Thursday, February 17, 2011...1:12 pm

5 key skills for online journalism students

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Journalism students are probably swamped with things they think are vital skills for working online. Mastery of social media, knowledge of HTML and CSS, understanding how to build a content management system, learning Photoshop and Flash – the list is endless.
But these are not the most important, by a long shot. Here are the five key skills that all online journalism students need as the core of their practice.

Be interested

So many journalism students aren’t interested in the world around them. Yes, they’re interested in their interests (music, fashion, football usually), but they’re really not interested in the world.
That generally requires being interested in other people – what people do, what people are concerned about, what other people’s lives are like. Journalism is all about people – and it’s often forgotten (by students and journalism lecturers alike).
Everything is interesting to someone – and journalism’s job is to bring that out for our readers and viewers. Take an interest in the world, and the world becomes much more interested in you.

Be inquisitive

As part of the above, journalism is all about finding out things. To do this, you need to ask questions – how does that work? Why does this happen? Who did that? What’s this for?
Journalism students are often surprisingly reticent about asking questions – partly perhaps through shyness, and partly because they don’t know how to go about it or what to ask. (And partly because they are not that interested.)
Strange as it may sound, teaching students how to ask questions should be at the core of journalism teaching. Because we do it for a living, we often forget how hard it is for people starting out to get to grips with.

Leave the computer behind

Online journalism? That must mean you spend all your time on Google, right?
Sadly, this is often true – but if you want to be a great online journalist, you need to spend your time in the real world. That’s where all those people are – the ones that you are taking an interest in. Talk to them in the real world, then go online to tell the story.
Yes – there’s all that Freedom of Information/data journalism work to do. But understanding which FOI request is valuable should really be informed by real-world experience.
That’s where being interested in the world really helps. (Also, having a dog – it’s amazing the range of people you meet in the park in the morning…)

Take risks

From the comments on Joseph Stashko’s excellent post about why students don’t get involved in student media on comes this from Nick Petrie:

Most of all you have to innovate, student media is the most risk free environment you will ever be in. If you are not prepared to take risks at this level, you will never be able to take risks when your income or reputation might depend on it.

Journalism students often seem reluctant to take risks – not health and safety-type risks like reporting first-hand on gang culture in the inner city, but creative risks in the way they explore and produce online content.
Getting students to try new things, to experiment with forms and be creative, can be an uphill struggle. Why?
Perhaps it’s that our schools teach in prescriptive and limiting ways nowadays (input welcome here – I’m just speculating). Perhaps we have become so obsessed by grades that students don’t want to risk losing marks by being too adventurous.
Whatever – if you can’t explore new and challenging ideas at university, where can you? I’m probably as guilty of this as anyone. Note to self: encourage experimentation…

Find your niche

No one needs another student web site with random, shallow content about celebrities or the World Cup. It’s just not possible for most journalism students to get the kind of access and insider knowledge to make these worthwhile.
However, it’s entirely possible for a journalism student to develop a reputation for expertise in a specialist niche. The trick is to choose it.
If you are into cinema, focus on a niche interest. Not general release blockbusters, but niche world cinema. Or obscure sci-fi. Or 40s romance. If you are into football, try to avoid the World Cup or Manchester United. Go local instead – it’s not as glamorous, but it is easier to make your mark.
Pick a small enough niche and you will be able to make more contacts in that world.

  • People in it will tend not be so famous that you can’t get a response from them
  • Your expertise will open more doors
  • You may even become a source for other journalists

It’s easy to learn a software program – but it doesn’t make you a journalist. I reckon these five skills (or character traits) are the foundation of great journalism. What do you think?


  • Another one I’ve printed off to read and inwardly digest. I was interested in what you said about research on the internet. I undoubtedly find the internet resources valuable, as I do most of my writing at night when sensible, normal people are in bed. However, I have a large personal library and I usually research my articles from books first and then add data that may be more up to date or expansive from the internet.
    Funnily enough, I’m just off out to interview a bra shop about the importance of proper fittings. I feel vindicated.

  • Wholeheartedly agree. The ‘asking questions’ thing is spot on. Journalists need to be curious.
    I have to be dragged off luckless strangers at parties because I back them into corners bombarding them with questions. Can’t help it. It’s in the DNA.

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