Some thoughts on the craft of web journalism

How do we teach, explore and learn to use online tools and techniques properly?

One thing I see happening a lot in online journalism is we do stuff just because we can. That is fine for experimentation, but at some point you need to get beyond the mere ability and delve deep into art of when and why.

I thought of this thanks for just a few words from Jeff Jarvis, “Newspaper online sites tend to use slideshows too much, just because the internet lets them.”

We do a lot of stuff, just because we can.

There’s a lot of blogging going on at newspapers — the majority of it bad blogging — because we can. We’re doing a lot of video with uneven results because we can (and hey, I acknowledge my role in this, and contrary to anything I say here, I am not going to stop pushing that approach, because we still have a lot of learning to do).

The flip side is, and also a contradictory truth, is that not enough journalists are doing any of these things. There are still way too many journalists sitting on the side lines thinking, “This web stuff isn’t important. Let me just cover my stories and meet my print deadlines.”

Let’s be clear, we should do a lot of blogging, and a lot of video, and a lot of slideshows/photo galleries, and multimedia packages, and so on.

But we also need to start doing a better job of learning how to do each of these things well and appropriately.

Print journalists need to start thinking like web journalists.

Web journalists, I believe, have an instinct for blogging, the tools and craft to explore informing the public through words, sound and moving pictures, and the deft skill of a pro to know what to use when.

For anybody who has ever tried to master a craft, such as writing, you know there is a process by which you begin with a very elemental understanding of how to put pieces together. What comes out at first is often clunky. In writing, maybe you’ve used too many short sentences when one long one would have worked better, or maybe that really gorgeous five-syllable word bogged down a sentence that wold have been improved with four-fewer beats.

Just as there is subtly of craft in writing, or computer programming, or cabinet making, there is a subtly of craft in being a web journalist.

I’m not sure there are many journalists out there trying to learn that craft the way a Hunter Thompson or a Tom Wolfe or a Gay Talese worked at theirs.

Those who are doing that very important thing now have a blog, they engage in conversation with sources and readers online, they carry with them 24/7 a video-capable camera (of any sort), they can dabble in Flash or mash ups and long ago stopped trying to filter how they approach news through a prism of what they learned in J-school. They are working at their craft, not just doing it because some boss told them to, or they’re worried about becoming irrelevant, or even because it’s fun — they’re doing it to help create a new vocabulary for 21st Century journalism.

5 thoughts on “Some thoughts on the craft of web journalism

  1. Using the right tool to tell the story the right way is meaningless if you have a quota to meet: x number of videos per week, so many slideshow, even so many blog entries or stories.

    It may not be right, but I know of many who face such goals, measurable goals.

  2. I’ve worked under quota systems before. I’ll leave it to others whether I really improved my craft, but I certainly worked at it — I read books, read trade journals, attended seminars (often at my own expense), wrote poetry and fiction at home for practice, worked with other reporters on mutual critique sessions — I did everything I could to try and improve.

    Improvement is about self improvement. External factors, such as quotas have nothing to do with it.

  3. I think too many people just think you can send a print journalist to a couple of video classes, give them some lessons in iMovie, Final Cut or whatever and whamo – instant video journalist.

    I’ve worked in print, video and on the web. I’ve also taught them. They are very different animals. One person may do well in one arena, but not another. Even kids who have grown up on the web are not all comfortable working with video or creating web pages.

    We need to have better strategies than forcing print journalists to become video and web journalists. Maybe newspapers who want to do more video and multimedia might actually hire people with the right skill set.

    Don’t get me wrong, people who are willing to learn should get the training – but not all print journalists will enjoy working in video or multimedia. Writing is something that can be done with your phone, pencil and an hour or two of time. Video often takes much more time. You also have to be able to think visually – writers craft visuals with words – not pictures.

    What I think most newspapers need to do is rethink how to run their newspaper. They need more visual journalists and probably fewer writers. Is that going to make the writers nervous – maybe. Will it make those few journalists who can do it all more valuable – yes! But they will be the exception, not the rule.

    Hire video journalists to shoot video, don’t expect reporters to do it – especially if they also have to write a story. Two different skills.

  4. Print journalists need to start thinking like web journalists.
    I would argue that a lot of web journalists need to start acting more like print journalists in that a lot of them feel because they are online the old rules – including laws regarding defamation and libel – don’t apply. They also feel they can get away with non-house styles.


    I’m not sure there are many journalists out there trying to learn that craft the way a Hunter Thompson or a Tom Wolfe or a Gay Talese worked at theirs.

    Is this necessarily a good thing though? There should be some learning that way, just as some should be learning through other styles. That’s what makes journalism so rich, varied and interesting. And God knows what Wolfe makes of something like Twittering. After all, this was the man who couldn’t write 600 word pieces and had to do them 4000-word strong.

    Also, I see a common theme: a lack of agreement on what constitutes a digital journalist.

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