As media outlets struggle for survival, many have reduced or eliminated staff training budgets. And with the increased demands of a 24/7 news cycle and expectations of multimedia reporting, journalists aren’t happy about it. In fact, a Knight Foundation survey released last month revealed that almost a quarter of the 660 active Knight alumni surveyed were very or mostly dissatisfied with the training opportunities available to them. Even with stagnant pay, discontent with continuing education topped salary and job security as newsroom complaints.
Ebyline talked to several industry veterans about the evolution of newsroom training and discovered a few bright points even amidst the doom and gloom.
The good news
According to Sherry Chisenhall, editor and senior vice president at The Wichita Eagle, which has a staff of 59 people, training dollars have dwindled but lower-cost online training options have helped fill that void. “Back in the 80’s and 90’s, it wasn’t that uncommon for larger and mid-sized newsrooms to send six or a dozen people to conferences,” she says. “Everyone’s doing a lot less of that now.”
Three years ago, The Eagle started paying for an unlimited subscription to online training site Lynda.com and now challenges staffers to invest 30 hours in training per year, a goal that 80 percent of the newsroom met in 2010. “We don’t punish people for [falling short] but in this industry there probably are long-term consequences,” says Chisenhall. “Nobody can afford to be standing still.”
Steve Buttry, digital transformation editor at Digital First Media, says the company’s newsrooms are doing “way more” training thanks to CEO John Paton’s commitment to digital. “Our company, like most, didn’t do nearly enough training in the past,” he admits.
In Digital First Media’s Connecticut newsrooms, for example, journalists attend Digital Ninja School, a five-level online program focusing on digital publishing, social media, video, blogging and data journalism.
And with Digital First Media’s increased focus on video, editorial products manager Mark Lewis created a video training program in Yardley, Pa. Buttry says the program was designed to train journalists so they could go back to “their newsrooms or their cluster of newsrooms and train colleagues so we’d advance beyond that first level of video to ‘here’s how you’re going to tell a story with video.’”
Many of the training programs offered by the Journal Register (owned by Digital First Media) are streamed online so colleagues in other newsrooms (including competitors) can view them. “When we equipped our people with Flipcams, we gave them double layers of training [meaning basic video and video storytelling],” says Buttry.
The not-so-good news
Other newsroom vets weren’t as optimistic about shrinking training budgets, especially those whose jobs have changed as a result.
Until last summer, Randy Hagihara was The Los Angeles Times’ senior editor for recruitment and director of Metpro, a Tribune training program for minority reporters.
“Staff development definitely takes a back seat when you’re trying to do a lot more with a lot less,” says Hagihara. “I doubt there are very many people worrying about identifying and training the newsroom leaders of tomorrow. That was an iffy proposition even in prosperous times.”
For Hagihara those prosperous times ended in 2008 when the LA Times yanked its hiring and development budget, although paid internships and workships on video production and social media continued.
Joe Grimm, who oversaw recruiting at the Detroit Free Press, agrees. “Although it saves money in the short term, it costs money in the long term to not train your people,” he says. “The only asset we have is the talent of our journalists.”
While some technical skills may lend themselves to online training, Grimm says an hour spent in online training is generally not as effective as an hour of face-to-face training, especially in areas like leadership. Training tends to be reactive when the newsroom undergoes a technology change (like converting to PCs) or the publisher fears a lawsuit. “If they think the climate is ripe for libel suits or harassment suits, they will do some training as a way of protecting themselves,” he says.
Often the managers are the ones most in need of training, adds Grimm. “I’m hearing too often, editors are just kind of working with a list, saying ‘we need a digital element,’” he says. “They need to be smarter about what digital elements are possible, as in ‘this story needs a map or a slide show or this story needs a timeline.’”
With fewer newsrooms funding journalists to attend conferences and other training sessions, the onus increasingly falls on journalists and freelance writers to seek out the training they need.
Chisenhall says some of her staffers take the initiative to attend regional training sessions or get their conference attendance subsidized by serving as a board member and asking for a few days off to attend. “[Giving them time off] is a way to support people’s training,” she adds.
According to Grimm, newsroom training is often a few years behind the curve in terms of technology. “A lot of ideas being brought into newsrooms are being brought by people spending time at night to learn those skills,” he says. “The times are too scary for people to just complain and wait around for management to train them.”