The Top 10 Skills and Qualities of the Modern Journalist

The world outside of university is a foreboding place for the journalism student. All this talk of financial meltdown and growing unemployment makes me want to crawl under my doona and hibernate. Journalism jobs, which have always been super-competitive, are now even more so.

 As students of this noble craft, how do we prepare ourselves for the media of the future? What are the skills and qualities we need to get a break in this exciting, cut-throat field?

 At The Future of Journalism conference in Sydney last year, media guru Jay Rosen likened journalists to migrants setting out for an unknown land, the land of future media. He said, as Margaret Simons summarised on her blog:

‘Not all the boats will make it, so we have to send plenty. When we get there we will find that others are there before us, and we will no longer have exclusive claim to the territory. The challenge will be that faced by all migrants – working out how many of our old customs are still useful, and how many we should leave behind in the old country’.

With our whole working lives before us, it’s vital for journalism students to know what old customs will be relevant to our future, and what new ones we should adopt.

On, a worried professor wrote of her guilt teaching journalism when students’ job prospects were so uncertain. ‘I still firmly believe there will be journalism,’ she wrote, ‘but what about all these poor kids who are caught in this awful transitional period?’

The reply was heartening. 

‘…I do not think it is such a terrible thing that your journalism students are entering an uncertain world,’ wrote Cary Tennis. ‘It’s the kind of world that is ripe for enterprising journalists. It is the kind of world that needs to be reported on and explained’.

This article will outline what I believe are the ten most important skills and qualities of the 21st century journalist. The first seven are what good journalists have always needed. The last three are new skills and qualities that, combined with the others, will make you marketable in the future media world.   

1. Writing Skills

‘Writing skills?’ you scoff. ‘I’ve been writing since I was a little tacker! Let’s get on to something more interesting!’ 

Don’t be fooled. We youngsters have much to learn from the masters. As Somerset Maugham said: ‘To write simply is as difficult as to be good.’  

The following points were made by George Orwell. They’re old school, and they’re still relevant today.

1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive voice where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything downright barbarous.

Spelling and grammar are also important. Treat yourself to a good writing manual.

2. Research Skills

‘Research?’ you ask. ‘I want to be a journalist so I can skip that boring academic stuff!’

 Research is not about looking through books for hours. It is about knowing where and how to find information. It is the difference between an amateur commentator and a journalist: research gives you credibility.

 As Cary Tennis notes:

 ‘Where information is kept hasn’t changed all that much. The information is still in people’s heads and in official records. How to get it remains much the same’.

 Much of great journalism comes from strong research. Caroline Overington, for example, would not have broken the Australian Wheat Board food-for-oil scandal without finely-honed research skills.

 Though it is not the only source of information, knowing how to search the internet is crucial. And I don’t mean Google. There is an invisible web that exists beyond the major search engines, and it’s in your interest to learn how to search it. Many institutions offer courses in advanced web research skills: take one. 

3. Interviewing Skills 

‘How hard can interviewing be?’ you think. ‘You just ask someone questions, anyone can do it!’

 Getting honest answers from people is an art-form. It requires research, confidence and intuition. Journalists must know when to ask ‘soft’ questions and when to go in hard.

 On interviewing, Geraldine Doogue, the ABC radio and television presenter, says: 

 ‘You do have your strategy and you do have your tactics to achieve your strategy – the whole idea of planning an interview is something I took years to learn…You have to lead people away from their self-protective measures and you have to spend a great deal of time with yourself first working out their psychology.’

 Interviewing skills can be learnt, but like everything, experience is the key.

 As Andrew Denton said on The Art of the Interview:

 ‘I feel comfortable with doing it (interviewing). I like talking with people, and when I’m in contact with them, I feel fairly intuitive about them. But equally it’s a skill that—like any skill I guess—the moment you take it for granted is the moment it tends to desert you.’

 Start practicing now.

 4. Time-Management

‘Oh puh-lease,’ you sigh. ‘These tips are getting more and more obvious. Everyone knows how to manage their time!’

 You’d be surprised. Consistently meeting deadlines is something every journalist must get used to, and it isn’t easy. Filing a story isn’t the same as submitting an assignment: if you need an extension on an essay, your teacher will usually give you one. But if you have to submit a story for the nightly news bulletin, asking for a few more hours may cost you your job.   

 A current ABC job advertisement for a Rural Reporter in Mt Isa requires the following:

 ‘Ability to work under pressure and to tight deadlines. Proven team player. Ability to work under limited supervision’.

 If you’re the person at work who slacks off unless the boss is watching you, journalism may not be for you. If you’re independent and enjoy the challenge of meeting deadlines, read on.  

5. Curiosity 

‘You don’t need to be curious to be a journalist,’ you think. ‘You just need to be sceptical!’

 In his book ‘A Secret Country’ about the dark side of Australia, John Pilger wrote of the jaded air adopted by many young journalists who thought it went with the job. In fact, wrote Pilger, great journalists have a child-like curiosity about the world around them. 

 ‘If you’re curious, independent, resourceful and not fazed by deadlines, you might just have what it takes to become a journalist’ wrote Anne Fawcett in her article ‘Ways to be a writer’ published in the Sydney Morning Herald. 

 Good journalists are endlessly curious. Geraldine Doogue admits to being ‘easily fascinated’. In his Latrobe University Media Studies Lecture, Mark Scott said that curiosity is one of the main qualities he is looking for when recruiting new employees. 

