like that are very few and far between because to be really good in all those disciplines takes a tremendous amount of work, and you have to be really disciplined to get to that point."
But, he added, "somebody who could do that but couldn't string a sentence together wouldn't get very far."
On the subject of coding skills, Sevilla said that those looking to work in a start-up may find such skills are not required anyway because newer content-management systems will do "everything for you".
At BuzzFeed for example, "we have developers already", she said, "so if you are a journalist, you can just write rather than worrying about formatting your posts in a certain way".
Barnes added that specialisms in "video, data journalism, audio" can be big positives in the eyes of employers, but for him the key is "being rounded and very practical", along with a "keenness to learn".
"Nobody's going to be the finished article when they start," he added.
- Subject specialism
And for those keen to zero in on a specific patch or niche, Sevilla highlights the importance of demonstrating that interest, and specialism, in your online personality.If you want a job being our new political reporter, and you claim to have a grasp on viral content, we're going to want to see that when we look for you online and go through your Twitter feed and see the things you've shared publicly on Facebook as wellCate Sevilla, BuzzFeed
"If you want a job being our new political reporter, and you claim to have a grasp on viral content, we're going to want to see that when we look for you online and go through your Twitter feed and see the things you've shared publicly on Facebook as well."
While we have so far focused on the key digital skills that may help to give journalists that extra leg up as a journalism job applicant, there are obviously a number of other 'analogue' skills, which are vital in the eyes of some editors.
For Alison Gow, for example, shorthand is a vital skill for any journalist planning on getting a job in the regionals, particularly "if you're going for a traditional journalist job".
The shorthand debate remains fiercely debated, but as Gow highlights, if you are likely to wind up doing court reporting, shorthand will be important.
"It is a discussion that's being had more and more," Gow added, "but if you haven't got your shorthand, a lot of newspapers will put your CV straight to the reject pile".
She added that journalism-related qualifications that include key areas such as media law can also help get you onto the career ladder, even at a higher level than someone else.
"People who do the NCTJ, or people who do the BCTJ, or who do journalism degrees, come into newsrooms and they generally come in at a higher pay level," she said.
Doble added that journalism qualifications help to provide "a very clear bit of evidence that this person has done the basics, the law, understands the rules around journalism".
"It's more to just be able to tick that box and say this person's clearly learnt the ropes and has proven themselves and presumably done some practical training that was part of their course as well."
Once you are in the newsroom, being proactive, and brave enough to stand up and share your ideas or new approaches to something, is also something Doble admires.
"To arrive in a newsroom like this with lots of big names, big reporters who've done loads of amazing stuff... it could be an intimidating environment, however it's not, it's a friendly environment and I think the great thing you can do as a young journalist is come in and go 'look, I know a lot about this, there's some great stories to be had, give me a day, and I'll build you an excellent story about something that's never been covered before by this team or is not generally part of the political agenda'.It's coming in with a fresh idea, a fresh way of working as well as the idea itself, and then just pushing and having the confidence to convince others it's worth doingAnna Doble, Channel 4 News
"It's coming in with a fresh idea, a fresh way of working as well as the idea itself, and then just pushing and having the confidence to convince others it's worth doing."
Before even starting a job, Gow also encouraged new journalists to think about how they present themselves in an interview.
"If somebody can engage me and chat to me and make me enjoy talking to them in interview, which is a horrible situation for anybody to be in, they're going to do it out on the streets as well," Gow said.
We compiled some interview practice tips for journalists in this how-to guide.
Part of your interview skill is about how you sell yourself as a candidate, and Barnes said harnessing your inner salesperson is key for journalists in their everyday work as well, not just in the interview room.
"If you think you've got to convince somebody that you're the person to share the information with, to actually get the story out of them, that ability to engage with people, to be a good communicator, to be very fluent when you're talking, that ability to talk naturally and get on with people and be convincing and true to yourself, that's what we look for because that's not something we can teach you."
And of course, writing and communication skills in general are a must.I'm very much of the school of thought that says if somebody's got very good, core skills, you can train them up on almost anythingJon di Paolo, Sky News
"Obviously you've got to be able to read and write, spell, good punctuation," Barnes listed, adding that other abilities in the field of subbing and gathering images for stories are also now often falling to the journalist, so being able to demonstrate skills in those areas can also stand you in good stead.
And for di Paolo, having the "core basics" beat any digital expertise. Journalists must have "a good news nose", he said, as well as "brilliant written English".
"I'm very much of the school of thought that says if somebody's got very good, core skills, you can train them up on almost anything, but the peripheral stuff, their familiarity with interrogating Tweetdeck for example, they can pick up here."
Update: This article was updated to correct the spelling of Jon di Paolo's surname
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