Media Masterclass: News and Current Affairs

New skills promoted by rapid technological change were highlighted by Sky News during the closing panel discussion at the RTS's Getting Inside the Media day.

Reporters equipped with nothing more than a smartphone are nowadays one of the assets that can be deployed to cover a story by Sky News and other TV news providers.

Sky's service now reaches 107 million homes in 118 countries and is seen on TVs, phones, tablets, laptops and PCs.

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"It won't be long before Sky News will be available on your watch and fridge," quipped session chair Richard Sambrook, the former Director of BBC News turned Professor of Journalism and Director of the Centre for Journalism at Cardiff School of Journalism.

A clip of Sky News journalist Nick Martin covering last winter's floods in the Home Counties was shown to demonstrate the new age of TV news gathering. Martin used an app on his smartphone to "broadcast live with a selfie stick", noted Sambrook.

"With a 4G SIM card, the data connection is good enough to have broadcast quality," said panellist Martin Stanford, one of Sky News's longest serving journalists.

Yet despite the onward rush of technology, the need for strong content and linear platforms remained, added the Sky News stalwart. He said: "A huge bunch of stuff has changed... How we deliver our product to viewers, but what hasn't changed is a cracking story...

"Pictures still drive a great story. A lot of the time at rolling news channels we are, to an extent, treading water.

"Then a big story comes along and even now you have to go and find a TV to watch it on instead of seeing it on your mobile."

And, of course, reporters such as Martin, regardless of the technology they use, need to have all the fundamental skills required of a TV news correspondent. "He needs to be able to explain the story. We shouldn't take that for granted," noted Sambrook. "It's a skill to be able to walk and talk and use the new technology."

Neil Dunwoodie, Sky News's Editor, Digital, explained how, during the Scottish referendum, the news channel had sent reporter Joe Tidy to Shetland armed with a smartphone, an iPad and a camera.

"He was completely self-sufficient and he shot 10 packages, edited them on his phone and iPad and sent them back to base. We got quite a lot of content for digital platforms and for the TV from Tidy operating on his own," said Dunwoodie. "If you want to be a reporter for a big news organisation that's almost what we're expecting." Self-shooting and editing are becoming increasingly important for a reporters' skillset, he added.

Dunwoodie oversees Sky News's three-week work placement scheme, which takes around 60 people a year. He outlined what he is looking for from TV newsroom wannabes: "Hundreds of people apply, but we whittle it down to about 30 twice a year.

"We tend to get people to work in a production role, so we're looking for massive enthusiasm and a lot of work experience in a journalistic environment," said Dunwoodie. "Something needs to make the applicants stand out from the crowd... We also want people who are switched on about Sky News and its digital operation.

"If I don't think they have the right attitude and won't fit in as part of the team, I will reject them."

Those who make it to the final round are interviewed by Skype.

Applicants need to be up to speed with the news and have good general knowledge. "The number of times people let themselves down by not having a clue about what's going on in the world is amazing," said Dunwoodie.

Stanford stressed the importance of having a journalistic mindset – "an insatiable curiosity and the who-what-where-and-when skills."

He added: "To have a bit of bolshiness, not to take no for an answer and kick down doors metaphorically, or otherwise.

"You've got to be able to assemble a story and to be able to tell that story in almost any circumstances... We need people who are robust enough to enjoy a deadline and get off on having to meet one."

Dunwoodie insisted: "I am not looking at educational qualifications. I am looking at where and what they are studying, but mainly at what they have done journalistically... I am also looking for commitment.

"I will say to people when they come in, 'Don't be irritating and don't be a shrinking violet.' The most successful candidates are those who get on with everybody. They end up coming back as freelancers or in staff jobs."

Shorthand skills are not essential for work experience at Sky News (they are at Sky Sports), but helpful.

Despite the wonders of hand-held digital technology, Stanford said he still felt more comfortable out in the field accompanied by a trained camera operator and a sound person.

Other roles in the newsroom embrace production skills that can involve story selection and working out where to place them in a programme's running order.

"A really good place to start is in production," advised Dunwoodie. "You get to learn all the different platforms, how to handle content and the fact that a TV package will not play very well on a mobile-phone application."

Another place for newbies to get themselves noticed is to land a gig as a news runner. "You're working 12-hour days for six months sorting mail and getting coffee," said the Editor, Digital, Sky News. "But all of them, bar none, find their niche as a researcher, producer... people have gone on to work in sound and as camera operators."

Studio directors tend to come fully trained due to the demands placed upon them at broadcaster such as Sky News.

The importance of social media to news organisations is creating new roles that didn't exist even a year ago. "It's a hugely exciting time. You almost feel like you're in the middle of some kind of revolution," Dunwoodie said. "Internally, we're trying to adapt."

A couple of months ago, Sky News Editor John Ryley gave Dunwoodie two days to set up a new mobile-phone team.

In today's social media-saturated world, unsolicited material is often sent to Sky News via platforms such as Facebook. For this to be considered for use on air or online, the footage needs to be authenticated.

"I remember there had bizarrely been an earthquake in Skegness. We were desperate for pictures," recalled Dunwoodie. "All we had was something that came in that was obviously students wobbling the camera. We had to check it wasn't a prank."

He insisted: "It is important for everyone's news brand to only put on material that we know is accurate." As for video journalists – in other words, one person who shoots all their own stuff – they remain a rarity at Sky News, despite the advent of smartphone apps allowing reporters to transmit broadcast-quality pictures.

For many stories, including court cases, especially those featuring celebrities, three-person crews are essential. Only then, can the TV news organisation be confident they will get into the media scrum.

"One guy with an iPhone won't be able to film Rolf Harris coming out of court," said Stanford.

But, he emphasised, the emergence of different platforms has led to the creation of different jobs. "We have a role called a package producer. This is someone who processes content," said Stanford. "The producer says, 'If you shoot this, it will be great for the package, but could you also shoot this and this, because we need that for the phone app and this for the iPad.'"

Technology is also driving change in studio techniques such as producers' fondness for the "video wall" to help explain complex stories that lack visual appeal.

The audience were shown a clip in which Sky News's Economics Editor, Ed Conway, used the "video wall" in a live report. The idea was an attempt to make sense of some fairly indigestible data on the British economy.

"Like many specialists, he still finds that a frustration," observed Stanford. "As an aside, I'd like to highlight BBC Radio Five Live's ability for concise storytelling in its news bulletins.

"To take a complicated topic and rattle off six stories in three minutes is a wonderful skill. BBC Radio is brilliant at it.

"The big graphics screen can work quite well when there is a limited range of pictures to illustrate a story."

Sambrook pointed out that today there are many more storytelling tools available in TV news rooms than there were even five years ago. Ultimately, though, despite platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, there still remains an audience for Sky News's traditional content.

Standford said: "Great pictures, great stories well told still work on TV. There is still an appetite for that. Although we know that no one under 30 watches linear television anymore, a lot of people over 30 want a news bulletin where they are going to sit back and find out what's happening in the world.

"We've also got to get really good at effectively engaging and communicating news and information to young audiences."

By Steve Clarke