Evolution the key for a new breed of journalists

Having a second (or third) language is a highly desirable skill for  journalist with international ambitions. 

By JAMES MANTON

“You’ve got to be passionate because this is not a nine-to-five job,” says Roger Clark in his heavy Yorkshire accent.

“You’ve got to work when the story’s breaking, you’ve got to work without sleep, you’ve got to go to some of the toughest places on Earth, you’ve got to be absolutely passionate about this job.

Roger Clark from CNN.

“If you’re not passionate, then don’t bother.”

Clark has been involved in the journalism industry since he was a teenager, finding himself as a vice-president of CNN and the bureau chief in Hong Kong some three decades later. For him, journalism is more than a career – it’s a livelihood.

“You’ve got to care, it can’t just be a job,” he says.

While he has already forged a lofty career in the profession, there is a perception among young journalists that breakthrough jobs have become scarcer in recent years.

This may be true for traditional roles – such as editorial and print positions – however the shifting face of the media also means that the jobs themselves are changing too.

There were about 27,500 journalists employed in Australia in 2015, according to the Department of Employment. This number is predicted to increase to about 30,300 by 2020 – a rise of 10 per cent.

But as hundreds of media professionals are laid off from large companies (such as Fairfax) around Australia and the world, where will these jobs be?

“If you are going to go down the future, in terms of employment in media, multimedia is the only path you must go down,” says Giles Hewitt, the Asia-Pacific editor of Agence France Presse (AFP), one of the largest news agencies in the world.

As technology and media platforms develop, so too do the ways people digest news and information.

“You must be, I think, in terms of image, visually skilled. You should have editing skills, hopefully video and photo editing,” he says.

“These things are absolutely crucial, and not just from a skill-set but from a knowledge-set. So it’s not just that I can do this, but I know how these things work. I know how images are put together.”

Giles Hewitt from AFP.

The skills required by journalists to be able to adequately provide content for their audience has increased to extent that a writing-only journalist is almost nonexistent today.

New journalists coming into the industry are expected to not only have the traditional base skills, but to also work with new and different platforms to give as diverse a range of information as possible.

“When we have openings on our news desk, which is essentially a sub-editing position … we now look very carefully at the CV,” says Hewitt.

“I take a lot of attention to the skill-set now. We do look to people who have some sort of multimedia experience.”

According to Hewitt, a recent hiring in the AFP’s Kuala Lumpur bureau was made explicitly because of the journalist’s prior experience as a videojournalist.

More is expected of a journalist than ever before, especially as many companies are reducing their staff numbers yet requiring the same quantity and diversity of work.

“I would not be employed by AFP today if I was coming in with the skill-set I had at the time,” Hewitt says.

“There’s simply no way I would even be asked for an interview, I simply did not have the experience at that time. We require now three years minimum, usually, of some sort of journalistic experience. Plus these multimedia skill-sets, plus languages, plus other things.”

International media companies have the additional cultural and language hurdles that create challenges for providing content to a global audience.

Philip Pan from the New York Times Asia bureau.

The ability to speak more than just English is as useful – and crucial – a skill as any for journalists working in a global setting.

“So we’re basically looking for bilingual people,” says the Asia editor of The New York Times, Philip Pan.

“People who have picked up a second language in addition to English and can do reporting in that language, it’s really important to us.”

Specialised areas or skills are not only appealing to media companies, but also audiences themselves.

“[Specialisation is] a real plus. I think that that’s the trend, too, in the industry that it’s toward more specialisation because as we try to produce journalism that people are willing to pay for, we need to be able to write to niche audiences,” Pan says.

Many attributes required by journalists can be self-taught and simply require practice, dedication, and an open mind.

However, prior experience in the industry – in whichever form it may take – is a gold star for anyone seeking to fill a media position.

Cadetships and traineeships are rare for large media companies and organisations, with the ABC offering only up to eight in 2017.

As such, having a solid experience base not only helps companies to trust in young journalists more, it also allows beginners the time and space to develop.

Irene Liu from Google’s Media lab.

Irene Liu, a Pulitzer Prize finalist who currently works at Google’s Media Lab after spending time at Reuters and the South China Morning Post, is adamant that beginning at a small publication is crucial for a journalist’s development.

“So the big mistake … I think that young journalists have is wanting to go to the biggest brand name news organisation out of journalism school,” she says.

“But, in fact, when you are starting off as a reporter, you are going to be bad at it.

“You need time to learn, you need time to be able to make mistakes and, you know, stiffen  your spine.

“You want to be able to have those experiences and make mistakes in a smaller setting where the stakes are not as high.”

Using the careers page for the struggling Fairfax Media as an example, it is readily apparent that the vast majority of available journalism jobs are not at the major metropolitan mastheads, but at smaller, rural publications.

“Don’t myopically focus on the big brand names, focus on the work,” Liu says.

That work – the bedrock for any journalist looking to make a name for themself – is what will ultimately lead to a job in an increasingly changing and uncertain industry.

The desire and love for journalism as a livelihood, not just as a job, appeals to employers like nothing else, says Clark.

“It’s all about what you’ve done to demonstrate to me that you’re passionate about it,” he says.

“That you’ve written articles for newspapers and blogs and you do stuff for local radio and all the different things you can do to show that you are genuinely passionate about this industry and not just somebody who wants a job.”

You can have all the skills and talent in the world, but it won’t do you any good unless you truly want to be a journalist.