A few days ago, I wrote about what this week’s stream of breaking news means for journalism educators. I want to touch on what it means for journalism students.
Not to discourage you, my hardworking students, but your job — before you even start it — is getting harder. And more competitive, and way more intense. Because believe it or not, millions of Americans with a cell phone can be and will be “journalists” just like you. They don’t have the training you are undergoing, and they don’t have the press badge you’ll be getting. But they have the equipment. In many ways, practicing journalism has come down to having a cell phone.
The first (and most reposted) video of the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion this week came from an ordinary dad with a cell phone. Some of the first scenes of devastation in the town were posted by everyday Janes who at some point plunked down $100 or so for a phone. In Chicago, too, residents posted photos of flooding on a scale that reporters at even one of the country’s largest papers would never have been able to keep up with.
In Boston, and Watertown, it was witnesses, residents and neighbors who provided the world with the bulk of the earliest information and photos about the bombings, the manhunt, the capture. Professional journalists already were on the scene on Boston because of the marathon, but their DSLRs and video cameras were simply outnumbered by cell phones that send images within seconds.
(The debate about whether what untrained citizens do is news or journalism or photojournalism fits in here. But I’m going to save questions about whether a Twitter user is a reporter for another post.)
Regardless, the increase of reporting done by citizen journalists has been happening for a while, as has the consumption of non-professionally produced information. This phenomenon has its merits, such as the free flow of information no longer edited by editors. It also has its detractions, for much of the same reason.
While the trend since Twitter was launched has been for more and more news to be produced by fewer and fewer journalists, never has it been so pronounced. Millions now consume news produced by non-reporters. Along with the non-stop stream of updates from the scenes of the big events, citizens suddenly were listening to police scanners online by the hundreds of thousands. That’s a job that was done exclusively by professional journalists in the past.
So what can you do to get that first job and set yourself apart not only from those who have spend good money to get a degree but from anyone with a cell phone?
Here’s a start:
Get yourself a smartphone. You can’t begin to compete without one. I know they aren’t cheap, but they are as important, if not more so, than most of the other equipment you need for school. Learn how to use it so that when news happens in front of you, you’re on it. Do you know how to use Twitter? To post photos? To record audio? Practice.
Think about apps that give you access to police scanners. Then, we’ll talk another day about whether you should post scanner info in real time, as many did during the Boston manhunt.
Once you’ve mastered the cell phone camera, learn some basic photography and video skills. There is a difference between a cell phone picture and a professional’s picture. The content might be the same, but quality matters. Cell phones have come a long way, but their limited focal lengths and lack of other options still set professionals apart. The same goes for recording good quality audio.
Start a blog. Get yourself a free WordPress site. Start with clips you may have from your student newspaper. Or articles you’ve freelanced. Or things you’ve written for class. But have a place set up to publish something in a hurry. When you’re done tweeting about whatever event you just witnessed, you’ll have a space to write something longer, which you’ll link to with social media.
Speaking of social media, get on it. Twitter, Vine, Storify, Rebelmouse, you choose. But have a professional presence on and get to know a couple of platforms where you can find sources of information and where people can get to know your work. Oh, and don’t forget your password(s).
Learn some code. Remember the people you made fun of in high school? That’s where the industry is headed. To stand apart, it’s not enough to write stories. Many of the country’s best journalists write apps or programs that present their news and information in a novel way.
Can you do data or interactive stuff? I’m talking about being able to create a map that pinpoints the street in Boston where people tweeted from. Or an interactive timeline. Big papers have experts who do this, but in a small town, it could be you.
Get to know your community. When you’ve met the fire chief in passing at a coffee house or you know the superintendent because he used to be your middle school teacher, you’re a step ahead when it comes to the time you’ll need to call them for comment as everyone else does the same thing. Low tech, old fashioned networking pays off.
Once you’ve got those things in place and you’ve been hired — or are freelancing — you’ll need to set yourself apart from others on staff and others on the street.
My advice includes but isn’t limited to the following:
Make sure your work is accurate, lively and fair. Act ethically. For professional journalism, those standards will never go away.
Think of what you can contribute beyond 140 character updates. What context can you provide for readers, especially readers who don’t use Twitter? What new angle can you cover? What background information can you uncover?
Get your questions answered. Twitter users can throw hypotheticals to the wind about why something happened, or how. But as journalists, you can find out why.
And most of all, be prepared. Buy an extra cell phone charger for your car. Have a backup memory card or two. Buy batteries in bulk. Be ready to report, and to stay informed.
You never know when you’ll need to.