Meeting and Exceeding the News Business’ Hiring Needs

At CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center, we just published a lengthy report on the job needs of the news business today, based on surveys, interviews, and analysis of employment ads.

It reveals much about the new jobs and entirely new skills and combinations of skills—journalistic superpowers, we call them — that news organizations need and want. It also reveals where — in my opinion — the news business still needs more innovation. Below, I’ll concentrate on that because it’s my job in a university to worry about what’s coming next, so in our Center we can help the industry shift strategy — exploring new business models and forms of news — and so in the classroom we can prepare our students for the new roles they will take on in a constantly changing industry.

The report was made by former NPR execs Mark Stencel (now codirector of the Duke Reporters’ Lab) and Kim Perry (now senior editor of the digital transition team at The New York Times) and overseen by Tow-Knight general manager Hal Straus. The survey’s sample, as they point out, is small and unscientific. Though detailed, the report is directional. I hope it provides a baseline so we can regularly revisit these questions with followups to inform both the industry and student (and teacher!) training in journalism schools. Note well how the report finds that the skills we once thought would swallow our journalistic brains — blogging! CMSes! oh, my!— are now just part of the fabric of a newsroom; imagine the changes we can track in upcoming years. Please give us feedback and tell us what else you would like us to address in future versions.

This work already has inspired a number of decisions at CUNY J+, the J-school’s new professional training program run by Marie Gilot, helping her decide what skills to offer to companies and individuals (including our own graduates, taking advantage of what we call our 100,000-mile career guarantee). The admonition in the report from Vice’s Drake Martinet — that “the best new employees are the ones who have a superpower” — has become her program’s watchword.

I’ll leave it to Stencel and Perry to fill you in on the demand for transformational and foundational skills. Their key finding:

When asked to identify five to 10 top hiring needs for the coming year, the news organizations that responded to our questionnaire prioritized skills in three areas: coding; audience development and data; and photo/video production. Two thirds of the organizations chose “coding/development” and “audience development/user data and metrics.” Nearly 60 percent chose visual storytelling/editing.”
When we asked survey participants to narrow their choices to just three top hiring priorities, the same three skills — coding, audience development/data and visual storytelling — led that list as well.

Here I want to explore three areas that might be underemphasized or missing in the industry’s thinking and what might come next. It’s the report that enables me to identify these syncopations.

PRODUCT: I am glad to see that product development ranked sixth in demand in the survey. Stencel and Perry report product ownership and development ranked as high as “journalism essentials” (which they defined as “reporting, writing and editing”). OK, but I’m greedy. Though the sample size is too small to quibble over statistical ranking, I will argue that product development should rank higher, perhaps even highest. I’m disturbed that in their wide-ranging sample of companies, old and new, Stencel and Perry found product development ranking much lower with newspapers and local news companies. In other words, digital startups skewed the numbers, ranking product development higher than the others. That is a lesson to us all.

Every day, I become more firmly convinced that product development is the key skill news organizations need so they can build new business strategies, saving us from the dying reach game of our dead mass-media business model and helping us provide greater relevance and value for the people we serve, generating our own first-party data so we can begin to compete with Google, Facebook, and ad tech for users’ attention and trust and so we can earn revenue not only from advertising but also from events, membership, and commerce. That, in one over-long sentence, is the strategic transformation I propose for our industry. (And I wrote a book about it.)

This is also why we at CUNY chose product development as the first new professional community of practice we convened and will support. A few weeks ago, we brought together almost 20 of the best product people we know in the business — from Vox, BuzzFeed, Quartz, The New York Times, The Skimm, Medium, Dow Jones, and elsewhere — for a private session where they could candidly compare notes and needs. (More on this another day.)

Though I do hear about product development when I visit newsrooms and news executives around the world — and that’s great news — I must say that I hear a different vision of what product means from them than I hear from the product leaders we convened. In newsrooms, product still often means making a new section or perhaps app based on the content they already make.

No, in my view, product development starts with identifying a community or use case for news and listening to people to discern their needs and goals, then and only then returning to the office to work with a small, cross-functional, fully empowered team representing editorial, commercial, technology, data, and design to formulate ways to meet those needs.

This view of the future of news enterprises — not just newsrooms — also teaches us that teamwork is a key skill we need to work on in journalism education and professional development. I will confess I have not cracked how to teach journalists to work with business people, technologists, data people, and designers when I don’t have those constituents in our student body. Any ideas?

