The most important skill for journalists in 2018

Scan any job site for journalism roles and you’ll notice the same required skills and qualifications pop up more often than not. NCTJ certified degree or equivalent. Shorthand. Self-starter with a keen news sense.

Those are all useful skills, and in the ever more competitive world of journalism successful applicants will need to tick every single box. The issue is that many of the jobs advertised that way are for generalist news reporter positions, and there’s no position more vulnerable in an age where many publishers are cutting back on editorial staff than the generalist news reporter. It’s still possible to find yourself a niche, particularly if you’re lucky enough to work for a specialist publication, but those positions are becoming rarer, especially for journalists new to the industry.

The reality is that as a result of the erosion of beat journalism in favour of creating mass-appeal general content, often journalists are distinguished less by the topics on which they are an expert and more on the way they can tell stories, whether that’s through creating video, data visualisations, social campaigns or a news game. Establishing yourself as a master of one of those disciplines is a great way to ameliorate the risk of redundancy.

But there’s an even more vital skill for journalists in 2018, one that’s related to the reasons why the generalist journalist is at risk…

Learning the ropes

Media companies have found that chasing scale isn’t paying the bills, both because much of the advertising growth is going to platforms and because people historically won’t pay for generalist news content because of the surfeit of alternative digital sources. As a result, the strategy to pump out as much content as possible is no longer the foundation of a publishers’ plan for growth.

So now that the game has changed journalists need to ask themselves which role they can perform to add to their employers’ bottom lines. In other words, the most vital skill for a journalist in 2018 is an intimate understanding of their employer’s business model. It’s no longer enough to simply show up and ‘do’ journalism; now we need to think about how that journalism can safeguard the future of the business.

It requires journalists to be candid about their own value (a scary and uncomfortable prospect, especially for those only on the first rung on the ladder), and more than likely requires them to learn new skills in their own time. Some of those skills, like the ability to parse a P&L or understand the truths buried underneath euphemisms in an annual statement, are significantly different from that of the generalist journalist. Beyond that, actually pitching those ideas to managers is a very different affair to pitching a one-off article.

And, of course, there are significant challenges for journalists looking to put those changes into effect, particularly if it involves a disruption to their role or team. Actually changing culture in a large organisation is hard even for managers and more senior staff, and in this age of seemingly endless cuts publishers can be loth to spend money trying something new. Writing for Poynter, Ren Laforme says:

“Getting people to try new things in the workplace can be challenging. But it’s nearly impossible after they’ve witnessed change after botched change tossed aside to progress’ junk heap.”

But the benefit of understanding a media company’s business model is that it can help a journalist explain why those changes will benefit its bottom line, especially if it’s wedded to knowledge of successful implementations elsewhere. If, for instance, the company is in the middle of a transition to going more fully behind a paywall, explaining the benefit of writing a series of in-depth articles on a niche topic with reference to De Correspondent is more likely to pay dividends – and to make you indispensable to the business.

So journalists looking to develop this most vital of skills in 2018 should consider the following:

- Learning to analyse company finances and to stay abreast of industry trends, to help identify opportunities for their brand.

- Practising pitching new niches or subjects to cover, rather than individual articles.

- Being unsparing when considering their own value to the business. It might sting to admit to not being vital to the bottom line, but it’s less painful in the long term than losing a job because of a lack of understanding of the business model.

Image from Flickr via Chris Wightman.


Chris Sutcliffe

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Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work in the TMT (technology, media, and telecoms) space, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.