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Asking reporters to sell subscriptions and the plight of the jack-of-trade journalist

It’s no secret that newsrooms around the country are shrinking. Faced with lower subscriptions, deep budget cuts and an ever-changing digital landscape, media outlets are fighting to produce the same quality content they’ve always had with fewer reporters and resources.

In many cases, this means cutting the fat from the newsroom – getting rid of highly-skilled photographers, editors and even cameramen to hire a reporter who can work a camera phone. While every journalist should have the skills necessary to report and promote their story, should they also be responsible for soliciting magazine or newspaper subscriptions?

Just last month, Forbes reported that the New Republic had asked its journalists to sell magazine subscriptions as part of an intra-office contest. Forbes staffer Jeff Bercovici commented: “Journalists are in the business of asking uncomfortable questions, but asking people to get out their wallets is a special breed of awkward. You could even argue that it pokes a hole in the traditional wall that’s supposed to separate editorial processes from business operations.”

Tayne Kim, managing editor of magazine content at Vocus Media Research Group, agreed. The “idea of reporters selling subscriptions, on the surface, is deplorable. But it’s probably unfair to point to this New Republic contest as the poster for the ever-shifting-and-ambiguous line between content and business,” which inVocus examined in the past. The reality of today’s newsroom means that reporters are expected to do much more than write.

“The growing expectation is that journalists be more involved in helping produce profitable (or at least visible) content neatly integrated across multiple channels,” said Kim. “This not only requires [writing] compelling content, but also a working knowledge of how to navigate new media (i.e. social media savvy, an understanding of SEO and knowledge of basic Web design, photo/video/graphic design systems).”

Bill Grueskin, dean of academic affairs at Columbia University’s graduate journalism school, referred to this new hybrid reporter as the “Swiss Army knife journalist” – someone who can do a little bit of everything. But reporters shouldn’t have to do it all. Grueskin argues, “few reporters can do everything well: if they’re busy looking for their best shot, they’ll have less time to interview sources.”

Given the choice, if Kim were running a newsroom he’d “always take the journalist who excels at reporting and writing over a mediocre one who’s a technical jack-of-all-trades.” What the New Republic asked of its reporters was “cringe-worthy,” but knowing some editing, design and programming skills is vital in today’s digital age.

With new technology and social media popping up every day, it’s hard to predict exactly what reporters will be expected to know to keep their publications profitable. One thing, however, is for sure. If a reporter can’t write, they might as well put the smartphone down and head home.

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