Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Fighting Hole Tactics: Part One -- No More Training

If you've read this blog in recent weeks, you know I've grown very worried about what 2008 will bring for B2B publishing. A few days ago, I wrote that it's "time for B2B editors and publishers to build some fighting holes" -- defensive positions from where they could ride out the coming onslaught of bad economic news.
I promised then that I would "post some of my thoughts on what a B2B fighting hole looks like." And given the news that the smartest guys on Wall Street think a recession is coming, I think today is the day for me to start discussing tactics.

Let's start with a little story.
A few weeks ago I had coffee with a long-time friend and journalist. We got to talking about new media. I told him about the remarkable work being done by Rob Curley's team at Loudoun Extra, and I told him that he should go straight home, log on and check it out.
But my friend said that he did not have an Internet connection at his home.
When my shock wore off, I asked why. And my friend, who makes pretty good money, said he didn't want to pay for Web access. "It doesn't seem worth it," he said.

I was reminded of that conversation earlier today when an anonymous reader posted a comment to an earlier post of mine. That reader complained that"employers aren't doing much to train their current employees and prepare them as online journalists."
That's true, I thought. But I don't care. I believe that journalists need to learn these skills themselves. As I said more than two years ago"... at this point, you can't blame the boss for not teaching these things. The difficult truth is that people who can't insert a hyperlink, who won't read a blog, who don't know how to work with Photoshop and can't upload a video file just aren't worth having around anymore."

Now, as difficult times loom, I'm taking an even harder stance.
I'm urging employers not to offer any training in Web journalism.
There are two reasons for this. Here they are:

1. You cannot train someone to be part of a culture.
For someone to work on the Web, they must be part of the Web. That, after all, is what the Web means. The Web is a web. It exists as a series of connections. An online journalist isn't a journalist who works online. He's a journalist who lives online. He's part of the Web.
It's a waste of time and money to teach multimedia skills and technology to someone who hasn't already become part of the Web. And there's no need to teach skills and technology to the journalists who are already part of Web culture, because the culture requires participation in skills and technology.
Or, to put it another way -- I cannot teach the Web. No one can. Yet all of us who are part of the Web are learning the Web.

2. When the fighting begins, the training must end.
We had a good run. For the past few years, life has been pretty easy for B2B publishers that have embraced the Web. We have been an army that has known nothing but victory.
But if I'm right, the easy times are over.
We have moved too far, too fast. Our lines are overextended. Our advance has been halted. We are vulnerable.
We cannot move backward to round up the stragglers and train them to fight. It's too late to try to convince print journalists that the Web has value. It's too late to tell them that an Internet connection is worth a few dollars a month. As revenue shrinks, we can't spend money on training. We can't gather up the print folks and "prepare them as online journalists."
You can't prepare people to dig a fighting hole. You just tell them to dig. And the ones who don't dig fast enough, deep enough or well enough, die.

( Some readers are sure to be thinking -- "Is he nuts? Isn't training newsroom staffs part of what he does for a living?" To which I reply, "Yes. I am nuts. And I do offer training to newsroom staffs." Odds are there's something valuable I can offer to the staff at your publication. There are certainly non-training services I can offer your company. Send an email to inquire (at) paulconley (dot) com and we can talk about it. Just don't ask me to teach another "writing for the Web" course. There's no room for Web newbies in a B2B fighting hole.)

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  1. Very provocative, but I agree--partially.

    I think you can still train the Web pretty quickly, even the simple stuff. That's easy. I can show anybody how to point a video camera at something, how to create and maintain a blog, how to and why we should use twitter and Facebook. Within months I can turn you loose on a number of projects, make you think differently about how you report...but you have to want it.

    I cannot (and believe me, I've tried), I cannot force anyone to drink the kool-aid. Making people want to do the Web is extremely difficult. I believe the appropriate cliché involves bringing a horse to water.

    But every good manager knows when it's time to let somebody go. If the business plans to move towards the Web, the employees must follow suit. If the culture changes, the employees must match that new culture or they become a cancer. Every manager knows this and every manager hates it.

