Do you need ‘superpowers’ to work in journalism? No, but …

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A journalist doesn’t need superpowers. But if you excel in a particular skill that’s in short supply, you won’t be one of those journalists whining about pay. Or if you do whine, that will be just to maintain your secret identity.

Mark Stencel and Kim Perry produced an outstanding (but perhaps daunting) report for the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurialism, Superpowers: The digital skills media leaders say journalists need going forward.

The report could be intimidating or discouraging for a senior journalism major still looking for a job as graduation approaches or for a veteran journalist still stinging from a layoff and wondering what’s next.

The report notes the skills desired in an ad for a multimedia reporter at the Belleville News-Democrat, an Illinois newspaper with print circulation of less than 60,000 and just over 9,000 Twitter followers. The ad, Stencel and Perry noted, sought:

someone capable of ‘shooting videos and learning how to produce interactive graphics,’ plus a willingness ‘to use social media as part of the daily beat routine.’ Oh, and ‘database journalism skills are a plus’ too, the editors added.

And I’m going to speculate that the position pays less than Jimmy Olson makes.

I have a little experience hiring journalists in the digital age, as well as looking for jobs. I don’t have any super powers. I don’t think I could leap over my suitcase in a single bound. But I’ve assessed the value of journalists with impressive but incomplete skill sets, and I’ve managed to maintain some value in the job market. So I want to share some thoughts on “Superpowers,” both the Tow-Knight Center report and the job skills it addresses.

Whether you’re a student or veteran looking for a job or a journalism school (or professor) seeking to prepare students or veterans for job-market success, you need to assess your current skills (or offerings) and decide where to concentrate on upgrading your skills, since you’re unlikely to be transformed by a radioactive spider’s bite.

A journalist does need a broad skill set today. You should be good at several skills and excellent at a couple, and always learning more.

The report correctly views journalism skills as falling into two primary categories:

Foundational Skills: Well-established abilities that newsrooms rely on to cover and uncover news and present it on established media platforms, such as print, broadcast and “web classic” (the laptop/desktop web experience)

Transformational Skills: The abilities that newsrooms need to address and adapt to acute, broad and ongoing changes in the news audience, distribution, editorial practices and presentation. …

Foundational innovations make better journalism. Transformational innovations make better journalism organizations. The people who pair Foundational and Transformational skills help do both. These are the people who are most in demand – the news people with superpowers.

Stencel and Perry’s interviews with 39 senior leaders and news executives at a variety of organization types, and their study of journalism job listings, found five types of transformational skills in greater demand than the most sought-after foundational skills (the journalism essentials of reporting, writing and editing, lumped together in a grouping some veteran journalists may find insulting). The five skills that ranked higher than the essentials in the Stencel/Perry research were:

  1. Coding/development
  2. Audience development/user data and metrics
  3. Visual storytelling/editing (photo/video production)
  4. Digital design (for web, mobile, applications)
  5. Social media distribution

And “product ownership/development” tied with the reporting/writing/editing triumvirate, cited as priorities by 52 percent of the executives interviewed.

I encourage reading the actual report, but I will address some of its points, focusing on what journalists can do to develop these skills, perhaps not to the superpower level, but to a level that will help you remain employed (or at least find new jobs when the ground shifts under you). I’ll confess my own weaknesses in some areas, and discuss how other skills have helped my career. And I hope I’ll make the challenges of finding a job and working in a newsroom today seem less daunting.

Journalism essentials

Does all this emphasis on digital skills mean that reporting, writing and editing are no longer important to career success? Absolutely not. As the report says:

For Advance Digital’s David Cohn, who was executive producer AJ+ when we interviewed him, baseline journalism abilities are “non-negotiable.” You’re not useful, he said, “if you can’t do basic research and be accurate. Accurate, thorough and fair. (Thorough and fair are more subtle.)”

