How to hire an online journalist (or get a job as one)

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Okay, so you’ve got money to hire some online journalists. What skills should you look for? And what sorts of personal traits are best? Or perhaps you’re a job seeker who wonders what constitutes the right stuff in online newsrooms? Both sets of questions ask the same uber-question: what is an online journalist’s job?

The typical online journalist is a generalist, rather than a specialist, who probably spends most of his or her time choosing stories, writing headlines and doing tasks that, in print media, would be assigned to a copy editor, according to a recent survey of work habits at 538 online news sites.

What about writing style? Well, that would be a bonus, given that, even at newspaper web sites, where writing alternative types of stories is somewhat more common, ”only about 22 percent of producers . . . responded that they were reporting and writing as often as several times a week,” the survey found.

Of course, this being the online news business, aspiring digital journalists need software skills –  such as in HTML and PhotoShop – their print counterparts don’t routinely display, according, The Role of Journalists in Online Newsroms, a survey published in November by C. Max Magee, a master’s candidate at the Medill School of Journalism. (Find Magee’s original 10-page PDF here; I summarize the findings below).

Under the direction of Medill professor Rich Gordon, Magee collected surveys from 239 larger web sites that belong to the Online News Association and supplemented these by 199 replies from smaller news sites. The survey reached both managers and producers (i.e., the online journos) to paint what is not quite a scientific survey of hiring considerations, but a darn rigorous look at the field.

According to the survey, managers rated attention to detail and ability to work under time pressure as the top personal skills; news judgment and grammatical sense emerged as the top editing skills; reporting is way, way down the list. In fact managers valued knowledge of HTML and PhotoShop more highly than the ability to ask who, what, when, where, and why and than craft the responses into a story.

Rank and file producers offered similar views of their jobs. The people who process content say multitasking and attention to detail are their top personal skills; news judgment and grammatical sense are the most of-used editorial skills. Producers said they spent more time searching for photos on a daily basis than reporting and writing original stories (it will be fascinating to see, as tags proliferate and it becomes easier to use search terms to sift the web, whether online  news sites expand reporting, or cut staffs and boost productivity). The top-ranked software skills was ability to use a content management system (I think all professional journalists would understand this, though the particular systems may vary). A steeper knowledge curve for print journos (like me!) would be acquiring a knowledge of HTML, PhotoShop, Web useability and page authoring software.

Together, these management and labor views of online newsroom skills point to a pressure-cooker environment with relentless deadlines, a high demand for accuracy and thruput and not a huge premium on creating ideas. All of this is in keeping with the current state of web news-gathering, which generally means aggregating content created elsewhere and offering a one-stop-shop for viewers who want to satisfy their news fixes fast and for free.

This survey does not offer a glimpse of the culture of online newsrooms, which is not a knock given the tremendous effort that C. Max Magee must’ve put into this work. Perhaps that is the next project????

But we need to talk about that. Are these jobs satisfying, or burnout positions? And as artificial intelligence tools lessen the routine workload (like picture-finding) from online news staffs, will managers expand news creation or simply serve up more content with fewer mouse clicks?

Any thoughts?