In Depth

Reflection a Survival Skill in Tough Times

Expert Maps Strategy to Keep Pace With Technology, Economic Woes

As the crisis in the economy intensifies, broadcast journalists and other media professionals are feeling the squeeze. There have been layoffs and buyouts, early retirements and even the shuttering of once-stalwart media outlets.

What can news professionals do to ensure that they remain viable assets in these precarious times? One answer is to pursue education to enhance your position and make you more essential than the next reporter.

“I’m a huge advocate of education. I say take classes just because they’re interesting, not just to get a degree. As journalists, the worst thing you can do is finish school and close your mind to any more knowledge. The reality is that good journalists don’t do that. Most journalists are interested and engaged. That’s what journalism is all about,” said Dale Willman of Field Notes Productions, an environmental journalism nonprofit organization. “Gain knowledge within whatever realm you’re covering.”

Mr. Willman has worked for CBS, NPR and CNN and, as the environmental correspondent for CNN Radio, won an Edward R. Murrow Award for investigative reporting. “I have a master’s degree in environmental law and policy,” he said. “That doesn’t help me with science stories, but it does focus my way of thinking that helps me tell stories.”

Education is more than just adding a line to the resume or some initials to one’s title. A return to the classroom in any form—college, an online course, even seminars or sessions at conferences—sharpens a reporter’s ability as a reflective practitioner. “It’s incredibly valuable to be more reflective in what you do,” Mr. Willman said. “Journalists by nature don’t seem either able or willing at times to step back and really reflect on what we do. We’re not going to become better unless we take that opportunity periodically to really, truly think about what we do and why.”

The need for reflection is especially urgent now because of the Web, he added. “The way things are changing technologically with the shift to the Internet, if we don’t think about what our world is today, we’re going to become dinosaurs,” said Mr. Willman. “So any opportunity to take time to think is a plus. There are fellowships for journalists, some where you don’t have to take a lot of time away from your job.”

News professionals also should be learning the tools of the trade for the 21st century. “We can’t be afraid of technology. We’re in a transition—like when radio came along, newspaper people had to learn new skills. They had to learn to use tape recorders and learn how to do interviews in a different fashion. The journalism stayed the same,” said Mr. Willman.

In today’s environment, that means becoming familiar with communicating on the Web, using video and blogs, e-mail and Web sites. “Things like Twitter, too—not that we all need to be into everything, but we do need to be reflective in thinking what these tools mean to us and how they can help us do our jobs as journalists,” Mr. Willman said.

While the technical skills are valuable, nothing is as important as experience in media. “If the experienced person is open to learning new technology, I’m hiring the experienced journalist,” said Mr. Willman. “They can teach monkeys to edit audio and videotape; the technology is that simple. … What’s harder to teach is the knowledge an experienced journalist has gained covering a beat, covering stories. That is the true strength we as journalists bring to our jobs. It’s not the technical skills.”

Looking ahead, broadcast and print media are likely to continue evolving, which is all the more reason for professionals to prepare with education. It may be the one safeguard as the media landscape reconfigures.

“We’re in this immense shakeout over the next 10 years,” Mr. Willman said. “The Internet is a delivery mode. We don’t even know what the new media is going to look like. Some elements will be out there, but in the future we’re going to look back at now and wonder why we didn’t see what’s going to happen.

“If I were giving advice, I’d say learn the tools.”