For most of my career, those “essentials” were how journalists were judged. If you could quantify writing and reporting skills, a reporter who scored 99 on both reporting and writing (can you ever get 100?), would be assured of a long and successful career. A reporter who was 99 at writing and a 94 at reporting (or vice versa) would be successful, but not command as high a salary or hold as coveted a beat as the 99/99.

Today those skills are still important (that’s why we still call them “essentials”). If you’re not at least a 90/90, you’re not going to have a shot at most journalism jobs. And if you’re a 95/95, you’ll have a better shot. But how high you push toward 100 in the essentials may not be as important as developing some other skills, even if you’re just an 80 or 85 in your new skill.

When you’re looking for a job, the law of supply and demand is more important than your ego, your nostalgia or your view of how journalism ought to be. When I was fired from a good editing job in 1992, I was strong at all those essentials. I would have scored myself in the high 90s in all of them, but in retrospect, mid-90s might have been more accurate. And I think I had similarly strong leadership skills. But the supply of good journalists was heavier than the demand. And it took me six months to find my next job.

I’d like to think my writing, reporting, editing and leadership skills have grown in the past quarter-century. And I’ve added a lot of experience teaching and training journalists. But, as essential as those skills are, they are also plentiful. When I lost my job again two years ago, I got a job offer that day (and before my last day of work, another prospective employer offered me more than twice as much money as that first offer). I couldn’t have gotten either offer without those essential skills, but I didn’t get the offers because of my proficiency in foundational skills. It was the digital skills and reputation that I had developed in the previous decade that made supply and demand work in my favor.

In fact, the digital skills really meant I didn’t have to seek out either of the job offers that I received in 2014. One of the employers who offered me a job reached out to me directly upon learning that I was losing my job. A friend at a digital media company connected me with the other employer who was recruiting for a new position.

It’s important to say here that I don’t have any digital superpowers. I wouldn’t rank myself in the 90s on more than two or three digital skills, if that. I have a pretty good digital reputation, but I keep feeling as though I’m falling behind and will someday be exposed as kind of a Wizard of Oz, giving only the illusion of superpowers. (I hope I don’t need to knock that writing score down a couple points again for mixing my superpower metaphors.)

But because I worked early and hard at developing a few digital skills, the laws of supply and demand worked in my favor the last few times I’ve entered the job market.

You can’t become Superman because you weren’t born on Krypton, and it’s fictional anyway. And the Wizard of Oz was a fraud, though he did get Dorothy home. So maybe you should seek instead to become Batman. He has no superpowers, but he has a belt with lots of cool tools and he knows how to use them. (Well, he has a cool car, too, but you’re not millionaire Bruce Wayne, so that’s not going to happen.)

I don’t suggest you need the full Batman utility belt, but a few useful tools would help, especially if you master one or two of them. Tools to consider for your utility belt (starting with those most in demand in the Superpowers report):


OK, coding and development is pretty close to a superpower for a journalist. Few people master both those essential journalism skills and top-flight development skills. But if you’re a journalist with strong skills who finds computer coding interesting, rather than daunting, you can develop a skill at the top of Stencel and Perry’s list of skills in highest demand.

By the way, I don’t claim this skill, beyond a bit of HTML. But learning that code in a class at Creighton University nearly 20 years ago helped demystify digital media for me, and probably laid the foundation for much of what I’ve learned since. I heartily recommend learning at least a bit of HTML, probably much more.

I know of few journalism programs that teach digital development in any meaningful way, but I encourage partnerships with schools or departments of computer science or engineering, both to teach coding to journalists and to teach journalism to developers.

When I was editor in Cedar Rapids, our database editor, Zack Kucharski, was taking web development courses at Kirkwood Community College to improve his already-strong digital skills. Zack’s now the executive editor, which probably doesn’t require a lot of coding, but I’m certain his skills aren’t being wasted. Better than most editors, Zack knows what can and can’t be done, how much work a development project will take, whether it will be worth the work (and much more). Just as reporting, copy editing or design experience helps an editor lead in news coverage, development experience has to be helpful to a top editor, too. (I’m sending Zack a draft of this post and inviting his response. I’ll update if I hear from him.)

