You can’t teach culture (Carnival of Journalism No. 2)

Not every staff member can become an online or multimedia journalist.

And if they aren’t really great in their traditional media role, they probably don’t have a long-term role in your news organization. That’s the sad reality, but it’s the only way for newspapers to evolve.

You can’t teach culture.

A lot of journalists are complaining that no one is teaching them what they need to know to survive online. No one is teaching them how to be an online journalist. I’ve got news for you: you can’t be taught how to be an online journalist.

Either you are or you aren’t.

You can’t teach culture.

An online journalist is just a journalist who is online, who gets the Internet and is Web savvy. Online journalism is so much more than knowing Soundslides, video editing or some HTML tags.

Do you read blogs in your spare time? Are you on social networks like Facebook, Twitter,, Digg, LinkedIn, etc? Have you experimented with HTML just because?

Have you played around with blogging software? I can teach specific skills to a person like that — skills like multimedia reporting with Soundslides. I can teach them how to conceptualize and build special features.

I can teach individual skills.

I can’t teach culture.

The leading online and multimedia journalists live, eat and breathe the Web. It’s their life blood. You can’t teach that.

Many journalists still don’t have Internet in their homes. I’m 23, and I have had personal Internet for more than half my life. I grew up with the Internet.

I remember a time before AOL had buddy lists. I remember when Geocities (a free Web hosting service) had those annoying pop-up ads. I remember when a lot of companies only had content on AOL, not on the Web itself.

I was building rudimentary Web pages in middle school just because — not because someone told me I had to learn to build them to keep my job. Because I wanted to. Because I enjoy being on the Internet and connecting with people all over the world.

Do we honestly expect people who haven’t already embraced the Web to become online journalists? We all have colleagues who don’t have the Internet at home or still use dial-up. People like that don’t get the Web and never will (unless they live in one of those areas that doesn’t have broadband options).

Paul Conley and others have begun hitting on this issue since I started writing this post. Conley doesn’t see the point in trying to teach people a culture:

For someone to work on the Web, they must be part of the Web. That, after all, is what the Web means. The Web is a web. It exists as a series of connections. An online journalist isn’t a journalist who works online. He’s a journalist who lives online. He’s part of the Web.

It’s a waste of time and money to teach multimedia skills and technology to someone who hasn’t already become part of the Web. And there’s no need to teach skills and technology to the journalists who are already part of Web culture, because the culture requires participation in skills and technology.

Or, to put it another way — I cannot teach the Web. No one can. Yet all of us who are part of the Web are learning the Web.

Conley and I disagree on one thing: I still believe in training. I just believe in offering training to those who will most get it — I need ROI.

I think Conley would agree with me that the kind of training we can never offer is how to be an online journalist. We can only offer people with online skills the opportunity to learn more skills. You know CSS, well it’s time to learn javascript/Ajax. That sort of thing.

Mind McAdams says even her students (mostly 18-21 in age) usually cannot be made to get it:

Sometimes I despair at how many young students we lead to the multimedia trough only to see them decline to drink. Sometimes I feel like the only ones who “get it” are the ones who already “got it” before we got them.

Learning the Web is not like learning statistics or history. It’s not taught in some class. It’s just something that you do because you want to do it.

I can’t teach you how to love cars and what’s under their hoods. Sure, I could teach you how to change the oil or add coolant, but I can’t teach you anything meaningful. Certified mechanics know a lot about cars long before they ever have any formal training.

They grew up with cars. They know cars. They love cars.

When they are given training, it’s usually to learn something specific about a make or model, not to learn about cars in general. They are expected to know that, and they all do.

That’s how online journalists are. Sure, they can always learn new skills, but they get the culture. They understand the Web.

You learn because you spend time on the Internet in your free time. You experiment. You try new things just because, not because someone told you to do it.

Just because.

This is my January post for the Carnival of Journalism. It is currently hosted by Adrian Monck.

  • I’m not sure I agree with your car metaphor. I know what you’re trying to communicate, but I think you missed.
    I can’t remember who told me this, but someone once said “All you need to be a journalist is to be curious about everything.” Including cars and the Web.

  • pat

    Megan, I made a slight change to my car metaphor to make it line up better.

    I think my point is that you can’t teach someone to love cars or want to work on them. It’s just something that people discover on their one. Most mechanics start tinkering around with old cars when they are young.

    The problem is that most journalists aren’t curious about the Web, which is why it doesn’t make sense to train them on the Web. You can’t train the Web, only individual skills on the Web.

  • I must admit in my initial reading of this post I read, “…And if they are really great in their traditional media role, they probably don’t have a long-term role in your news organization…” and I recoiled and readied my flamethrower.

    With a re-reading it makes much more sense… 🙂

    What occurred to me on my re-reading is that I’ve seen this before. Here:

    The things talked about there, “passion”, “self-teaching”, etc. are the same issues Journalists face, aren’t they.

    The message here I think is rather than eliminating people… bring in better ones.

  • Besides sharing the same surname, it appears we’re also linked closely by the way we both think:

    I’ve been involved in selecting and hiring members of staff in the past, and I think now is the time that I make a new stand that no-one I’m involved in hiring for an online position will be getting much attention unless they’ve already demonstrated some knowledge, interest, and participation in social networks, blogging, news aggregators etc.

    As you say, training has a valuable place, but you need people who will respond to it. And if someone looking for a job hasn’t taken the time to market themselves for the online world, then we would they do it with the security of a job around them?

    If they’re not breaking news stories (or at least attempting to), via a blog or website already, then why would they suddenly get that fire once they’re able to hide behind other colleagues…

    It’s not about only hiring the A-List bloggers, or people with a certain minimum number of friends on Facebook, but just picking those people with a passion to try and use all the tools available to create the best work…

  • Oh, and I think a lot more journalists are curious about the web than like to admit it. Sadly it seems less and less journalists are able to admit they don’t know everything…it certainly seemed that way when I admitted it to people demonstrating products etc…They found it really refreshing and took more time and trouble to make sure I had everything nailed down, and it made for a better understanding and better story in the long run…

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  • Pettsson

    I acctually think that you’re totally wrong. This would all be totally true if I accepted the fact that all “multimedia journalists” would be writing about said multimedia, and I belive this to be wrong. The internet is a tool to distribute your articles, and, if you so choose, nothing more. If a person has something to tell, and wants to do so, he will, and if you teach him the tools he will do so on the internet, and if he’s good enough people will notice and he will never have to understand the scary parts of our world of 0s and 1s, like Facebook 😉

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