In journalism, must one be a jack of all trades and master of none?

Floyd County High School football coach Winifred Beale at the state championship football game in 2008.
Floyd County High School football coach Winfred Beale at the state championship football game in 2008.  A news photo taken for The Floyd Press.

While mentoring photojournalism students at nearby universities, a question that comes up often nowadays is:  “Am I wasting my time getting a degree in a profession that is disappearing?”

To some, photojournalism, my chosen profession for the past 50 years, is headed for the dumpster.  Newspapers like the Chicago Sun-Times, have fired their entire photography staff and announced they will depend on reporter and reader-submitted photographs and, in some cases, free-lancers.

Other publications are paring back.

Gannett, owner of USA Today and other newspapers, is training reporters to use iPhones for photos and multimedia and a newspaper editor made headlines recently by saying, in effect, that it is easier to train a reporter to take photos than to train a photographer to write.

Sorry, I don’t buy that.  I learned early on as a photographer that adding reporting skills to my portfolio increased my chances for employment.  Yes, I wanted primarily to take photos for newspaper but I also found that learning to cover stories as a reporter meant the difference between getting a job or not having one.

Somewhere along the line, without realizing it, I became what the the media chains now call a “multimedia journalist” which is someone that can cover a story, write about it, illustrate it with photos and — if necessary — shoot video for the web site or broadcast use.

So I tell students:  Develop your passion but also add skills that increase your chance to get a job.

Is specialization dead in journalism?  No, but for those of us who work now or have worked a lot for small and medium sized newspapers throughout our lives, specialization vanished long ago.

When I went to work for The Floyd Press as a high-school student, editor and owner Pete Hallman wasn’t looking for just a photographer.  He wanted someone to write stories, take photos and occasionally run the Linotype, help lay out pages and do just about anything else that came up.

In 1965, when Jim Echols, then city editor of The Roanoke Times, hired me as the paper’s youngest full-time reporter, he looked at my photos but paid more attention to my file folder of newspaper story clips.

“I’m not looking for photographers who can also write,” he said, “but I am looking for reporters who can also take pictures.”

The same was true five years later when I moved on to The Telegraph in Alton, Illinois.  I became a reporter who illustrated his own stories and also produced photo features.  Over an 11-year term at the paper, I also wrote columns, produced the weekend magazine, served as city editor for a while and edited the weekend edition of the paper.

So, as I look back now at a career that includes work for newspapers, magazines, wire services and broadcast outlets, I wonder if I could have survived in this profession as just a photographer or a reporter or even a video cameraman.

Probably not.  There are specialized photographers much better, dedicated reporters far more skilled and videographers with a far more advanced visual style.  To borrow an old stereotyped phrase, it was better in my case to be a jack of all trades and a master of none.

Still, as one who still today writes stories about government, courts and justice, produces photo features and puts together videos, I love what I do.

In the end, that’s what matters most.

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7 thoughts on “In journalism, must one be a jack of all trades and master of none?”

  1. Way back in the Stone Age, college was where you went to sharpen your critical thinking skills by studying the humanities. You went to college knowing that you knew everything and graduated knowing that you knew nothing. Now, you go to college to get a “license” so that you can get a job. That is a radical change and a subject worthy of some serious reflection. Sadly, most of today’s journalism graduates wouldn’t know where to start if they were to tackle such a subject. If they did know where to start, there would be no reward (monetary or career) in pursuing such a query. And that, my friends, is a sad state of affairs which deserves to be pondered widely.

    • I work with a number of journalism students through mentoring programs and find a commitment to the pursuit of truth and justice that was lacking in those from our generation who could have accomplished more and that gives me hope for the future. I find many students today more concerned about making a difference in society than in monetary gain. Perhaps they will be able to avoid the mistakes that our generation made in putting personal ambition ahead of doing good. The sad state of affairs that you seek to put on their soldiers is one that is of our doing, not theirs. Lets all take a hard look in the mirror and put the blame where it deserves: On the reflection that beams back.

      • Doug, I hope you are right. Everything is supposed to be cyclical, no? The anti-Establishment youth of the Sixties became the Establishment in the Greed Is Good Eighties. The very demographic that scoffed at their parents staying loyal to one company their whole working lives, with their X-years company anniversary gold watch and pensions became the group that pulled the ladder up behind them once they got THEIR gold watch and pension. The era of mega-mergers eroded company loyalty–on all levels of the company ladder–and ushered in the 401K, which sometimes the company matched. Then came the New Millennia where nobody was partying like it’s 1999 (except for Prince, perhaps, who had to have made millions off that song in just one year, heck, one NIGHT), unions went bust and jobs overseas, and that 401K became a retirement yo-yo.

        The 21st century ushered in a smoke-’em-if-you-got-’em mentality (resignation?) as executive pay continued soaring like Icarus but with Teflon wings, while Joe Employee toiled like Sisyphus. As reliable as sunrise, any talk of raising the minimum wage (currently, states pay ~$7-8.00/hour; federal jobs pay $7.25/hour; tipped workers, paid $2.13/hour, where it has been SINCE 1991) is met with fierce resistance by industry and Republicans alike, though NO increase in the minimum wage has ever resulted in mass layoffs or hiring freezes.

