Constant Training: New Normal or Missed Opportunity?

Even during the industrial age, journalists wanted training. Back in 1938, Agnes Wahl Nieman’s bequest launched the famed fellowship program at Harvard to “promote and elevate the standards of journalism.” We wanted to know more about the skills and issues that make up the craft and the profession as well as the complexities of the topics we must cover to make sense of the world.

Related LinkS

Why I’m worried about newsroom training” by Eric Newton on Knight Blog

Report Shows Big Gaps in Newsroom Training” – Press release (11/19/2014)

But the digital age has raised the bar on training. Journalists and newsrooms incapable of reinventing what it means to train will face a bleak future.

Today, journalism schools and midcareer training programs debate whether we should teach 1) storytelling craft, such as writing, multimedia production, interviewing and research; 2) professional ethics, law, history and mass media theory; or 3) topic knowledge, ranging from the inner workings of city hall to that of the human brain.

Despite the protestations of frazzled professors and professionals, teaching these three areas can’t be an either-or scenario. Each must be learned.

The digital age forced the wholesale rewrite of craft and profession, to say nothing of topic education. Classrooms and newsrooms are starting to understand more about numeracy, design, new media forms and community engagement.

Yet craft, profession and topic education are no longer enough. The digital age demands a new, permanent category of training and education.

Call the fourth category “change competencies.”

These include curiosity, creativity, flexibility, openness, innovation, iteration and, of course, understanding the nature of change itself. Once, many of these domains were thought to be unteachable; today, they are crucial. Show me a journalist capable of continuous creativity, and I’ll show you a person better equipped to face a future we finally have come to admit we can’t even imagine.

Yes, you still need to know how to write, stay out of jail and know something about the stories you’re doing. But you also need to stay perpetually up-to-date.

This is why I am uneasy with what by the old standards might be seen as great progress in journalism training in the United States in the past 25 years. In 1992, when I co-wrote “No Train, No Gain,” only about one in 10 journalists had any type of regular training. By 2002, when the Knight Foundation produced “Newsroom Training: Where’s the Investment?” the number had grown to three in 10. By 2007, when “News, Improved” was published, the number had risen to nearly seven in 10. Even now, after the greatest recession in 80 years, that average has more or less held.

Many of the obstacles to training (money and time, for example) have been reduced or removed. Poynter News University, NewsTrain and dozens of other such programs help train thousands of journalists each year, allowing individual training no matter what newsrooms do.