For the past two decades the local newspaper industry has been wracked by change due to the rise of the internet and digital tools.
This impact of digital change on local newspapers has been long documented by commentators, practitioners and academics, with methods of producing and accessing news demonstrating how digital tools have revolutionised the industry.
But while hacks of old might not recognise the landscape of modern news, up until recently they might not have had much trouble getting an interview or job on a newspaper, despite little or no knowledge of using digital technology.
In fact, research shows the skills required for news staff working on newspapers has changed very little over the past two decades – meaning traditional skills have remained more highly prized by employing editors than digital capabilities.
This was proved in 2011, when the NCTJ decided not to change its curriculum following a study which showed editors’ continuing preference for traditional skills.
Only recently have studies started to show gaining value of digital skills, with recent research by Dr Lily Canter demonstrating that employing editors across the news industry were starting to acknowledge digital skills as being as equally important as traditional ones.
However, research has not indicated that digital skills have started to outweigh traditional ones in terms of desirability, until now.
Collection of recruitment advertisements from www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk – the main news and jobs site for local newspapers within the UK – over a three month period from November 1, 2014 to January 31, 2015 has shown a definite tip towards digital skills preference.
Collection included all job advertisements for news positions on local and regional newspapers in the UK, including editors, newsdesk roles, specialist, senior and trainee reporters, online journalists and roles which fell into an ‘other’ category.
Collection did not include feature writers, sports journalists or jobs advertised for anywhere other than local newspapers in the UK.
To analyse the adverts two keyword sets were identified – a digital set and a traditional set.
The traditional words identified skills and qualities associated with news journalism prior to the introduction of digital technology.
The digital words identified skills and qualities directly associated with digital tools in the newsroom.
In total 102 adverts were collected, four of which were later dismissed as ineligible. The remaining adverts were assessed for inclusion of the keywords, including how many times keywords appeared and where in the text they first appeared. The employing company and job category was also noted.
Any words which appeared but were not relevant in the context intended by the study were dismissed.
Of the adverts assessed there was a significantly higher number of digital keywords over traditional – with 56 per cent (496) of keywords used coming from the digital set and 44 per cent (395) coming from the traditional set. This was despite only 16 of the 19 digital keywords actually being used in the job descriptions, with ‘likes’, ‘podcast’ and ‘code’ all not being used at any point.
Of the digital keywords used, ‘online’ was the most common, followed by ‘digital’ and ‘social media’. Of the traditional keywords used, ‘print’ was the most common, followed by ‘NCTJ’ and ‘ideas’.
Of the employing news groups, Local World placed the highest number of adverts with 33, followed by Newsquest with 22 and Trinity Mirror with 16. Johnston Press, the fourth of the large newsgroups within the UK placed no adverts during this time, perhaps due to recently announced redundancy plans across the company.
Trinity Mirror placed the highest emphasis on digital language, with 73 per cent of the keywords it used coming from the digital set. Newsquest had 54 per cent from digital and Local World had 52 per cent from digital.
Archant, which placed eight adverts, gave higher emphasis to traditional language, with 59 per cent of its keyword use coming from the traditional set. The remaining smaller newsgroups and independents were grouped together – with 70 per cent of their keywords overall coming from the traditional set.
Recruitment for reporters was highest with 35 positions, closely followed by trainee reporters at 34. The remainder of the positions were all under ten advertisements each, with no deputy editor positions advertised.
The difficulty presented by this study of course is the fact that it projects results from a limited time frame – therefore giving a snapshot rather than the big picture. This collection is the first part of an annual three-month collection taking place over four years in order to track any changes and trends. It will also be complimented by additional surveys, observations and interviews to establish skills priorities within newsroom practice.
Overall, these results show a clear preference for digital skills in terms of both keyword use and order of placement within the advertisements. But before it is assumed that this situation follows suit in the newsroom, caution must be voiced. The preference for digital over traditional could merely be indicating a desired state of a newsroom or company, rather than reality. It could also indicate an urge to demonstrate the importance of newer digital skills in contrast to taken-for-granted traditional ones. The research falls in line with the findings of Dr Lily Canter in terms of digital skills being at least as equally important as traditional. However, it contrasts her study which suggested qualifications like the NCTJ were no longer of great importance to employing editors.
There is still work to be done to establish these findings as set in stone. However, as a snapshot, these results strongly suggest the digital tipping point at local newspapers within the UK has been reached.