        Each generation is supposed to do better than the previous one, or so goes prevailing wisdom. Were that only true, or still true. Today’s youngest Baby Boomers, those in their 50s and 60s who in 2008 saw much of their home’s value, their 401Ks melt faster than candle wax–while hundreds of hedge fund managers unashamedly cashed in huge bonuses–simply don’t have enough prime working years left to recoup their losses. They may be the first generation to do WORSE than their parents. And THEIR adult children may fare as poorly if our own government doesn’t consider meeting the needs of ITS citizens first and more important than meeting the needs of yet another disaster-stricken part of the world. We are not the world’s wet nurse, and nor should we be. (There is also a sick irony in that some of the very people we help, HATE us, hate what the U.S. represents [or used to; who knows anymore what the U.S. represents. Maybe as others have suggested, we should become a federation of nation-states, a United State of Americas, if you will.)

        Obama, once again, has called for increasing the minimum wage, and indexing it to inflation. And once again, Republicans, caving to pressure from big business and their own party members, will do their best to make sure that doesn’t happen. And the public, once again, will protest Congress’s refusal. And do nothing else, except, likely, vote back in the same incumbents who have already let them down. We simply do not have the strength of our convictions.

        But perhaps, as Doug has noticed in his students, that generation WILL have the backbone, the tenacity, the integrity that the current and previous generation lacked, to make the United States “great” again, one truly worthy of emulating.

      • Doug, I didn’t put the “sad state of affairs” on anyone’s shoulders. I simply said that pursuing truth through journalism puts ones’ career at risk and is rarely profitable. That has been true for a long, long time but with the media consolidation that has taken place in the last 30 years, it is more true now than it ever was.

    • Well said, and as true today as in the Stone Age (grin). I do agree with those who posit certification from a trade/vocational school is as valuable as a degree from a university/college. Not everyone is “college material” or interested in a 4-year degree, and that should not be seen as a negative. The world needs its plumbers, electricians, mechanics, medical coders, LPNs, etc, All fields that need only certification (and often some kind of externship or apprenticeship) and that pay a decent wage. I also agree wth those who argue college curriculums should be updated to reflect the word we live in today. Where I disagree is in the requirements of many of those curriculums. I would like to see more degree-specific required classes and less electives (and no “Study Hall” options). Electives are important–they help you see the world in context–a wde-angle vew versus tunnel vision–and also from different perspectives, but, at least in that Stone Age, electives made up, IMO, a disproportionate amount of total credits. In a world that is increasingly specialized (I remember a doctor who joked that he would probably need a “refresher” in drawing blood or inserting an IV since his hospital, like so many, had a phlebotomy department that handled such requirements), global, and growing ever more high-tech, I would think students would be better served by taking more, not less, classes that relate to their field of study.

      Regarding philosophical attitudes about higher education, there is one major flaw in the university system (outside, perhaps, your Ivy League schools): Their emphasis is on providing students with the tools to have successful careers. Not to be leaders in those careers. An article in Forbes a few years ago pointed out a crucial difference in attitude among middle class parents versus wealthy ones. Middle class parents generally teach their kids to “get a good education so you can get a good job.” And there is nothing wrong with that mentality. But wealthy parents teach their kids to get a good education so they can START their own business. And that is a huge difference in mindset. And again, there is nothing wrong with not wanting to own your own company, or getting a college degree, or being the best employee you can be. But the perspectives, how you view the future, even the world around you, are quite different if you are brought up on the notion/expectation of starting your own company one day versus being the best employee you can be/climb the corporate ladder.

      Finally, as for journalism, what passes for “journalism” today is an embarrassment. It is too often just personal opinion and bias covered by a thin veneer of truth. And no news outfit exemplifies the degradation of quality journalism, nor does it better, than Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, Fox News in particular. And Fox excels at it because it appeals to the lowest common denominator, one’s baser instincts. They are the “Jerry Springer Show” of news organizations. They draw viewers because they, like politicians, aim for the visceral, play on voters’ and the public’s fear of change (and super-exaggerate the what-if..), focus on manipulating their feelings rather than appealing to their intellect. from day 1 of Obama’s presidency there’s been a cry from the right, with Fox holding the megaphone, about “taking back the country.” But taking it back from WHAT? The black man in the Oval Office? Because, seriously, on Inauguration Day, before Obama had even BEEN president for 24 hours, that cry was fired into the echo chamber. But no one could articulate what we needed to take back or why. What threat was there to national security? The sad thing is we do need, can benefit from, a news organization with a conservative orientation. But one that is honest, fair, has integrity. And that isn’t Fox News. Ironically, Republicans, Fox News’ reporters, self-described conservatives, insist the media, all media, are biased toward liberals–despite the fact some of the harshest FACT-based criticisms of the current Administration and Congress come from so-called “liberal” media and despite the fact that nearly ALL the major media outlets are owned by super-rich CONSERVATIVES.

  2. I’m passing this along to some other journalism teachers…. but had to note first that Doug is both “jack” and “master” of a third collection of skills he didn’t mention, maybe because they’re too obvious to readers of this site:
    In addition to the photography (darkroom & digital, still & video, and video editing), he’s also a master of Web publishing, not just using the “flavor of the month” blogging program, but keeping up to date with at least a dozen waves of “new technology” in the past 20 years.

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