Monday, July 14, 2008

Chill out on the tools

A friend who teaches at a prominent j-school told me recently that the staff is at a loss about what tools to tell their students to master. Do they really need to tell budding journalists that they need to become master video-graphers, pod-castsers, video editors, and slide-show creators, she wondered?

I told her no.

Back in the late '90s, when the Internet craze started snowballing out here in Silicon Valley, everyone and their grandmother was rushing to master HTML, Photoshop, Illustrator, and javascript. There was this belief that, in order to get a job in this biz, you needed to master all the tools, even if you really were mainly a writer. And sure enough, there we were, there I was, taking classes left and right to get up-to-speed.

And then a funny thing happened. Well, two things actually.

First, the tools (and the coding capabilities) progressed so quickly that, increasingly, people had to specialize in order to really be on top of everything that could be done--coding-wise, layout-wise, visuals-wise. Specialized fields emerged, and companies that once hired a single jack-of-all-trades to do everything for their website started hiring specialists--specialized programmers, specialized user interface designers, specialized visual designers. That trend continues today. Within programming, there are myriad specialities. Within UI design, there are myriad specialities. Same for visual design. There are people, for example, who are so specialized, they spend all their time designing buttons for cell phones. Go ahead, take out your cell phone. See all those buttons on the screen of your phone? There are people who specialize in designing only those.

The second thing that happened was that tools increasingly emerged for amateurs. First, you had to be able to code HTML by hand. Then tools like Dreamweaver emerged, where you still needed to generally understand what was going on under the hood, but you could use a lot of user-friendly shortcuts, like drag-and-drop. Today, there are tools for people who want to design their own webpages without any understanding whatsoever of what's going on under the hood. Maybe you've even used them yourself.

These same trends are going to take place in the news business. On the one hand, new specialties will emerge. You might already be seeing that in your own newsroom, with the emergence of video specialists. On the other hand, the tools will get easier to use. Think about how easy it is today to shoot a digital picture. It will get that easy to shoot video, download, and edit.

This doesn't answer the question of: But no matter how easy it gets, I still don't have time to shoot video, do a podcast, post to a blog and write my story. It's OK. I have an answer for that too. There was a similar frenzy in the late '90s. It didn't take long to figure out that one person simply couldn't do everything. There was a shaking out period. People figured out which activities were highest priority. And tasks were assigned accordingly. More on that later.

Photo courtesy of Peter Kaminsky. Creative Commons License.

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