Six digital skills all new journalists should consider learning and a road map to unlocking them

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If you’re new to journalism, as I am, you may have noticed that the industry is in the midst of growing pains right now. If you’re currently studying for the profession, it’s likely your professors and career reporters have highlighted the mystery of the internet’s effect on the news industry. Many will rightly balance the ominous shuttering of newspapers with the excitement of new, burgeoning technology like virtual and augmented reality, or with the increasing accessibility to affordable production software like the Adobe Creative Suite.

In truth, the tools to craft a powerful narrative are more accessible and affordable than ever before, and that’s exciting. One thing is clear, though. As the job market becomes more saturated and opportunities bottleneck, being a good writer and reporter will no longer be enough. It’s inevitable that you’ll need to adopt one, maybe two or three, multimedia skills and hone them as religiously as you can.

You’re excited, nervous, and not sure where to start. In my case, I was overwhelmed by the number of in-demand proficiencies I assumed I would need to master in order to be a competitive candidate: data science, web development, videography, even some animation. But the truth is, most people are doing just that – psyching themselves out with the unrealistic expectation that, somehow, they’ll metamorphose into a multimedia Swiss army knife over night.

The Poynter Institute recommends committing yourself wholly to just a few skills, rather than attempt mastery of all of them at once. In an interview with the institute in 2016, Mark Stencel, co-director of the Duke Reporters’ Lab and Kim Perry, senior editor of the Times’ digital transitional team, explained that most editors know its a more sustainable decision to hire several dedicated talents that together cover a range of skills, rather than gain one jack-of-all trades and risk crippling their publication if said reporter were to suddenly abscond to another opportunity in the near future.

With that, Storybench has compiled a list of supplemental courses and online training (some yielding certificates) that can help enrich your journalism experience. From fluency in social media and audience engagement to introductory data science, these are the skills that have been consistently enumerated by scores of editors from the Times to Vox Media and beyond as foundational to successful multimedia talent.

Many of these have been selected with cost and time in mind. Some are free, others have a cheaper alternative. Happy learning! 

1.) Learn data science and visualization with Harvard’s free online courses or The New York Times

As access to public databases grows across the world, data journalism has become one of the fastest growing subfields in journalism. From a mosaic of numbers, statistics, names and coordinates, we have the power to explore a myriad of untouched stories.

If you’re interested in decrypting data and articulating it with style and artistic flair, now may be the time to jump in. Harvard University has opened enrollment into a series of certificates of data science courses, available online beginning July 16, 2019. The course itself is free with the exception of a $49 fee for the final exam.

Choosing from a number of topics, the curricula demystifies the art of data mining using R and how to utilize resources from data resources present on GitHub. You do not need prior data experience to join most of the courses.

If, however, you’re just looking to just master the humble spreadsheet and a few foundational concepts, Lindsey Rogers Cook from the New York Times has made public a syllabus for foundational data journalism training. The course, which she and her colleagues from the Times’ digital transition team taught in order to arm more of their reporters with such skills, is available as a Google Drive link. All you need is a Gmail account and Google sheets to participate.

From the link, you can find slide decks on data journalism theory, along with spreadsheets and guides to play with. This article explains the digital transition team’s desire to conduct such training; it also provides a key for navigating Cook’s syllabus.

Finally, if you have a Skillshare premium account, you can find world-class data visualization courses from information designers like former Facebook engineer Nicholas Feltron.

2.) Learn Python, R and more from the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas

The University of Texas, Austin’s Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas has been offering free digital journalism courses for years – many in English, Spanish and Portuguese.

See all instructional materials for previous courses here, including Nicholas Diakopoulos’s course on AI and journalism, Andrew Ba Tran’s intro to R for journalism, at learn.r-journalism.com/en/, Alberto Cairo’s Data Visualization for Storytelling and Discovery, and Claire Wardle’s Navigating Misinformation. It’s a treasure trove!

Also worth taking is Python for Data Journalists: Analyzing Money in Politics from Ben Welsh, which can also be found at firstpythonnotebook.org.

And if you want an introduction to regression analysis, simple algorithms and machine learning, take Jonathan Stray’s 2018 algorithms course taught at the Lede program at Columbia University.

3.) Learn SEO foundations from the University of California, Coursera and Google

Search engine optimization, or SEO, is the science that informs how you choose a story’s title , hashtags, and other digital associations – decisions that ultimately determine how reachable your post is for your target audience. Publishers could greatly benefit from journalists who have the ability to front-load their content to the top of the search engine queue, particularly in such a competitive market.

Coursera, an aggregator of certificate programs from the world’s top university’s, offers several SEO based courses. Their most prominent offering: a specialization in search engine optimization from University of California, Davis.

The course takes approximately four months to complete, costing $196 (pennies compared to the average cost of a class while enrolled in a university full-time). You can join any time starting this month, but if the course somehow fills up in the time it takes you to find this post, fret not. Udemy offers a certification course in SEO that costs nothing. Though comparatively obscure to a UC Davis certificate, it’s a worthy backup plan.

