By Joe Banks
Recently at a small media event in Ottawa, I met a former Philippines-based reporter who said she would like to begin practising journalism again after nine years as a landed immigrant. She was wondering what more she would need to know beyond the basic interviewing and writing skills she employed while covering the likes of the Marcos family.
As I asked her a series of questions, it was clear she was unlikely to get past the initial cut for any journalistic job opportunity on any platform in Canada. She had no photography, video, pagination or social media skills. She didn't know what Adobe Creative Suite was, live blogging, what apps were or their role in mobile reporting.
As I was listing these skills, she appeared shocked at what was required of the contemporary Canadian reporter. How could one person do all of those things? How could any employer expect anyone to know them all?
My answer must've sounded a bit robotic, because it was the same one I've been using for three years. From my perspective, these aren't new skills. They are the same requirements as when I began as a small town reporter 35 years ago. It's just that they're not necessarily recognizable because of the significant changes to how they’re executed.
In 1978, my editor at the Haliburton Echo expected me to cover assignments with a notepad and camera. In addition to typing stories on an Underwood 5 manual typewriter (built in 1948), I had to develop the 35 mm film, make contact sheets, use an enlarger to make the prints and develop the photos using chemical-filled trays. Printing those photos was an art; you'd have to “dodge” and “burn” the dark and light levels of the image to ensure publishing-friendly tones.
On production days, I was expected to stand at tilted drafting tables where we would "paste up" paper flats that would later be photographed and their negatives burned onto aluminum plates. A single paste-up session could sometimes last late into the evening, with us standing as mechanical artists for hours without a break.
Networking was important then too. But it was done between 7 and 8 a.m. at the main street cafe across the road and over coffee or breakfast. I could be assured to find the mayor, the police and fire chiefs and even the public utilities commissioner all there at once.
When distribution day came, I'd pitch in with paper deliveries depending on weather and availability.
Fast forward to 2014: We expect reporters to take competent images, today without time-consuming film and paper developing, but with the ability to download photos and do fixes in Photoshop, all while sitting comfortably and in much less time.
Pages are assembled in a fifth of the time they were back in Haliburton. On top of that, paginators can switch fonts seamlessly compared to our back-in-the day "typesetters" using clunky, steel Compugraphic typesetting machines.
That’s to say nothing of the pre-press routine. Once the pages are done, they’re downloaded to the printer’s FTP site, there to wait until the images are digitally burned onto a plate. Nary a hand is immersed in the myriad chemicals the pre-press people had to handle.
Oh, and that networking mentioned earlier? Well, the smart contemporary reporter should still be hanging out at that cafe; there’s no replacement for human contact. But they'd also be staying on top of trending voices on Twitter and seeing what's new in the mayor’s office through his Facebook status update. Instant texting affords a new level of rapid communication with myriad public officials.
I doubt if many reporters are handling paper bundles these days, but they may be uploading fresh content to the paper's website. Which method of delivery would you rather do?
The one task I never had to carry out was shooting video. But given that digital, single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras now come with built-in, high-definition video capability, capturing a few minutes of video at an assignment is easier than shooting an array of stills. And one can easily pull a screen grab from a video frame, giving the photo editor hundreds or even thousands of potential options rather than the limits of a roll of film.
The point is, from my perspective, small market local reporters have always had to perform multiple skills. They're just easier to do today.
Joe Banks is the coordinator of and professor in the Algonquin College Journalism program, in Ottawa, and has been a working journalist, editor and publisher for 36 years. He writes the Media Musings column for J-Source.