BY JASON AKST, NIU Department of Communication
I’ve been trying to get a handle on what it was like to foretell the future of journalism for high school students who recently visited Northern Illinois University.
The best I can come up with is that it was aiming at a moving target, in the dark, blindfolded, with one hand tied behind my back.
To be precise, I was asked to talk about skills (digital and otherwise) current high school students will need as they begin journalism careers, and what it’s like to be a journalist in the age of Trump. I had 45 minutes.
Besides what keeps us up at night (media distrust, shrinking ad revenue, jobs and enrollments evaporating, the world becoming more volatile), many of the digital tools of the future are born, mature and die in the time it took to write this sentence.
Anyway, I trolled colleagues, the Internet, journalism books, my soul, and perhaps most importantly, the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association for their visions of the future.
It’s clear that data-driven stories are increasingly dominant. People want numbers, but not in aggregate form. They want data that’s visually compelling and easier to understand. Tomorrow’s journalists are going to need to know data scraping.
Data scraping is the process of “harvesting” data from websites into spreadsheets and then creating visualizations (charts, graphs, etc.) readers will understand. Readers have always wanted this, but where data scraping differs is the speed and effectiveness by which we can parse gigabytes of data to reveal the big picture in a few minutes, multiple times per day.
And not just by the newsroom nerd: everyone will need to know how to do this.
Speaking of big pictures, tomorrow’s audiences will continue to expect better video, shot with smartphones, edited and published in the field. And they want good sound too. So, video and audio production and editing skills are paramount.
Web analytics are a must. Being able to understand who visits your site, who clicks what and when, where they’re from, what they like and don’t like, etc. will drive most online publishing decisions.
The tech list goes on, but it’s depressing to me for two reasons: 1) I’m behind on most of this tech stuff; 2) I got into journalism to become a better writer of meaningful stories.
Happily, NINA members – who deal with the future every day – have a similar worldview. Including all their wisdom as to what I should tell high school students would turn this into a novella, so here are a few (edited) tasty treats:
- Learn how to write succinct, correct sentences that communicate with no ambiguity.
- Learn how local government works, particularly where and how money to fund local government comes from.
- Journalism is an art, not a craft, so familiarize yourself with the masters.
- Be curious. If you don’t want to find the secret door that allows you a look at the inner workings of things, you’re thinking about the wrong career.
- Try to tell a story that no one else is telling. That’s how you make a difference.
- They should practice interviewing people until coming up with questions on the spot is easy.
- They should also let other people be experts. Journalists should help ordinary people understand the world, then let them make their own decisions about it.
- Tell them if we don’t stop electing morons who only believe fake news on Fox News Network there won’t be any REAL newspapers left to work on.
Jason Akst is an award-winning journalist and public relations practitioner with more than 30 years of professional and academic experience. In 2016, Akst won the University’s Excellence in Undergraduate Instruction award, the top teaching award for Instructors at NIU. He’s also NINA Board secretary.