Journalism as the New Knowledge Profession

“I think that this new situation makes professional journalism more important than ever. All citizen journalists’ activities, bloggers, activists, or social media fans forwarding links to news sites cannot replace the two core functions that professional journalism brings to society”.

journalism as knowledge professionCan we ensure there is a place for professional journalism today? Well, Wolfgang Donsbach suggests that we could start with raising the level of journalism education.

In order to make journalism a knowledge profession we could ask that all journalists have:

  1. A keen awareness of relevant history and current affairs, as well as analytical thinking,
  2. Expertise in the specific subjects about which he or she reports,
  3. Scientifically based knowledge about the communication process
  4. Mastered journalistic skills
  5. A conduct within the norms of professional ethics.

In  the article “Journalism as the new knowledge profession and consequences for journalism education“, Donsbach examines what a professional journalist look like.

How to Know What is Newsworthy?

The first criteria – having keen awareness of history and politics –  is a given and most schools of journalism and university programmes will demand this of their students.

Having an expertise in the subject of reporting is not a prerequisite in most newsrooms. Some journalists will even take pride in not knowing and therefore being able to ask “stupid questions” in order to explain a difficult topic to a general audience.

However, Donsbach argues, without this knowledge journalists will struggle to apply the criteria of newsworthiness. Without prior expert knowledge one doctor’s incredible view on cancer research might make the front page instead of being discarded.

The deep knowledge can be gained by a variety of methods, e.g. a dual university degree and more interdisciplinary courses on top of the common journalism courses. I would add that without the deep knowledge the journalist will be in fear of losing both legitimacy and creditability both with sources and the audience.

How to Improve Reporting

Of course, journalists need to know the academic methods in order to asses science critically and in addition. Indeed, some knowledge of communication processes might improve reporting:

“If journalists know more about audience research, they be able to present their messages in a way that might maximize not only attention to news but also, if employed in a responsible way, its cognitive processing by the audience. If they know about how public issues can be dealt with in social networks.”

When adapting to new technology and the increase of platforms, Donsbach argues that it doesn’t make sense to teach navigating the actual platforms or programmes. These change all the time. Instead, follow the example of the medical schools that emphasise learning about new techniques and not the actual techniques themselves.

What Do Employers Want?

Most American journalism educations fall short on Donsbachs wish list of five overall competences. I would say, the Danish journalism educations too. Danish journalists will most probably not have expertise in the specific subjects or scientifically based knowledge about the communication process when graduating.

What is the point of trying to professionalise the journalism profession if the employers do not want it? Donbach refers to Debora Wengers study on the job adds where employers want candidates with practical skills, experience and technical knowhow rather than subject expertise, ethics and scientific insights.

Help Wanted – Journalism Skills Needed in US Media

Which journalism skills must we teach in order to get our students a job?

journalism skillsThat is the question Debora Halpern Wenger, Lynn C. Owens and Jason Cain asks in the study “Help Wanted: Realigning Journalism Education to Meet the Needs of Top U.S. News Companies” from 2018.

In a time during the deconstruction of journalism, how do we determine which journalistic skills to teach and which to cast aside?

Universities and journalism schools have a hard time keeping up with the demand for rethinking journalism and adding new tech skills to the curricula, previous studies show.

Help Wanted

And what are the exact journalism skills we need to teach? One way of determining this is by examining the needs of the employers expressed through job postings.

For many years, Deborah Wenger et.al. has examined the American journalism job market by comparing 1,100 journalism job openings from 2015 with the 700 five years previously. All posts were from either the top 10 newspaper or top 10 broadcast journalism companies in the US. The research team examined the skills mentioned and listed them:

Top 20 journalism skills

Unsurprisingly, the need for different skills are due to a change in audience behaviour, so multiplatform skills and social media proficiency is high on the list of demands. The old way of telling the audience what news is has been replaced by a circle of interaction where the audience now train the journalists via clicks.

What Do Employers Really Want?

For the experienced journalists in broadcast and print media the skills most valued according to the posting were Previous experience, Working under tight deadlines, Writing, Web/Multimedia and Being a Team Player.

Most of all, the employers want more! The demands for skills have increased from the first analysis in 2010 to the one in 2015:

“..no more than a third of positions (33%) required web/multimedia skills—now it is nearly two thirds of all jobs (62%). Working under pressure and tight deadlines increased from 28% to 56%, and working as a team player jumped from 27% to 52% in those 5 years. Social media grew from references in 2% of job postings in 2010 to 47% of all job postings”.

What is even more interesting is, that the number of journalism skills wanted is growing overall. The media simply wants candidates with both the old journalistic values and skills and a technical toolbox to navigate in this new and fast moving news cycle. The 2015 job postings were more detailed and close to every tenth of them listed 20 skills or more.

I’ll Tell You Want I Want

Here are some snippets from different entry-level job ads in 2015:

“You should be a self-starter comfortable working in multiple types of media: reporting and writing stories; shooting photos and videos with an iPhone; and immersed in the networks of social media to help spread the word about your great work.”

 “You should be nimble and able to tailor your approach to stories to satisfy audiences viewing your work in print or on a desktop browser, mobile device or tablet.”

“Writes platform-appropriate headlines and social-media posts that are engaging, enticing, tone-appropriate and maximizes SEO.”

“Use provided online analytics tools to track page views, comments and social media engagement—and uses that information to make content more or less prominent.”

In comparison to a large European report on skills – Newsreel – New Skills For The Next Generation Of Journalists – there is surprisingly little emphasis on ethics or data analysis.

What’s Next?

The good news is that there are still jobs out there for journalists to get. The bad news is that journalists are expected to master more tasks and more complicated tasks, too. It need not be the end of journalism per se but it may be the end of old-fashioned journalism, as we know it.

Journalism itself is being redefined and deconstructed as we speak and on a positive note we are engaging more with the audience through social media. On the other hand, the ever-growing number of skills will leave many young journalists exasperated and many old journalists out of a job.

No one type of education is able to teach a multitude of journalism skills.  One way forward could be to make specialised education and this I will examine further along in the project.

Find the article in the journal Journalism & Mass Communication Educator journal here.