Tech forcing change in newsroom skill sets

Change in the newsroom is well-worn territory.

Change in the newsroom is well-worn territory.

Google, Craig (of the ubiquitous list), and a host of others have conspired to force journalists all over the country to look for another line of work, some might have you believe. And because reporters have the power of the ink, you've heard very little about the folks holding the cameras.

Just last week, however, that all changed when 18 photojournalists at The Baltimore Sun launched a three-day byline strike - meaning that photos aren't credited to individuals, just to "staff" - because the Tribune Co., owner of the Sun, threatened to remove a clause in the contract preventing reporters from being required to snap their own pictures.

Photographers, worried that the quality of art in the paper might suffer, decided that the strike was necessary in order to make management hear their concerns about the potential changes.

"The way it was presented was that anyone can take a picture," said Michael Hill, a reporter with the Sun and the paper's unit chair with the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild. "Our photographers have a great deal of pride in the quality of photographs in the paper now."

This is not to say, of course, that photographers don't recognize the changing nature of the business. Reporters, more and more, are being asked to do things like snap a photo, record audio, or upload video in the course of their reporting. Likewise, the presence of the Web offers greater opportunities for photographers to write more than a basic caption.

In fact, looking back at the history of newspapers, photographers perhaps have been more open to change in the industry than their colleagues writing the stories. In the past three decades, they have changed from black and white to color, from film to digital, and from darkrooms to Photoshop.

"The way I see the journalism world shaping up, it looks like everything is up for grabs," says Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute. "No one knows for sure how things will turn out, and all of the changes that are going on now have some good consequences and some bad consequences."

True enough. Putting more tools in the hands of reporters can potentially create exciting examples of the new multimedia journalism we've come to expect. Of course, putting more tools in the hands of reporters can also be code for downsizing - fewer people doing more work, usually for the same amount of compensation.

Clark says he views the changes in terms of how they're impacting the organization's news capacity. In other words, if newspapers are attempting to improve the overall experience for their readers by training reporters with new technology, all the better for consumers.

Of course, all of this change means professionals need training. As Hill said, those in the news business need to know exactly what is expected of them and have the ability to acquire those skills well into their careers.

That, says Christine Tatum, president of the Society of Professional Journalists and assistant features editor and multimedia editor of The Denver Post, is a crucial point. Tatum notes that she has sought training at her local Apple store on video-editing software to help prepare her for new duties.

"Change, to a lot of people, is a four-letter word, and that's unfortunate," she says. "But is all of this requiring more training and skill? Yeah, I think it is. Should journalists' salaries be revisited? I think they should."

Perhaps what the strike at the Sun illustrates best is the baby steps this change is taking. Tatum advocates restructuring newsrooms altogether, and it could be just that kind of big-picture thinking that gets newsrooms
out of their current rut.

If we are going to change, let's make it big. And there just might be jobs for everyone in that new model.

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