Karen Peterson

Karen Peterson: New age means journalists must expand repertoire

Being a good reporter has always required a complex set of skills. A doggedness about pursuing the facts. An analytical mind. An ease that invites people to talk. An ability to write clearly and hold a reader’s attention. A strong ethical backbone, and a desire to serve the community.

But changes in our business and the way people consume news have added some basic requirements to the job: a fluency in digital news and a willingness to learn new skills as our readership evolves.

It all came home for us last week as we interviewed candidates for two open reporter positions. Tacoma City Hall reporter Lewis Kamb took an investigative job last month with The Seattle Times, and west Pierce County reporter Christian Hill is moving home to Oregon to cover City Hall for The Register-Guard in Eugene. (Both did fine work for The News Tribune in recent years, and we wish them well.)

From a healthy stack of résumés, we narrowed the field to a handful of candidates and began interviewing.

One consideration that often comes up is whether a reporting candidate is a better reporter or writer. Most are better at one than the other. As an education reporter earlier in my career, I was stronger at reporting and enjoyed that part of the job more. I had to work harder at writing.

Candidates must be competent in both areas to get a job, but sometimes we do some post-hire coaching on one side or the other.

Photo editor Joe Barrentine suggested last week that we add a third must-have to the list: digital skills.

At first I disagreed. (Admittedly, sometimes it’s fun to disagree with a passionate guy like Barrentine just for the sake of a hearty conversation.) Yes, every reporter must know how to post news online, I reasoned, but we can teach those skills. I’ve seen it happen in our own newsroom.

Our reporting staff has transformed itself in the past five years. To a person, they’ve learned to mine the Internet and social media for news tips and to push stories on blogs, Twitter and Facebook. They shoot pictures and videos from the field. They’ve moved beyond a single daily deadline to a news cycle that demands they post news when it happens at whatever time of the day or night.

My greater concern, I told Barrentine, would be a candidate who had great digital skills but couldn’t write a story.

His response made me think more deeply. First, it’s not an either-or proposition. Just as we need reporters who can both report and write, we need them to be fluent in the digital world.

Barrentine likened digital fluency to learning how to read. Beyond the basics in the very early grades, we don’t attend “reading” classes. We learn to read in English class, in science class and in math class. We become fluent readers so we can do the rest.

Likewise, we need reporters who comfortably use digital tools to do their reporting and writing. It’s just how they go about their business.

Beyond that, digitally fluent reporters also consume news on websites and on their smartphones and tablets – the same way our readers do. It’s not enough to know how to tweet. We need to know what Twitter followers want. You have to be one to know one.

In July, the TNT had more than 1.1 million unique monthly visitors reading our content online. About 21 percent of our page views were from smartphones, and another 17 percent were from digital tablets. Those “mobile” page views were up 36 percent from last July. The number of readers who came to us from Facebook was up 48 percent; the number from Twitter was up 186 percent.

We need digitally fluent reporters to meet the needs of a digitally fluent audience.

But here would be an additional red flag: A reporter who has chosen to ignore how our audience is changing and refused to learn digital skills is a reporter who is not working to serve our readers.

Our business is changing rapidly. We can’t lose track of the bedrock skills required to be a good journalist. But we need to adapt to our readership or risk becoming irrelevant.

So, yes, Barrentine, you’re right. Now’s the time to add a third leg to that stool of reporting skills.

Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434