In the midst of so much to do, how and when do journalists take the time to learn more about our industry? And what formats or platforms make learning easy?
I’ve been asking those questions as I wrap up a really cool project and want to share what I’ve learned in ways that are useful to busy working journalists. Sixteen news organizations spent months helping me test strategies for using social media to build trust. We have a lot of data, we learned several lessons, and we want to share those in accessible, useful ways.
Together with three University of Missouri students (Amanda Byler, Emily Rackers and Micheala Sosby), I put together a questionnaire asking journalists what types of industry information they consider most useful and actionable. We took what we learned from the 37 journalists who responded and conducted phone interviews with nine others.
Highlights of what we learned
- There’s no one preferred format. Shocker, I know. We’re a diverse bunch, and our consumption habits are a mixed bag. Short text (like blog posts) was the preferred format, though, followed by in-person events.
- We need to make the takeaways actionable. Users should be able to picture exactly how they’d put the lessons into practice.
- Make the themes digestible, and emphasize what’s new. One wrote: “Tell me something I don’t already know! I’m tired of consultants starting presentations with “digital is really where it’s all going.”
- Distribute socially and invest in sharing. Many journalists told us they rely on Twitter and newsletters to get their industry information.
Here’s what we asked and what we learned. Some responses were anonymous, but I’ll include attribution if I have it. The answers with percentages are taken just from the questionnaire, not from what we heard in phone interviews.
What formats do you prefer for learning about industry skills and knowledge?
The quantitative answers broke down this way:
- Short text (like blog posts): 73 percent
- In-person events: 59.5 percent
- Social conversation (like Q&As): 45.9 percent
- Podcasts: 43.2 percent
- Long text (like reports or white papers): 35.1 percent
- Short videos: 35.1 percent
- Long videos (like webinars): 32.4 percent
- Games or quizzes: 2.7 percent
Summer Moore of the Northwest Indiana Times said, “I get distracted pretty quickly so I don’t usually consume [research or advice, in any form] to the very end unless it’s really short. … Videos I have a tendency to pop in and out of. I would be much more inclined to read something, or read the text that’s on a video without the sound. It’s not as much listening as it is reading for me. “
On the topic of webinars, Moore said she likes short ones — not more than 15 to 20 minutes in length. She also wants access to the slide deck and related links afterward, so she can share it with her colleagues.
Gary Whitaker, publisher and president of 417 Magazine in Springfield, Missouri, said his preference is always for in-person training. “We send a lot of our people to conferences and seminars, and I don’t think there’s any replacement for one-on-one training and exposure to new ideas.” He added: “My second preference is audio or podcast or an audio newsletter because it’s portable and I can do it while I’m working out or in the car.”
Mark Williams, a business reporter at the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, told us, “Honestly, I hate videos. They are difficult to go back to and relearn information. I can’t just take a quick glance or remind myself of a specific concept.”
We heard from a few visual learners, too. Christina Santiago of KWCH-TV in Wichita, Kansas, said, “For me, videos are really helpful.” She prefers step-by-step instructions and graphics that show what has worked for other people, so “you can see what they’re talking about.”
Jeff Sonderman, deputy director of the American Press Institute, has plenty of experience distributing research, knowledge and training materials. He said API definitely focuses on being practical. In terms of how journalists navigate information, he had two specific tips:
- Consider differentiating tips by newsroom size. Instead of just looking at what big news outlets do, ask, “What could the Peoria [Journal] Star or the Columbia Missourian use?” How can these smaller papers apply these tips in a more low-tech and smaller-scale way?
- Recognize that some people will want to navigate more by brand than by idea. Make it easy for people to jump in and out of a project according to a specific newsroom’s examples.
How do you usually learn about or discover resources that help you keep your skills and knowledge up to date?
The post popular answers were newsletters, industry websites, Twitter, Facebook groups, Slack teams, press associations and industry experts.
