If you see the phrase “Journalism Education” that adorns this issue of Quill, do you think of academics and students in classrooms and campus newspaper offices? Probably, but if you’re a working journalist, you should also think of yourself.
The nature of our work means that we must educate ourselves every working day through the information that we gather. But we have another need – to improve the reporting, writing, production and other skills that we use to gather and disseminate that information.
Journalists realize that. The greatest lack of satisfaction in our work is not our pay or benefits, but lack of training, according to a recent survey for the Council of Presidents of National Journalism Organizations.
The survey, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates and funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, also found that news executives know they should provide more training, but say they don’t because it costs too much and takes too much time away from work.
That shortsighted view probably reflects the budget pressures that have increasingly afflicted the news business in the past two years.
It may also reflect a belief that employees should be responsible for improving themselves, and fear that training will give employees the credentials they need to find a better-paying job elsewhere.
That’s off base, because better-trained employees are happier with their current employer, says Bob Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation, a former top editor and author of “Newsroom Management.”
“If news organizations would invest significantly more in training, they would reduce their turnover significantly. Training would lead to higher levels of satisfaction,” Giles told follow-up researcher Beverly Kees, a former top editor and coordinator of a group of newsroom training editors.
More training might also lead to more profit. The American Society for Training and Development has found that publicly traded companies that rank high in training give a higher return to shareholders.
The survey found that mid-career training has expanded since a similar survey was conducted 10 years ago. But training in the news business lags behind the rest of American business. The survey found that two-thirds of U.S. journalists get no regular skills training. This at a time when the world we are supposed to cover is getting more complicated and technical.
It is past time for news employers and journalism organizations to do a better job of improving journalists’ skills, knowledge of what they cover, and the ethical and legal issues that face us. SPJ is doing its part.
For more than two years, SPJ and the Council of Presidents have been working toward development of an online database for all mid-career journalism training in the United States. SPJ has conducted a survey of training programs, broadly defined, and is in the process of applying to the Knight Foundation for a grant to create and manage the database for the Council of Presidents.
Our initial research shows that some organizations have training databases or calendar resources, but they have limited search capabilities. The new database would be a badly needed centralized clearinghouse for all journalism training. It would be searchable by individual journalists to meet their needs – date, duration, location, subject matter, cost, name and type of provider, and so on.
Meanwhile, SPJ is breaking some new ground in its own professional-development activities.
SPJ, its Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, and Investigative Reporters and Editors are collaborating on a series of regional workshops that will emphasize the use of freedom-of-information laws to do enterprise reporting on beats. This project will combine SPJ’s expertise in FOI matters with SDX’s financial resources and IRE’s experience in workshop management to address an important need at an important time.
The recent survey found that the greatest demand for training was in beat coverage, where 51 percent of journalists said it was very important to have training but only 14 percent said it was being provided. More than half the demand was being met in the other two general areas – journalism skills, and ethics, values and legal issues. The gaps in all three areas were highest in TV newsrooms.
The FOI component of these workshops is critical. At a time when federal, state and local governments are trying to restrict the flow of information – and getting much sympathy from a public worried about terrorism – journalists and journalism organizations must step up their efforts to show the value of open meetings, open records and open courts. Sometimes, the best way to defend freedom of information is to use that freedom to tell people something they need to know, and where the information came from. That is what these workshops will do.
SPJ will maintain its commitment to professional development through programs at our national convention, regional conferences and local chapter meetings. If you have an idea for a training program that could be offered at the chapter, regional or national level, please don’t hesitate to suggest it. And develop yourself professionally by attending your local chapter meetings, regional workshops and our upcoming convention in Fort Worth.
Al Cross is president of SPJ and a political columnist at The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky.