As media organizations adapt to the contemporary media environment, greater emphasis is being placed on incorporating new digital practices and technologies, analyzing audience data, and experimenting with new business approaches. Despite much consternation over whether news organizations are changing too quickly or not quickly enough, less is known about how media workers themselves view these new trends.
The survey probed this phenomenon by asking whether the respondent was comfortable with specific technology or applications, what skills are important for someone in his or her field, and what skills they would pursue additional training for.
The digital practices that we asked about revolved around five types:
- interacting with readers (e.g. reader comments and social media)
- interacting with readers (e.g. reader comments and social media)
- digital reporting skills (e.g. using databases in reporting and using digital tools to verify information),
- building web content (e.g. content management systems and project management tools),
- creating visual content (e.g. graphic design and page design software),
- and coding languages (e.g. programming languages and html).
To reflect the breadth of abilities that media workers may find important, we asked about 23 types of skills. These skills fell into seven broad categories: audience metrics, content creation, new digital tools, fluency with the business of media, newsgathering and writing skills, career development, and media law and ethics.
Taken together, the results suggest that managers are more comfortable with new digital tools and place greater emphasis on audience research, learning about new data and metrics, and learning about the best practices of other organizations. In contrast, staff members are more likely to report that they do not use new digital tools in their job and to focus on learning skills related to creating content or career development.
These differences could be explained by one or both of the following causes:
- A division of labor, with managers focusing on learning new trends while staff members focus on content creation, and
- Workers who are more comfortable with technology are more likely to be promoted to manager.
Indeed, for each of the 10 digital tools we asked about, managers were more likely to be “very comfortable.” Of note, there are significant differences when looking at responding to reader comments (53% vs 40%), content management systems (47% vs 31%), databases and computer assisted reporting (26% vs 19%), page design and layout (23% vs 14%), graphic design (19% vs 13%), and HTML (16% vs 10%). Despite some calls for media workers to learn how to code, only 4 percent of managers and 2 percent of staff members said they were very comfortable with programming languages.
In general, we also found that younger people were more comfortable with new digital tools. However, when grouping workers by age, we find that managers are usually more likely to be very comfortable with these digital tools than staff members.
A division of labor may help explain some of these discrepancies, as staff members are more likely to say they do not use these tools in their jobs. Over one-third of staff members said that they do not use graphic design software, HTML, page design or layout software, project management tools, or programming languages.
Despite consternation that managers resist innovation, these findings suggest that managers are generally more comfortable with new digital tools and practices.
Our survey also asked journalists about 23 different skills that they might believe was important for someone entering their field. The list of skills ranged from writing and reporting skills to numeracy and entrepreneurship to knowing the history of the web.
It is important to note that this question did not ask people what skills are important for someone in their position. The differences between managers and staff members then suggest contrasting views on what skills people working in journalism should possess.
To elaborate, the largest gap in what skills managers and staff members saw as important for someone in their field was leadership, with 58 percent of managers saying it was very important compared to 42 percent of staff members. The other skills that managers valued more fell into two broad groups:
Skills related to media economics – Managers were more likely to believe that marketing in new ways (48% vs 38%), entrepreneurial skills (35% vs 32%), and the business of media (33% vs 29%), is important for someone in their field.
Skills related to data and audience metrics – Managers were more likely to emphasize fluency with data (39% vs 31%), understanding audience data (32% vs 22%), and conducting audience research (31% vs 26%) is important for someone in their field.
Staff members, on the other hand, are slightly more likely to believe skills related to creating content are very important for someone in their field.
Specifically, staff members were slightly more likely to emphasize audio recording and storytelling skills (46% vs 42%), production skills for video (38% vs 36%), and production skills for photography (27% vs 25%). Perhaps reflecting the volatility of the job market, nearly half of staff members (49%) said career development and job seeking skills were important (compared to 45 percent of managers).
Still, both managers and staff members place similar importance on a variety of other skills. In particular, over 70 percent of both managers and staff members rated ethics, writing skills, and newsgathering skills as very important. At the other end of the spectrum, despite much aplomb, media workers were unlikely to say that data visualization, graphic design, and coding languages are very important for someone in their field.
Journalists varied widely on which of these areas in which they would like to pursue additional training. Despite being able to select all relevant answers, no area was chosen by more than 35 percent of workers. This likely reflects the need for media workers to learn a variety of skills, which prevents any one area from dominating.
Managers differed from staff here in some important respects:
Skills related to media economics – Managers were more likely to seek training in marketing content in new ways (31% vs 24%), entrepreneurial skills (25% vs 22%), and knowledge of the business of media (19% vs 14%).
Skills related to data and audience metrics – Managers expressed greater interest in training related to understanding audience data (28% vs 16%), fluency with data (25% vs 21%), and conducting audience research (23% vs 14%).
Staff members were more likely to seek training in areas related to creating content, but only slightly. For instance, they were more likely to express interest in training related to video production (34% vs 31%), graphic design (34% vs 30%), writing skills (27% vs 23%), investigative reporting skills (23% vs 20%), and production skills for photography (22% vs 17%).
In effect, the findings indicate that, at least as of 2015, many staff members had not yet embraced learning new digital approaches to the same degree as their managers.
These silos may be a source of tension for media organizations implementing changes. Writers may resist audience metrics if they see the data as something only managers should care about. Organizations with workers who are less knowledgeable about the business of media may miss opportunities to learn new ideas from employees who are not managers. And staff members who are not comfortable with digital practices are less able to utilize them to strengthen their reporting.
One major tension in the digital age is whether traditional silos need to be abolished. That certainly has been an issue in the past. In 2014, the New York Times innovation report argued that “The people who have spent the most time thinking about the challenges of our digital future…can be found upstairs, most often in Product, Design and Strategy. They are also spending countless hours studying and interviewing our competitors and our readers, and capturing and sharing their insights in detailed reports. But their initiative means the newsroom is often reacting to, rather than driving, the work on big questions that are critical to our future.”
One major question is the degree to which those issues still exist. They may have eased in some operations. But to the extent that news organizations may have been able to hire new staff in the last two years, they may remain.
As we detail in the following section, the contrasts between managers and staff extend to their views on industry trends—with managers being more concerned with new business models and staff members focusing more on preserving news quality.