    That's business in general though, transition or none at all.

  2. Paul, with all respect, what are you thinking!
    Your point about culture is fine. Journalists who don't get it or don't want to get it at this point aren't worth wasting time on. However, training is essential - and as the previous commenter notes, you can train in web tools pretty quickly. There are plenty of talented journalists who have been working 60 hour weeks over the past two years immersing themselves in all things web. If their site hasn't supported video, for example, until recently, and you now want to get quickly into video, why isn't it a good investment to do a day of training in how to best use those tools?
    IDG, where I work, is investing significantly in such training this year, and most of the classes are oversubscribed - not by reluctant throw-back print lovers but by smart people eager to learn more and enhance their skills so that the work they do is not just online-appropriate but better than the next guy's.
    I agree with your message to journalists - you're in or you're out. But I don't think putting the full burden of learning (and there's a lot to learn) on the employee is the answer. Management has to do its part too. I for one am fortunate to work at a company that still believes in investing in its employees.
    Abbie Lundberg, EiC, CIO

  3. Zac and Abbie,
    Thanks for your comments.
    The point I'm trying to make is that it's just too late to try and turn a print journalist into an online journalist.
    But at those rare companies where the print-only dinosaurs have been removed, I'm not as anti-training as I may sound.
    Abbie, as you know, IDG is a client of mine. More importantly, it's a company that I truly admire. So when Laurie and the rest of the team there put together skill-based training in video, for example, I applaud. Because that training is being applied to journalists who are already part of the Web.
    Or, to put it another way, IDG is a good example of a company that is already part of the Web. And the training it offers reflects that. Most B2B companies are not. And training is a waste of time for them at this point.
    Another way to look at this -- and this is something I may write about more in the near future -- is the difference between an electronic journalist and a Web journalist. At Bloomberg, for example, everyone has mastered the skills of electronic journalism. Everyone can record audio, research a database, etc. But the company is distinctly anti-Web. When I worked there reporters weren't allowed to access personal email or surf much of the Web. Dow Jones is much the same, as is Reuters.
    As difficult economic times begin again, I don't think it's worth adding skills to print journalists and creating electronic journalists who don't get the Web. I want Web journalists in my fighting hole.

  4. Good discussion. And as an IDGer, I am lucky enough to have various web journalism training classes available to me. You don't get that many places, for sure. I do feel part of the web culture and have a Facebook addiction to prove it.

    My question, though, is where do you see that B2B publishers that have gone to the web have had it "easy" for the past few years? Even if you're a company agnostic toward medium, throwing news and features and interactivity with readers into print and online venues, the going is not easy, far as I can tell. Revenue models are based on page-view counts heavily influenced by what the ad team can sell vs. what the editorial will generate -- or some uneasy truce between the two. It's tough -- not easy -- on everyone.

    --Kim Nash
    Senior Editor

  5. Hi Kim,
    Thanks for the comment.
    When I say that for "the past few years, life has been pretty easy for B2B publishers that have embraced the Web," I'm talking about two things.
    First and foremost -- Web journalists have changed the very nature of journalism. Those of us who have been lucky enough to participate in the Web have created all new forms of storytelling, found new ways to share information, opened up the conversation to readers, promoted the concept of agnostic links, etc. Our profession is a better place because of what we've accomplished on the Web.
    Second, I'm talking about growth. Publishers that embraced the Web have found extraordinary levels of revenue growth. That has made it much easier to justify head count, invest in new products, etc.
    But I think the days of journalism progress and revenue growth are ending. And sometime very soon we'll look back on the past few years as the "good old days."
    Sure, we've worked hard. Perhaps we've worked harder than we've ever worked before. But that hard work has resulted in something remarkable.
    But soon we'll be working even harder just to stay afloat.

  6. What's the fuss about being "web savvy." I'm 40 years old. I have a facebook page. I blog. I Twitter. I know how to post a video online. It takes 10 seconds to learn how to do all of this stuff.

