Monday, April 11, 2011

On The Beat: Tuning In To Tomorrow's News

"Find me the lyrics to James Brown's 'Hot Pants.'"

A decade ago, I proposed that test to the American Journalism Review as a way for news managers to quickly gauge job candidates' digital competence.

These days, that's hardly a test at all. With oodles of online lyrics databases to choose from, the words to Brown's 1971 hit are just a Google search away. But back in 2000, my online pop quiz was actually a trick question. I had just offered a few bucks to the first coworker or colleague who could find me those lyrics. It was a stumper, and the winner arguably cheated: consultant Mark Potts (now blogging at "Recovering Journalist") downloaded the song and transcribed it.

I was reminded of my old test during a recent meeting with two recruiters from the human resources department at NPR, my current employer. The recruiters wanted to know what they could ask job applicants to help them cull the weak from the webby -- and how exactly did I define "webby" anyway?

"Webby?" The term sounds strangely dated, especially when I already find myself distinguishing between what I call "Web classic" (desktop and laptop browsers) and other online experiences (social experiences, tablets, mobile and so on). And yet I still need people on my staff who combine great journalism skills with an innate understanding of the potential and perils of those new platforms -- and the ones to come.

Figuring out what to ask a journalism job candidate is bit easier when you're recruiting for technical positions. But a traditional print or broadcast journalist submitting his or her resume for an online gig doesn't need to know PHP -- or even what PHP is -- to make the digital leap. They just have to live and work in the world of this century's news consumers.

Here are a few questions a news manager from this decade might ask:

Fear Of the 'B' Word

Simply asking what blogs people read is a revealing enough question, especially given how many professional journalists still dismiss blogging. Note: Those whose answers only include blogs hosted by major media sites only get partial credit.

Having a personal or professional blog is worth bonus points. I often recommend to people I know looking for new news jobs that they give themselves an assignment to blog about. It's a great way to learn some fundamental concepts about layout, content management and other aspects of online publishing. It also is helpful to hiring editors, since it lets them see an applicant's raw, unedited copy.

"At"-ittude And App-titude

What's the best story idea you got from a tweet or some other social media outlet? Who is the most interesting or useful person you follow?

Hyped as Twitter is, a beat reporter who doesn't use social media to identify and contact potential sources is like a beat reporter who's afraid to use a phone. At this point I actually want a job candidate to be the person who tells me what the next Twitter or Tumblr is.

The same goes for mobile apps. Asking which apps a candidate uses is an efficient way to find out if a candidate knows which way online publishing is moving -- literally.

I'm particularly intrigued by the apps that link content and social experiences. Is it world-changing that a location service such as Gowalla can show me that a coworker likes a pizza joint in my neighborhood? Maybe not. But I recognize that Gowalla and services like it also show me how local political and social movements will soon organize and coordinate -- and how they will disseminate and receive news about their activities. In fact, Gowalla's big brother Foursquare already appoints "mayors" and even "super mayors." How soon before someone uses or builds something like it to get elected to an even higher office. (Or maybe someone has.)

If your job candidate does not know what Gowalla or Foursquare is, that's okay. They still might be a good contender to work on your online political coverage, but probably not to help reinvent the way you cover your local arts and entertainment scene.

Old School Is New School, Too

The truth is, traditional journalism skills -- speed, accuracy, instinctive fairness, facility with a range of story types and formats -- are still as valuable in any online newsroom as they were back in the days of pneumatic tubes. That's why journalists with backgrounds at wire services and afternoon newspapers often have adapted to the rhythms and needs of today's newsrooms faster than others. Likewise, many magazine editors and writers inherently get the power of lists, graphics, Q&As, galleries and other alternatives to classical news story forms.

One online journalist I worked with was Martha Angle, a legendary Capitol Hill reporter/editor who recently announced plans to retire after a 47-year career. Martha began covering Congress and national politics at the Washington Star, D.C.'s long-defunct evening paper. Six years ago, when I arrived at Congressional Quarterly (now CQ Roll Call), Martha was the newsroom's one-person "continuous news desk," writing and editing breaking news copy for our webiste and a midday e-mail news bulletin. Apparently our business still has room for a "consummate line editor" with an "uncompromising dedication to getting it right and getting it out to our readers quickly" -- just to borrow a couple of lines about Martha from her retirement announcement.

Knowing A Good Story

The news business also needs people with original ideas for ways the Web gives us to tell, convey and present stories. One way to find innovators like that is to look for people who recognize it.

A few weeks back, blogger Mark Potts (the same "recovering journalist" mentioned above) e-mailed several friends asking for ideas for a University of Maryland class he teaches on "New Media Entrepreneurship":
"Seen any really innovative uses of the Web for news/information lately? I'm looking for examples to blow my class's minds -- interesting story presentations, creative mapping, smart uses of data, whatever."
The answers to Mark's e-mail were wide-ranging. One person called out a Chicago Snow CrowdMap experiment, produced during a blizzard by the Chicago Tribune, WGN and the Chicago Weather Center. Another flagged "Staying In Bounds" -- a fact-based, news-inspired role-playing game produced at UNC-Chapel Hill to explain NCAA's challenging ethics guidelines.

I shared a link to the Sunlight Foundation's "Checking Influence" browser tool. Check your credit card or bank account transactions online and Sunlight's helpful "bookmarklet" shows you what your money is really helping buy in the halls Congress -- which issues are on your merchants' lobbying agenda, and on whom are they lavishing political donations?

I appreciated all of the examples Potts' friends shared. But ultimately I was more focused on Mark's question than the answers.

The people I most need to hire in my newsroom are not the ones who see the evolution of the news business the way I see it. They are the ones whose answers blow my mind -- the people who see what I'm missing.

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