Abby Dyer, a meteorologist at KY3 in Springfield, Missouri, said, “A Facebook group of fellow meteorologists and journalists that I am a part of normally keeps me in the loop on new technology and new ideas for broadcasts. Professional organizations and conferences are also good for this.”
Chris Canipe is a news applications developer at The Wall Street Journal. He said his team has weekly meetings that include demoing projects. They take time to explain to each other what they’ve learned or found, and they sometimes write about how they did something as well (like Canipe did on Medium, about an election map project).
Jamie Patterson of Business Times Interactive said, “I would have to say my most preferred is probably e-newsletters from specific blogs that I really enjoy following. So being notified via email when there is a new post is probably my favorite.”
What makes training materials interesting, accessible and useful?
- Gary Whitaker at 417 Magazine said he likes it when lessons are conveyed through the eyes of a user, with information about the idea, the process and the execution. It helps turn an abstract thought into a set of skills that can be embraced and understood.
- “Tell me something I don’t already know! I’m tired of consultants starting presentations with ‘digital is really where it’s all going.’ I’ve been working in this space for years. Start off by assuming I know what Facebook is and I know the best practices for using it. Also, I love examples. They help illustrate concepts and give me real-world ideas about how to use them.”
- “Simplicity. Identifying the concern, offering context for it and then presenting actionable solutions.” — Abbey Dean, Advantage Business Media.
- “Having an end goal. What will I be able to do when I’m done?”
- “The less material the better. If you can’t explain this in five slides you haven’t proven yourself useful or different enough.”
- “Readable and understandable, use real-life examples, aren’t too ‘academic’ and include a variety of perspectives.”
What makes training materials overwhelming and unhelpful?
- “Video longer than 20 to 30 minutes. Long white papers.”
- “I don’t learn well by listening, so I hate conference calls and webinars. Give me text and I’ll be much more likely to learn something.”
- “Anything that screams, ‘the author of this material has never actually set foot in a newsroom and doesn’t understand how newsrooms work in actual practice.’ “ — Emma Carew Grovum, The Daily Beast
- “I get annoyed when a post is based on just one situation like the NYT or a specific situation, especially if they don’t mention that most newsrooms won’t be able to achieve the same results or have the same resources.” — Rachel Schallom, Fusion
- “Not rooted in reality, (or in the) demands of working, short-staffed newsrooms. Not too helpful when we get tips that are geared to people who can focus all day on 1 thing — most journalists in this newsroom have extreme work loads, and the tips, tools need to be applicable, helpful, time efficient.” — Kathy Mahan, Fresno (Calif.) Bee
- “When no clear conclusions are drawn and I have no way to act. If I have to highlight or create lists of what to do next, it’s too much work to put the new ideas into practice.” — Shaina Cavazos, Chalkbeat
- “When they are buried in multiple page clicks, obscure menus and bad navigation.” — Tony Elkins, Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune
In what situations (Downtime at work? Home? Commute?) and on what devices do you typically find time to focus on learning?
- Downtime or lunch breaks at work.
- Attending webinars, Twitter chats, reading.
- On mobile while commuting.
- At home or at coffee shops during evenings, Sunday mornings, or while watching TV
- While traveling.
- “I try to read news + tips on making news for one hour a day on desktop at work.” — Rachel Schallom, Fusion
- “We dedicate 15 to 20 percent of our workweek to learning and doing our own case studies.” — John Frost, Hearst Television
How much time do you tend to spend consuming training material or research in one sitting?
Three-quarters of respondents said they spent between six and 30 minutes.
What kinds of training does your organization typically participate in or share internally?
The answers for this one were all over the map. Some folks report having regular staff meetings and being encouraged to take time to share best practices and case studies. Others say their employers give them access to Poynter’s NewsU webinars or other training. Some say they attend annual conferences that give them an infusion of new information. A few said their employers don’t really do this.
Thanks to everyone who shared their perspective with us. I look forward to putting what I learned from you into practice.