Journalism Students Don’t Need to Be Unicorns — Just Superheroes

    by Marie Gilot
    August 2, 2016
    Students at the University of Mississippi looking to become superheroes.

    We have all seen the kitchen-sink job descriptions for magical journalists who can code and do data and social media and web video and drones and fix online revenue streams. We have all heard the word “unicorn” thrown around.

    So it was refreshing to find out that when asked directly, employers paint a much more realistic picture of the journalism skills they hire for. From more than three dozen media executives interviewed by Mark Stencel and Kim Perry for a recent survey, you can pull out this winning trifecta:

    "Some J-schools are already offering specialized 'superpower' degrees."
    • Traditional journalism skills (Reporting and writing or video equivalent)
    • Expertise in one digital skill
    • People skills

    That should come as a relief to journalism educators who have been told for years that they need to turn their students into one-man-band journalists who can cover all the digital skills under the sun.


    Freed from this impossible mandate, J-schools can be places where students identify the one digital skill they can fall in love with, develop expertise in and build their career around.

    According to the survey, and very much in line with prior surveys, the top new skills in demand are in:

    • Coding and development
    • Audience development/user data and metrics
    • Visual storytelling/editing (photo/video production)
    • Digital design (for web, mobile, applications)
    • Social media
    • Product development
    • Data analysis and visualization

    These skills, which the recent report likens to superpowers, are the key to leaping to the top of the newsroom hiring line. Foundational skills such as reporting, writing and editing aren’t optional, but “newsgathering competence isn’t enough,” the report says. You also need a superpower.


    The good news? You don’t need all the superpowers. You just need one.

    As multidisciplinary teams become a mainstay of newsrooms, from investigative teams to data teams, employers are assembling the skills they need from different people. To stretch the superhero metaphor a little further, even Stan Lee didn’t try to put super strength, super stretchiness, invisibility and fire power into one person. He created The Fantastic Four.


    40’s era superhero The Flame (Public Domain image)

    So what does it mean for journalism educators?

    The survey, “Superpowers: The digital skills media leaders say newsrooms need going forward,” was commissioned by the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism (full disclosure: I work for the school) to inform our teaching curriculum.

    Because ours is a world where superpowers can be taught, or rather developed through teaching, I propose this teaching formula for J-Schools:

    • Teach journalism skills
    • Teach general knowledge of various digital skills and help students dive deep into their favorite area
    • Teach teamwork

    Some J-schools are already offering specialized “superpowers” degrees, such as data at Columbia, social journalism at CUNY, design at The New School, and Studio 20 at NYU (and that’s only New York), and are finding their graduates in high demand.

    Finally, the “Superpowers” survey uncovers a superpower that is not a digital skill, but a so-called soft skill — management. Read this astonishing quote:

    “…of the media executives and news leaders at 31 organizations who answered our questionnaire, a third had taken on their current position in the previous year, moved up or left their company in the months immediately after they responded. If that amount of change in a little more than a year is at all representative of the industry as a whole, management is another superpower.”

    Management, change management, project management, leadership and general people skills should be taught in J-School because it is likely that students will face advancement opportunities sooner in their careers than prior graduates. J-Schools can teach those skills through teamwork and team assignments.

    Today's employers value collaboration skills as highly as communication skills.

    Today’s employers value collaboration skills as highly as communication skills.

    Other takeaways from the survey

    • Understanding audience needs is everyone’s business in today’s journalism.
    • Video storytelling skills will get you hired.
    • It’s not about learning tools. It’s about playing with ideas.
    • You still need to demonstrate a passion for news and storytelling.
    • “Flat” newsrooms mean you need leadership skills at all levels.
    • Everybody needs to know about the business side of journalism.

    Marie Gilot is the director of CUNY J+, a series of digital skills workshops for working journalists at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. @louiegilot

    Tagged: columbia cuny digital skills journalism education leadership new school skills superpowers

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