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.