Digital tools will come and go, but the skills stay the same.

By Janice Tibbetts

It’s September and that means teachers of digital journalism are serving up to students what we hope will be useful offerings: Facebook Live, Thinglink, Videolicious and a few other of the hot tools of the day.

I write “of the day” because this year’s tools aren’t last year’s tools and they probably won’t be next year’s, either. That can leave journalism educators feeling a bit baffled as we try to navigate the ever-changing maze that is the digital age.

While the news industry’s struggle is well documented, journalism schools face their own challenges in not only trying to keep up, but to forecast what the students of 2016 will need upon graduation if they want to pursue media careers.

This summer, my colleagues and I who teach multimedia courses at Carleton University exchanged dozens of emails about a dizzying number of tools out there. Check out, for example, this catalogue of more than 100 that my colleague Mary McGuire tracked down.

In the end, I probably spent a disproportionate amount of time dissecting the pros and cons of gizmos. I think it is a mistake to dwell too much on the technical aspect of my third-year digital journalism course. At that level, the thrust should not be how to use the latest software, particularly when this year’s wonder could be next year’s chopped liver.

Rather, the main item in the digital literacy toolkit should be the ability to make sound journalistic decisions about when to use a particular piece of software to tell a better story.

While it makes sense to expose students to the latest digital tools, the end goal still has to be about journalism. That may seem obvious, but multimedia instructors could be forgiven for losing sight of it from time to time, given that even the more modest journalism job ads these days typically require familiarity with a list of specific digital tools.

At the same time, however, several studies, including this 2014 report from the Florida-based Poynter Institute, suggest that media employers still place more emphasis on core skills and traits such as writing, reporting, critical thinking, verification, solid judgment, curiosity and adaptability.  To that end, the following is a decent list of big-picture takeaways for students in a multimedia course:

  • Be an early adopter. Nobody is going to show you how to use the tools out there, so you have to figure it out yourself.  I left daily journalism five years ago—which is a lifetime ago given the frantic pace of industry change. I am figuring it out as I go – and that is what journalists do.
  • Digital journalism is about teamwork. It takes a village to pull together a polished multimedia package—and there are few journalists who excel at everything. If you look at the credits on multimedia projects, they are seldom the work of one person.
  • Be adaptable because the digital landscape is ever-changing.
  • Be creative. There are journalism skills out there that didn’t exist a decade ago. Try to imagine new ways of doing things.
  • Remember that the digital tools are a means to an end – and that end is journalism: solid reporting, synthesizing, communication, verification, and accuracy.

I should note that these goals wouldn’t apply, necessarily, to all multimedia courses in journalism schools. Carleton, for instance, is in the midst of changing the way digital journalism is taught. Until this year, we did not have a dedicated digital course until third year, and it was designed to teach tools and have students use their technical skills to tell stories. There is now a two-step approach. Tool familiarization is taught in second year, while third-year students in coming years will focus on applying their second-year skills by developing solid multimedia journalism.

Janice Tibbetts teaches journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa. She spent more than two decades in the daily news business, working for Postmedia News, Canadian Press, the Chronicle Herald and the Halifax Daily News. She has written extensively about justice, federal and provincial politics, and legal affairs.