But the fundamental underlying skill that all this talk of product development leads us to is listening. We’re not very good at that in the news business. Oh, yes, our reporters do pick up the phone and listen for the quotes they need to fill in blanks in their stories but that process begins with us; it is media-centric. We must shift so that news becomes public-centric.

AUDIENCE: In related news, I was heartened to see that audience development ranked high in our study as a necessary set of skills.

I’m afraid I despise the job title. “Audience” (as in “the people formerly known as”) is a passive, media-centric concept. “Development” and its frequent synonym in the industry and this report, “growth,” are also media-centric: But enough about you, please come read/like/share/comment on my story. Too much of audience development is about using so-called social media to market our content. This is the last gasp of the old, mass-media reach-based business model.

I am relieved to hear again and again in the newsrooms I visit and the conversations I have with media executives — including business heads — their acknowledgment that the reach model is doomed by advertising abundance and commoditization, not to mention competition from the platforms and ad tech.

So I shouldn’t quibble. “Audience development” is a critical, strategic start toward putting the public first in our work. What we need to explore now is where it goes next (and that is why we at Tow-Knight next plan to convene a community of practice around audience development). At our community of practice meeting of product development geniuses, I heard the rumblings of yet another new job on the horizon: audience advocate. That is a critical role in the early stages of product development — observing, listening to, and discerning needs of the communities we serve. The product development folks said this is also an important skill to invoke once the product is built, so a product team doesn’t revert to defending their product against change and improvement.

Here is a case where we in a journalism school tried to get ahead of the industry. Seeing the need for developing richer relationships with the communities we serve — or more accurately betting on the come — CUNY developed a new degree in Social Journalism, led by Carrie Brown, to prepare journalists for this new and strategic skill of becoming servants to the public’s needs. We frankly could not guarantee that they would be hired. After graduating our first class, I can report with great relief and pride that our graduates are being fought over by innovative news companies. The bet paid off.

MANAGEMENT: The next frontier in my own thinking revolves around the need to produce more innovative leadership for the industry — and not just in newsrooms.

In their report, Stencel and Perry note that demand for management ranks low in their surveys. But as they interviewed some of the smartest (young) innovators and leaders in our industry — see comments from Elizabeth Green of Chalkbeat and Brian Boyer of NPR — they heard a strong desire for better management and more management training.

I am hearing this again and again: As our industry is finally smart enough to promote younger innovators or fund their visions, we are leaving them ill-prepared to handle tasks that are still required of managers, from motivating staff to negotiating partnerships to driving revenue growth. I also see an urgent need to teach change management to our news executives of today and tomorrow. I’m asking myself how we can help meet this vital need in my school. Please help me think this through.


Two more notes:

First, I’m not sure what to do with the report’s finding about newsrooms’ hunger for coders. Since we started our school, I’ve argued that we should not strive to produce the elusive unicorn, the coder-journalism, the hack-hacker, in all students. I think that was right when it comes to every student; we don’t have time to squeeze comprehensive coding training into the curriculum for all. But I’m glad to be proven wrong when it comes to some students’ desire for specialization. The other day, I was delighted to hear that the coding courses my colleague Sandeep Junnarkar has developed are selling out. My friend at Columbia, Emily Bell, tells me they are having similar success now in their combined journalism/computer science program. All students leave CUNY able to work with coders; they are literate in it. Some students leave able to code; they can become leaders just as those who specialize in data or VR or social journalism will.

This is one example of how I now believe we need to offer specializations and certify students’ skills in them — whether in coding or visual storytelling (much about that in the report) or what’s next (VR and immersive experiences? ubiquitous live reporting? advocacy? platform relationships?).

Second, the report makes me reflect on a shift in the locus of innovation in our industry. When we started the J-school almost 10 years ago, I pushed to include entrepreneurial training — leading us to develop a degree and advanced certificate in the field, a program run by Jeremy Caplan — not only to teach journalists the business of journalism but also to recognize that real innovation in news was coming from startups and we needed to support that.

Now, in this report, we see how startups — digital pure-plays in the inelegant argot of the day — are still, unsurprisingly, ahead of their media forebears in recognizing the importance of, say, product development, audience development, and innovation management. But the big news from this report is that the leaders of legacy companies are no longer smugly, curmudgeonly insisting that all that matters is preserving the fundamentals of traditional journalism: reporting, story-telling, editing, news judgment. Those skills are by no means outmoded. They are presumed. To preserve and sustain the fruits of journalism today and in the future, our news organizations need — and journalism schools need to develop — the host of new skills outlined in this report: the new superpowers.