 Curiosity is a wonderful thing. If you can remain curious throughout your life, always thirsting for more information, then you’ll make a great reporter.


6. Story-Telling Skills

‘If I wanted to tell stories, I would have become a kindergarten teacher!’ you cry. ‘Journalism is serious business, let’s get on with it.’

 Journalism can be serious business, but the ability to tell a good story doesn’t mean knowing how to read The Very Hungry Caterpillar to a group of kids. Journalists tell stories every day: on paper, online, on camera and on radio.

 The US journalist and screenwriter Nora Ephron advises screenwriters to become journalists and journalists to become screenwriters. Every day, journalists enter worlds that are not their own and record and interpret people’s stories. They must be able to communicate these stories in a clear and engaging way.

 As Nora Ephron writes in the book Telling True Stories:

 ‘As a young journalist I thought that stories were simply what happened. As a screenwriter I realized that we create stories by imposing narrative on the events that happen around us.’

 Learning how to use narrative structure and character in your journalism is something you can learn from Hollywood. And a good excuse to watch films for homework.

 7. General Knowledge

‘General knowledge, doesn’t that mean winning pub trivia nights?’ you ask. ‘How is that going to help me get into journalism?’

 Good journalists need an understanding of how the world works. There are many ways of getting this: travel, study and work experience are all useful. Journalists often hold a bachelor degree: though this isn’t a prerequisite for journalism work, it exposes you to ideas, people and events that will inform your working life.  

 As successful freelance journalist Rachel Hills says:

 ‘I think my Arts background is just as important as my journalism background.’

 At New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, students undertake ‘a curriculum that combines education in subject matter as well as skills’.

 In journalism, the more you know the better you’ll be at your job. Spend some time gaining practical journalism skills, but don’t forget to educate yourself more broadly. Learn Arabic. Backpack around Indonesia. Read the history of Australia. You’ll gain precious insights and have fun doing it.    

 8. Entrepreneurial Skills 

‘If I wanted to be Richard Branson, I would have studied business!’ you exclaim.

 In the past, many journalists worked for a paper, a TV station or a radio station for their entire working lives. They put together stories and took home their weekly pay.

 This is now increasingly rare. Like many industries, high marks and a snazzy resume are no longer enough to get you your dream journalism job.

 You need to get your work out there. Submit it to papers, magazines, student media, anywhere you can. Check out young Simon Akam as an example: who wouldn’t employ him? 

 Starting your own blog is also a good idea. It will allow you to practice your craft and publicise your name, which is vital in creating your own ‘brand’. There are also paid blogging jobs that come up.

 Blogging allows you to ‘be a platform’, something encouraged by Jeff Jarvis in his new book ‘What Would Google Do?’ Future media will be less authoritative and more interactive. Jump in. 

9. Specialist Knowledge

‘Now I need to specialise?!’ you groan. ‘It’s not paediatrics, it’s journalism!’

 In the new media landscape, news will be much less general. With the decline of newspapers and the rise of the net, knowing an area or a topic in detail will be invaluable. 

 As Margaret Simons writes in The Walkley Magazine:

 ‘Small is the new big. In the era of endless choice, mass media is not going to be the main or the most interesting thing going on. Instead there will be a “mass of niches” – interlinked, crossing over each other, and findable as news always was findable long before the printing press was invented: through social networks.’

 The journalist can’t cover all areas anymore. There are people with more specific knowledge than the generalist, and why wouldn’t people want to hear from an expert? For news from the USA, I don’t comb through the international pages of The Australian or The Age: I go to The Huffington Post online.

 It makes sense to specialise.  

 10. Cross-Media Skills

‘Cross-media?’ you say disdainfully. ‘That tech business is for nerds. I just want to do the actual reporting.’

 Cross-media skills are the new black for journalism students. If you can record and edit audio and video, create a podcast, design a website and take photos, you’re instantly more employable. Hiring you, with the full package of skills, makes financial sense to any rational media employer.

 Take this job advertisement for the position of Content Maker in Bunbury for the ABC. It requires applicants to ‘be able to create cross-media content for the local audience at an accomplished or advanced level.’

 As John Thompson writes, there is no longer any excuse for not having these skills: the technology is available online, and it’s cheap or free.

  One last thing before you leave me. If you don’t know what Search Engine Optimisation is, find out.

 The changes going on in the media are ‘profound, transforming and empowering,’ said Mark Scott. So get excited, get prepared, and I’ll see you outside the interview room soon.  

 Reference List

 Aitchison, J 2007, ‘Glimmering Words’, in The Word Weavers: Newshounds and Wordsmiths, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 119-131.

Ephron, Nora 2007, ‘What Narrative Writers Can Learn from Screenwriters’, in Kramer, M and Call, W (eds), Telling True Stories, 1st edn, Penguin Group, New York, pp. 98-100.

Phillips, G and Lindgren, M 2006, Australian Broadcast Journalism, 2nd edn, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne.

Simons, M 2009, ‘Feeding news Google juice’, The Walkley Magazine, Feb/March, p. 30.

Simons, M 2007, The Content Makers, 1st edn, Penguin, Melbourne.

Solly, R, Isbister, H and Birtles, B 2007, Journalism: jobs that make the news, 1st edn, Career FAQs, Australia.

Weaver, B 2003, ‘The Invisible Web’, in Catch the Wave: Find good information on the internet fast, RMIT Publishing, Melbourne, pp. 80-97.


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