Similarly, Google is offering its own version of an SEO course meant to teach others how to understand its own metrics as they pertain to content delivery and user interaction. Though previously sold online, the Google Analytics course materials and exam are now publicly available for free, with growing communities hell-bent on helping you pass the infamous (GAIQ) exam.

The course materials can also be learned via LinkedIn Learning, formerly Lynda.com, which is also free if you have a university subscription.

4.) Audience engagement training with the Poynter Institute’s audience-focused editing

With more opportunities for audiences to engage – things like live streaming, tweeting to public figures and developing quality YouTube channels – the line between customer and active media creator is getting blurry.

Gone are the days of news anchors talking at placidly observing families in their living rooms. People can and will engage with the material you or your editors broadcast, so it makes all the sense in the world to treat them with a renewed sense of respect and liveliness, not only in the reporting itself, but in the comments section too.

Audience engagement training can help you do just that; avoiding the temptation to undermine your reader’s intellect or understanding of a topic.

While there’s no easily accessible, all-in-one audience engagement course, the Pointer Institute offers a certificate program in audience-focused editing taught by the ACES Society of Editors. It costs $150 and comprises three self-directed courses and seven total assessments.

With it, you can learn the best practices recommended to help your readers feel truly engaged. 

5.) Front-end web design with Skillshare and General Assembly

While data visualization skills will get you far on their own, many who get a taste of mixing code, color and style are intrigued by the prospect of building their own websites. News organizations today produce entire stories using a separately coded web page – for example this Boston Globe story on gun violence.

So where to learn some front-end web design? Skillshare is a website that hosts creative teachers who instruct on subject from how to engage in product production to documentary filmmaking, vlogging and more. Among their premium subscription offerings are several courses on HTML5, CSS and Javascript.

And don’t fret if you’re tight on cash, most podcasts today continue to feature promo codes for this popular application, many of which will buy you a free two-month trial of Skillshare’s premium offering.

Kalob Taulien, a self-taught web developer who’s helped to create more than 1,000 websites, teaches this comprehensive HTML5 course, detailing a basic to near-mastery level understanding of the software. This three hour course includes quizzes, dummy code to play along with, and a directed project that you can submit to Taulien for feedback.

If you’d prefer a more hands-on class experience, General Assembly is a relatively new organization focused on delivering in-demand digital skills from user experience to web development in bootcamp styled classes. What began as a simple co-working space in New York has rapidly evolved into a pop-up hub with the mission of being, as its cofounder Jake Schwartz said, “the solution the global skills gap.”

Their triple threat HTML-CSS and web design course retails at $1,250 with rolling admission throughout the year. It may be worth the peek if you haven’t had the time to dedicate your journalism electives to an intensive coding curriculum.

But don’t take my word for it. On General Assembly’s Facebook page you can follow free intro sessions for any course on their site. I attended an introduction to coding in Boston’s business district and was floored at just how digestible my instructor made the information.

A free crash course, known as Dash, is also available online with General Assembly.

6.) Embrace social media management skills with edX

If you’ve typed in, “journalism,” into job finder sites like Glassdoor or Indeed recently, you may have encountered the high volume of social media positions that are increasingly being attributed to the word.

However, social media fluency can be a great asset for publications looking to enhance their audience engagement strategies (see above).

And although it would be ageist to suggest older, veteran journalists are not savvy enough with Instagram or Twitter to occupy such roles, it cannot hurt to hire people with the bandwidth of orchestrating multiple platforms in service of the weekly news, as younger generations seem wont to do.

edX, much like Coursera, aggregates online courses from high-profile universities and offers them at a more affordable price.

Starting Oct. 19, edX will be starting a six-week certificate course in strategic social media marketing from Boston University, taught by the school’s associate dean of marketing, Barbara Bickert.

The tuition itself is free. All you need to pay is a $200 fee for the certificate.

Bonus: Don’t forget to look through several years of NICAR data journalism conference slides

For years, Chrys Wu shared a resource list of slides from the annual NICAR conference on “computer-assisted reporting” put on by Investigative Reporters & Editors.

For the 2019 conference, Sharon Machlis built a searchable table with all sessions, workshops and talks, covering everything from investigative journalism workflows to text analysis methods in R to web scraping in Python to building a news app.

A final thought

I hope by reading this you’ve been exposed to several avenues for self-driven higher education in journalism. I myself have curated dozens of tutorials and supplementary courses for in-demand digital skills, many of which I suspect I won’t begin for some time.

If you think I may have overlooked an affordable certification course or tutorial alternative from the list above (excluding the hundreds of Skillshare and Coursera classes), please feel free to ping me on Twitter.

Photo credit: Nate Mumford.

Daniel Hentz
Daniel Hentz is a graduate student at Northeastern’s School of Journalism.

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