    Here's the problem these days Instead of the age old problem of people not returning phone calls, now people don't return my phone calls, emails or text messages. You sing the praises of Twitter. I twitter, too. I visited your twitter update page and found a post to an article that you're "worried," about something and post a link to a story I've already read. I know that you're not wondering about Twitter's business model and that you're starting the new year with a clean desk. Not to dis you, because I have the same irrelevant posts on my twitter updates. Irrelevant being the key word. How does knowing all this about you possibly help me do my job as an advertising manager at a trade publication?

    It doesn't. It's a distraction.

    (In the spirt of full disclosure, you find upon visiting my Twitter updates that last Friday evening my wife and I had to wait 30 minutes for a table at Applebees).

    I think the main problem with Journalism-- all of it -- is an extreme neglect of the basics. If you want to sell more ads, call on more people. By golly that still works today. In today's economy!

    If you want to write a good story get your facts right. What happened to who? what? when? where? why? and how?

    This week we had a text book case of what's wrong. Barack Obama was supposed to win the NH primary by double digit percentages. The press bought that line hook, line and sinker. And then "they" (reporters and the like) claim they only report what the pollsters told them. WHAT? Naturally the news consuming public is laughing at the "media" for getting it so wrong.

    It doesn't matter if you're reporting on a presidential campaign or the thrid quarter earnings or ABC Widget company. If your reporting is sloppy, or just plain wrong, it doesn't matter if its delivered via a dead tree pub, a blog or a Tweet, the end product is no good no mattere how its packaged.

    I think we're just overwhelmed by gadgets (i.e. what you can do these days when you can log on to the web) and that gets in the way of what we should do best; something that should not be considered old fashioned and quaint, and that is report the news.

  7. Hi Ed,
    Thanks for the comment.
    If you were under the impression that I believe reporting the news is "old fashioned and quaint," then you have misunderstood. I have never suggested that any aspect of new media replaces the need for good reporting.
    Nor can I think of a single person that has ever said or implied such a thing.
    Also, you say that "we're just overwhelmed by gadgets" and seem to suggest that this has made it more difficult to get facts straight. If anyone -- journalist or not -- finds that reading Tweeter, sending Gmail or snapping photos with a cell phone is somehow interfering with their ability to think logically -- they should adopt a less modern lifestyle. Not everyone has to be part of Web culture. For that matter, not everyone needs to have a phone or watch television. But such people cannot be journalists in 2008.
    Also, I don’t use Twitter to help you do your “job as an advertising manager at a trade publication.” I use Twitter because I think it’s fun. I like knowing what people I like are doing. There are also folks who use Twitter to distribute news -- particularly the folks at CNN. And I think that's fun too.

  8. I read this post and had one of those "Amen, brother" moments.

    Web people have already taught themselves how to do the Web. They jump on every Twitter and Facebook, just to see how it works. Some applications they like and keep and develop, some they drop--there's just too much out there now not to be picky.

    None of this is rocket science. In fact, it's all pretty easy to learn and implement. And if your heart is there, you jump in and find out about the new online tools and trends.

    If not, you need training, but if I were hiring for the Web, I'd want someone who, first off, has good journalistic skills, as Edrahe pointed out. But I'd also one someone who has already been playing in that sandbox just because it's so darned fascinating, who could keep out?

    Like Zac says, it's that horse-and-water thing. You may even be able to make that horse drink if you hold its paycheck hostage until it does. But it wouldn't be a horse I'd put my money on when it comes to my organization's online presence.

  9. Hi Sue,
    Thanks for the comment.
    I agree 100%. At this point, as times grow tough, I want to be surrounded by people who jumped into the Web. I don't want to be around people who were dragged in. Nor do I want to be around people who hung back and said "teach me."
    I want people who have "already been playing in that sandbox just because it's so darned fascinating."

  10. To overplay the metaphor...

    Before you can train dinosaurs, one must tame them a bit.

    This involves making them understand that the extinction-making meteor is not 'on the way,' but rather, it hit ten years ago, and the dust cloud is up, and the early mammals walk around with these crazy looks in their eyes, adapting to the new scenery.

