By Holly Pablo
The Working Press
Journalists once worked in clearly defined roles. Reporters wrote copy, photographers captured photos and anchors read from a teleprompter.
With today’s newsrooms transforming to the digital realm, reporters are being asked to write the story, shoot and edit photos, audio and video, and to produce content for an online audience that expects to have the news delivered before the smoke clears.
As reporters adapt to these changes, a primary concern is whether the push to tell stories in more than one format produces good journalism, or whether it produces volume at the expense of good journalism.
There is no clear answer. Yet.
Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, said so-called “multiplatform” storytelling makes journalism better and enhances the service to the public, but it must be in-depth and well-reported. A stellar example is the Las Vegas Sun’s “Do No Harm” investigation into substandard hospital care in Sin City, Tompkins said. The reporters used videos, interactive maps, graphics and charts to deepen the story beyond just print.
The staff uncovered thousands of deaths, injuries and deadly infections associated with stays in Las Vegas hospitals. Interactives were created for readers to search the data.
“I think that if you don’t know how to do multimedia, you’re really not very employable,” Tompkins said. “If you say ‘I’m a multimedia journalist,’ it’s almost like saying, ‘I’m a journalist that knows how to use the telephone.’ I expect you to be able to do that.”
Jeff Brogan, senior director of news strategy and operations at the E.W. Scripps Company, said that while knowing how to do everything and producing more content is becoming engrained in newsroom culture, there can be dangers to multimedia, too.
“It’s an easy thing for people who don’t want to learn it to say that multimedia is hurting journalism, but I don’t think that’s the case,” Brogan said. “It’s part of who we are.”
Jason Molinet, a regional editor for Patch.com on New York’s Long Island, said multimedia storytelling is especially important for the hyperlocal news website.
In fact, it is so important that Molinet, who also is a hiring manager, said he would not hire anyone who can’t shoot and edit photos and video.
Patch.com is a non-traditional newsroom that relies on local contributors and citizen journalists to submit photos and video they collect.
Cheryl Jackson, senior director of employer engagement at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Chicago, said the challenge of balancing a heavier workload under the same deadlines is here to stay.
“I think that we have no choice but to cater to the needs of our audience,” Jackson said. “The tendency to be a multimedia journalist is to feel like you’re spread too thin, but the best journalists still get the best stories.”
At Medill, learning how to shoot or edit is a necessity, not an option, for students preparing to enter the competitive industry, Jackson said.
Victoria Lim, a multiplatform reporter and member of the Mid-Florida Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, said she doesn’t foresee newsrooms being staffed entirely with general assignment reporters who can do everything.
“I think that was the big fear, but there’s still a need for talented, specialty skills,” she said. “The skill sets like how to edit audio, edit video are good to know and very helpful but they can also be learned or picked up to a point where it’s tolerated or acceptable.”
Lim said the push for multimedia journalism and doing more while having less time to do it also presents the risk of missing critical questions and losing the opportunity to dig deeper to find closer angles, depending on the story and the newsroom.
Perhaps a larger challenge for journalists is how to learn these essential skills at a time of shrinking newsroom and training budgets.
“In order to sell ice cream at a Disney property, you have to go through 10 days of training. I don’t know of any newsroom that routinely offers 10 days of training, and that’s my concern,” Tompkins said. “We are constantly asking journalists to do different things, but we don’t provide them with the skills to do it well.”
Most reporters, when they do seek training, must do it on their own dime, which Tompkins said is asking a lot of people who don’t make a lot of money to begin with.
While many reporters are learning how to do it all, others are focusing on multimedia, which may signify the need for such skills in this job market.
Donyelle Davis, a backpack journalist at the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y., was hired full time in August after completing a summer internship there.
Davis said that because “backpack journalist” was a new position at the paper, she was free to focus on multimedia for daily breaking news or investigative work.
“I’m not working on writing an in-depth story every day, but on the other hand, since I don’t really have a beat per se, there’s time to work on long-term projects,” Davis said. “A lot of what I learn is on the job.”
Tompkins said “journalist” is the most important part of being a multimedia journalist.
“A journalist that can tell stories on every platform,” he said.
This article was revised to include the following:
Patch.com is a community-specific news website run by experienced media professionals who live in the regions they serve. While the bulk of the reporting is done by full-time staff, the open platform allows the community to contribute news.