You don’t have to be a tech expert to become a skilled digital journalist
By Errin Whack
The world of digital journalism can seem intimidating, especially for those of us who came of age at the height of traditional print media. But even for the most social media savvy among us who straddle the era of legacy publications and the dawn of online news startups, terms like “data visualization” and “analytics” can make some journalists cringe. Many among us wonder, “How I am supposed to learn how to do this?”
This week I learned one of the best-kept secrets in digital media: You don’t have to be a tech expert to become a skilled digital journalist.
I was among more than 260 media professionals who attended Google for Media in DC, a FREE, daylong event featuring local industry leaders and hands-on workshops by Google presenters. The National Association of Black Journalists was a partner, along with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Asian American Journalists Association, the International Center for Journalists, the Online News Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.
Armed with my laptop and little else, I was eager to soak up the day’s lineup, but skeptical of whether I would be able to follow along. From the beginning, I was pleasantly surprised by each presenter’s ability to put much of the audience at ease with the content, and to persuade us on why we need to implement digital strategies into our daily routines– no matter our role in the newsroom.
As one presenter told the crowd: “Any journalist can be a creator.” The thought is not revolutionary, but it is empowering in an age when the perception among some in our industry is that productivity can sometimes trump creativity.
The day’s events demystified how to make that happen. I attended four sessions:
- The first, “Advanced Google Searches and Trends,” was a wealth of information about how to turn the data collected on Google into interactive graphs and charts that lend themselves to richer, more compelling storytelling.
- “How to Expand Your Reach on YouTube” showed journalists from producers to freelancers how to build a brand on a social medium that reaches more 18-34 years olds than any cable network. With more than 80 percent of its users outside the U.S., YouTube attracts one billion users a month. Such statistics suggest an amazing opportunity to tell stories that matter to people who want to see them. Oh, and did you know that you can be financially compensated for the videos you post to your YouTube channel? (Yeah, me neither.) And we’ve just been watching that Solange elevator fight video, not getting paid.
- Intrigued by the possibilities of YouTube, I also sat in on “YouTube Live for Journalists: Creating, Managing and Optimizing Live YouTube Events.” The discussion featured case studies of huge breaking news stories like the upheaval in the Ukraine and the South Korean ferry tragedy, but the session also had smaller, practical applications for a non-profit like NABJ. Finally, I saw a FREE solution to a long-standing quandary our organization has had: How to afford to be able to live stream our events, record them, and archive them for later use. In less than an hour, I had my answer.
- The last session, “Advanced Google Earth Tours for TV and Video,” had my print mind spinning. Here was someone explaining, quite simply, how to put together the sophisticated animated maps that have captivated me during newscasts and in online videos. I didn’t have to know how to code; I only needed an imagination and to know where to click. I could not write down the story ideas fast enough.
Also of note, during the daylong event, were several smaller presentations by media organizations like National Public Radio, The Washington Post, Gannett Digital, Vox, Al Jazeera English, and CNN. The message was clear: It doesn’t matter where you are in the newsroom, marketing is part of your job, and you have to sell your journalism. There are many tools available to help people find the good work we do, and to enlist them to help us tell better stories. This will get us beyond our core audience and discover what people are really interested in.
The day was also an incredible opportunity to network and share best practices, and a good reminder that though we are competitive, we’re all in this together. More and better digital journalists make for more and better journalism — and hopefully, more readers and viewers who see and share our stories.
Before anyone tries to criticize me for schlepping for Google and YouTube, let me just say that journalists are already on these platforms, but we are hardly maximizing their potential for our benefit. If we are only using 10 percent of our brain power, we are using even less of Google’s power.
I believe this is especially true in ethnic media and at historically black colleges and universities. Reaching these groups is crucial to building a diverse pipeline of qualified digital journalists ready to work in the 21st century newsroom– something the industry is currently sorely lacking. I left the day’s event empowered as an ambassador to these groups and others about the storytelling potential for journalists with these skills.
To that end, I encourage any curious journalists — no matter where you are in your career or your newsroom — to attend this event when it comes to your city, or to attend a Google training session when it comes to your newsroom. You have no idea how much you need this in your journalism toolboxes.
Happy hunting — and gathering! You can do this. (No, really — you can!)
Errin Whack is the vice president-print for the National Association of Black Journalists and a Washington-based reporter covering culture and politics. Follow her on Twitter at @emarvelous and @errin4vpp.