Other ways to learn development skills would be to join Hacks/Hackers and attend some of its events or to take some online courses from Code Academy. I know of journalists who have benefited from both.

Audience and metrics

Audience development is a related skill to user data and metrics, and they are lumped together in the second slot on the “superpowers” list.

These might feel like business skills rather than journalism skills, but another important point of the “Superpowers” report is that journalists and the business side of news organizations need to communicate and collaborate better, and can do so while still protecting journalistic integrity.

Headline writing, one of those foundational skills, was always about getting people to read a story. So audience development has always been part of the newsroom’s responsibilities.

Community engagement, which has been a specialty of mine the last several years, is not the same as audience development, but they definitely overlap. Some of my posts on engagement might help you in working on those skills.

I see search-engine optimization as another aspect of audience development and even more strongly related to the time-honored print-headline tradition. Susan Steadman’s SEO tips as well as my own might help you develop that skill.

Metrics get a bad name in journalism, as though the only use for metrics is counting page views, Facebook likes and retweets. But any journalist who works her butt off on a story wants people to read it. Sophisticated use of metrics can help you increase the impact of your most important journalism by learning what makes readers share and engage with stories.

News University’s self-directed course Analytics 101: Understanding Digital Metrics might help you develop this skill. (I am generously listed as an instructor, but my contribution was minimal at best. I agreed to help with the course, but most of the work came at bad times in terms of my work and lymphoma treatment last year, and I think I missed every call to help on the course. I saw enough, though, to know that Teresa Schmedding and the other instructors were putting together an excellent course.)

Again, my powers in analytics are less than super, but I know a little and I’ve blogged an introduction to metrics as well as posts about misleading analyticsdigging below the surface to understand metrics and measuring success in culture change.

Visual storytelling

With the importance of video for digital journalism and advertising, television-rooted legacy journalists have an advantage over newspaper-rooted journalists, and photojournalists have an advantage over writers. But everyone coming from a legacy-media mindset needs to think differently about visual storytelling and develop skills in a variety of areas to claim this as a superpower:

Videos. TV-style stories develop the shooting and editing skills you’ll need to have visual superpowers, but video stories for the large screen and the newscast are different from stories for the mobile screen and social media. You’re not just doing your own videos if this is your superpower; you’re curating (and verifying) videos from social media, and you’re gathering video content from sources.

Photos. Shooting excellent still photographs is a start, but you need to learn to use photo galleries and slide shows to tell stories (which is more than just posting a lot of photos online). You need to use Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and other social media to tell stories and build your visual brand. As with video, you need to curate photos from social media and sources, too.

Maps. Maps are increasingly important tools in storytelling, so journalists should be learning to use tools such as Google Maps, StoryMap JS and Tableau, and also learning to think of the best way to use maps as storytelling platforms.

Data visualization. Interactive charts, tables and graphics are increasingly important for journalists. You may need someone with coding superpowers to produce graphics as sophisticated as the trailer for the Failure Factories project that won a Pulitzer Prize for the Tampa Bay Times. But most journalists should be learning basic tools such as, Datawrapper or Tableau.

Interactive multimedia tools. Timelines, Thinglink, Atavist, NewHive, animation programs and a variety of other interactive tools also can boost your storytelling skills.

This is a particularly weak spot in my own utility belt. Sure, I’ve shot photos and videos, and made maps and dabbled in other visual tools. But regular readers of this blog know that visuals are not a strength. I’m working on it, but I should work harder.

News University and Lynda can be helpful in many of the visual storytelling skills. You also can self-teach. I didn’t teach tools in my class last year on learning interactive storytelling tools. I guided the students in learning the tools themselves and sharing their lessons with the class. The tutorials they published in the class blog might be helpful as you’re trying to teach yourself. But many of these tools are easy to use and intuitive. You just need to roll up your sleeves and learn.

