5 practical skills every modern journalist needs — and how to learn them for free

Your nose for a story is honed, you can write razor-sharp copy to a deadline and you’re versed in media law. Your pitches are perfect and you’ve been published on a ream of major news sites. In short: you’re all set to be let loose in the newsroom, right? Not so fast. With dozens of talented young journalists battling it out for every new job, you’re going to need a few more strings to your bow. Here’s a checklist of what you need to know, and how to get up to speed.

1. SEO and Google News

Search Engine Optimization — it’s just about stuffing the headline with a few keywords, right? Well, actually it sort of is, yes. But considering that for most news organisations, Google is the top traffic referrer, it’s probably worth beefing up your knowledge a little.

It’s true that you don’t need to know everything about SEO to get by as hack. I originally learned about the many white and black tricks out there in a business environment, and I probably only apply about 10% of what I learned in a newsroom.

So ignore the technical stuff like page structure, indexing, link equity etc, and instead boff up on how to find the best keywords — yes, you should be thinking about the terms that go in your headline, standfirst, sluglines and ledes. It doesn’t take a minute to check Google Trends for some help, yet so few people routinely bother. If you write a lot of headlines, you could take it further with other tools such as WordStream or Keyword Finder.

Also try to be sharper with your linking. It isn’t difficult, yet many writers are still lazy with this. Link to outside content when you mention it, link to related internal content whenever possible. Simple.

In addition, spend a minute reading up on SEO for video, and study this excellent guide on how to optimise content for Google News.

2. Data-visualisation

As much as data journalism has long been a sought after commodity in newsrooms, visual data elements are all too rarely planned in advanced. What editors want in most cases are quick-win supporting graphics that can be made at a moments notice, readied in the time it takes an article to pass through subs.

The good news is you can teach yourself to create eye-catching visuals that editors, readers and social media people will love really easily.  Online programs such as Datawrapper and Infogram do all the hard work for you, allowing you to just plug in some numbers and make magic happen at the click of a button. You can sign up for a free account with either and you’ll be an expert by lunchtime.

Although knocking up charts can be super simple, there are a few traps that its easy to fall into. I would recommend steering clear of pie charts, being careful with scales, and making sure your line charts are being honest.

Before you know it you’ll probably be thought of as the go-to data person on your desk, even if the sight of a spreadsheet full of numbers makes you want to vomit.

3. Social media

Sure, we can all send a tweet a headline write a Facebook post. But an extra bit of extra thought and effort can turn mundane posts into viral hits.

You can take your social game up a level in less than 15 minutes. Start by reading the most concise guide to Twitter for publishers I’ve seen, by Mediashift. It’s got loads of great tips that will inform your tweets, plus there are some general lessons that you can apply to all of your social channels.

As far as Facebook goes, most publishers’ biggest social referrer, it offers its own courses for journalists, here, which are well worth a look. For further inspiration, follow the likes of Quartz and Vox on Facebook: they have mastered the art of social friendly headlines — something you need to get comfortable writing.

And while promoting content is still the main purpose of social media, it has other uses for journalists, too: sourcing information, networking, verifying, and interacting with readers are just some of the ways you could be going beyond Tweetdeck.

Finally, here’s a good roundup of social tools journalists might find useful.

4. Coding

I’ve already discussed whether journalists need to learn to code in a previous blog post, and for now, my answer is that you just need to know the basics. That means that for now, unless you want to become a leading data journalist, just make sure you’re comfortable with HTML and CSS, and leave the rest to nerdy hackers.

Unless you have the best CMS in the world, manipulating HTML and CSS will probably become a part of your journalism day job. Pleasingly, you can learn both in just a day with this Codeacademy course. Codeacademy is free, and although I haven’t taken this particular course myself, I used the site to learn the basics of the Python language and it was fun to use, witty, and pleasingly, aimed at total beginners. Did I mention it’s free?

5. Photo editing

Most reporters and editors these days have to be able to add photos to pieces. Being able to brighten an image, crop something out, or create a simple montage are hugely useful skills to have to hand.

Adobe Photoshop (and InDesign, and the rest of the Adobe stuff) can be intimidating for people who don’t use it regularly. But it doesn’t really take long to learn the basics, and you can download a trial for free to give yourself a chance to practice at home. There’s plenty of YouTube tutorials out there to help you get started.

Professional image people won’t like me saying this, but I’m also partial to online photo editor Pixlr. It has all the simple functions of Photoshop but is browser based, so quick to load, quick to use and available on whatever machine you are using.

Final thoughts

There are plenty more candidates to lengthen this list: Using audience data tools effectively, video editing, scraping websites, and endless patience are just a few that come to mind. But my own experience is that these are the five that come up most frequently on job descriptions, in interviews, and crucially, on the day-to-day job. They are all quick to grasp and free to learn — so what’s stopping you?


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