    In other words, it's much easier to train old school print journalists to work on the Web once you've stood in front of them and a) explained to them that the end of the world is nigh, and b) demonstrated how other news organizations have adapted.

  11. I tend to think some of the resistance people might have to learning web skills is partly a result of feeling intimidated, and in some cases maybe not realizing how easy some of this stuff really is.

    If your employer has just announced that it wants all employees to start producing video, great. You know that's what you have to learn. But if not, where do you start? How much do you have to know? Which of the many tools that are out there are easy to learn and install and which have a steeper learning curve? (For instance, previous versions of Apple's iMovie were very easy to use, but most people seem to think the latest version is anything but.) If you're learning on your own, you probably want to use as many free tools as possible, but they may be buggy. It's easy to be paralyzed by the options, and the idea that you have to research them all before you even start learning any real skills.

    I'm not saying this stuff is impossible to find out. In some cases -- starting a blog -- it's easy to get started. But it's an awful lot to consider, especially if you've got a big workload as it is.

    I'll probably be blogging about this soon.

    Martha Spizziri
    Web Editor
    VP, Boston/New England chapter

  12. Stating that "it's just too late to try and turn a print journalist into an online journalist..." implies that journalists cannot think beyond the medium. I'd love to agree, given the challenges I've faced as a Web editor, but I think it's simply not true.

    It may be hard to get the [older] fish to bite, but it's certainly worth trying. Journalists who don't want to learn how to use the Web can be a hinderance to future growth, but their experience and insights into journalism are equally important. To that extent it is imperative that we retrain old journalists so that we can use their resources to guide the direction for online initiatives.

    At the end of the day, regardless of medium, the fundamentals of sound reporting, writing, beat development and cultivating sources apply. Learning how to package content and use new tools for storytelling are mere issues of training. To cast aside all that we've built as the Fourth Estate because a new medium is growing in stature is simply throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Every Web editor worth his/her salt will tell you that trained or not, the transition to the Web will not be easy because of the same restrictions print editors have faced: staffing, unrealistic deadlines and expectations. I would suggest that industry leaders who believe we should do-away with everything old in favor of a new friend be shown the door. We need brave thinkers who can blend the best of both worlds. Clearly, Mr. Conley, you're in favor of folks who would eradicate a generation of journalists, that I as a young journalist look up to simply because they don't want to jump on a bandwagon.

  13. Anonymous,
    Spare me the hyperbole. (And while you're at it, spare me the clichés -- "baby out with the bathwater," "worth his/her salt," "be shown the door," "jump on a bandwagon," etc.)
    Clearly, neither I nor anyone I know is looking to "eradicate" a generation of journalists. All I'm saying is that I don't want my clients to waste any more time or money on training the percentage of that generation that has resisted the changes in media.
    In other words, I've grown tired of trying to keep a generation of journalists from eradicating itself. I'm saying that roughly 20 years after the arrival of CAR, converged newsrooms and interactive storytelling, it is absurd to continue to throw money away on training people who are stuck in some outdated fantasy about how journalism is conducted. Or to put it another way: If someone still needs help from the boss in 2008, they are beyond help.
    Anyone who is unwilling to learn the new skills from any of the dozens of free, online sites that offer such knowledge isn't worth worrying about. Anyone who can’t enroll at a community college, join Wired Journalists, take a course at MediaBistro, buy a textbook or ask the young person in the next cube for help isn’t worth worrying about.
    What I'm saying is that it's time for members of my generation (I'm 48) to stop looking for someone to walk them through the basics of electronic journalism. Such journalists have to start walking themselves. They are already years and years behind. More importantly, their stubborn and elitist attitudes have caused a crisis in the industry. There's a reason why hundreds of newspapers have closed and thousands of jobs have been lost in the past few years -- members of our profession have made it impossible for our companies to adjust to the present.
    Also, I don't believe that "journalists cannot think beyond the medium." Hell, I have spent the past four years of my life helping journalists to think beyond the medium. However, during those four years I have met HUNDREDS of journalists who REFUSE to think beyond the medium. That is the problem. And training cannot fix it.