Digital design

This skill combines some of the points of coding and digital development. A strong print page designer willing to learn digital skills can learn to design web pages or mobile and tablet apps. For instance, former Digital First Media colleagues with print roots designed apps for a Cost of Dying project and to observe the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.

I learned some digital design in that 1997 class, but it’s not a skill I’ve used much or kept sharp.

Social media

The time and effort I spent to learn proficiency in using Twitter, starting in early 2008, recharged my career. It didn’t necessarily make me a better journalist, but it made me a more valuable journalist. When most in my profession were disdainful of Twitter’s annoying name and 140-character limit, I was exploring and teaching its news uses.

In addition to becoming a leader in using Twitter, I taught Facebook engagement, blogged about how journalists could use Pinterest, dabbled in Foursquare, SlideShare, LinkedIn, YouTube and other social tools. I didn’t master them all, and I don’t pretend my social media skills ever became a superpower. But I learned some proficiency that helped me land my last four jobs.

Much of my work was at the strategic level, helping newsrooms figure out the best way to use these tools to cover news, distribute content, engage with the community and so on. People in the newsrooms executing the strategies often developed better hands-on skills than I did. For instance, except for a secondary role pitching in to help my staff when I was at TBD, I’ve never run a newsroom’s social media accounts, which generally requires using tools such as Tweetdeck or HootSuite. I enjoy the chaos and randomness of the Twitter’s news feed, so I don’t use Tweetdeck or HootSuite on my personal accounts. So thousands of journalists are better than I am at using those tools. But I can help guide their bosses in developing the strategy behind their work.

Employers don’t expect anyone to know everything about social media, but if you’re not very active at social media, you’re at a huge disadvantage. And a strong social media presence, with expertise in a tool or two and willingness to learn more, makes you attractive to employers, even if you’re self-conscious about what you still need to learn.

Again, News U and Lynda can help you learn social media tools, but to a great extent you learn by jumping in and being active.


The Superpowers report lists blogging as foundational, rather than transformational, and I think that’s appropriate. As Stencel and Perry note, blogging tools have been in general use for more than a decade (I started blogging 12 years ago). So blogging alone, or even being good at it, doesn’t help you stand out in the field of digital competitors.

But a blog can give you a niche with some value. And it shows off your unedited work, so prospective employers can see how clean your copy is (which may be good or bad for you).

I know this blog, and the reputation it helped me build, has helped me get jobs and job offers, as well as enhanced my pay.

Product development

 Stencel and Perry wrote:

Many journalists still flinch when they hear their websites, mobile outlets, radio programs, newscasts and newspapers referred to as “products” – much as they did when people started calling their stories and images “content.” But they better get used to it.

Wishful thinking isn’t going to get you a better job. Journalists who understand how to develop and launch new products add tremendously to their market value. Jump at the chance to work on a new product. Or develop one yourself, and you might create your own job and eventually start looking to hire journalists with superpowers.

What should you do?

If you’re a journalist seeking a job, you’re not going to develop a superpower suddenly overnight. But assess your skills along the lines of those listed highest in the “Superpowers” report. In the various pitches you make – cover letter, resumé, portfolio site, interview – stress your strongest transformational skills that are in higher demand, rather than the foundational skills employers expect of everyone.

And always be learning a new skill. If you’ve been putting off learning how to analyze data, understand metrics or edit video, now would be a good time to start.

Disclosure: I know Stencel, who once interviewed me for a job at NPR. I also know several of the media leaders he and Perry interviewed, including some close friends.

Thanks to Stencel for this kind Twitter response:

Filed under: Career advice Tagged: Batman, Belleville News-Democrat, Code Academy, computer coding, data journalism, David Cohn, Hacks/Hackers, Kim Perry,, Mark Stencel, News University, Social media, Superman, Superpowers, Susan Steadman, Teresa Schmedding, Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurialism, Twitter, visual storytelling, web development, Wizard of Oz, Zack Kucharski


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