31-3.5 Advice for young interactive journalists

The Interhacktives at work

Today, I taught my last formal class for this year's class of Interhacktives at City University. The two terms I teach them in have gone astonishingly quickly, but I've enjoyed it very much. I'm looking forward to seeing what they do with what they've learned, both in their final assessed piece of work and in their careers to come.

And as something of a parting gift, I wanted to leave them with five general pieces of advice for their no-doubt brilliant future careers:

1. Know your kit

Android versus iOS, Mac versus PC, Canon versus Nikon. None of this matters. All of them are perfectly good bits of kit that will allow you to do you job. Just make sure that you're familiar enough with them that they effectively disappear, leaving you to focus on the journalism. Don't rely on your work IT department to provide you with what you need - they're always behind the curve and are working to different agendas. Make the right kit choices for you, and put the time in to make sure you know how it works. It'll pay off in spades, because it gives you the time and the skills to produce really good work. Which leads us to...

2. Invest time to save time

Digital journalism is about working clever, so you can work hard but effectively. The best time investment I've put in during the last few years is learning Markdown. This is a "language" for writing web copy fluidly, without having to hard code the HTML and without the time delay of constantly going up to click on the formatting buttons. So far I've written this post - links, crossheads and all, without touching the trackpad once. All the formatting has been done using Markdown, and it'll be translated to HTML when I publish. WordPress supports it. Medium supports it. SquareSpace supports it. Great skill to learn, because it makes me faster. Find things like this. Take the time to learn them.

3. Never be afraid to experiment

People who tell you what the "right" way to use an online service are usually wrong. Why? Because these things change over time. Like any social system, the dynamics are constantly changing, and the evolving technology beneath them - and around them - just accelerates that process. IGNORE any article that tells you how to use a new social platform within the first month or so of that platform's life - maybe the first six months. Behaviour patterns take a while to emerge, and even longer to settle down. The people who create the service are often atrociously bad at understanding how it will eventually be used. Learn by experimenting - and by watching the experiments of others.

4. Find your peers

I've had a cohort of friends and colleagues around me as long as I've been doing digital journalism. The likes of Kevin Anderson, Robin Hamman, Joanna Geary, Alison Gow, Sarah Hartley, Andy Dickinson, Graham Holliday, Martin Stabe, Glyn Mottershead and Paul Bradshaw have been influencing my thinking for over a decade, and way too many others to list have joined that on-going conversation about digital journalism in the time since. We've shared experiences, knowledge, failures and successes, and through that driven the field forwards. This field is moving too fast for any one person to keep up with on their own - so find people you trust, and continue sharing your experiences with them. If those are your classmates, so much the better.

5. Don't obsess about journalism

Many of the things that will change journalism won't come from within journalism. Pay attention to what your peers all over the world are doing, sure. But cast your net wider. Many of the disasters we've seem in media's attempt to develop online community have happened because the people behind it haven't looked outside the media frame of reference. There's experience, learning and methodology that's been developed over two decades that's been ignored or missed simply because the discussion about the future of news has turned inwards. Disruption comes from the outside: if you want to see it coming, you need to be looking the right way.

This is the fifth in a series of one-a-day substantive posts I'm going to try to write through March.