A writer’s endlessly expanding skill set

When I started my career as a newspaper reporter, I needed a very small skill set in order to qualify as a professional communicator:

  • Read and write the English language proficiently.
  • Talk to people in order to gather news.
  • Take notes.
  • Use a telephone.
  • Operate a word processing device (typewriter, PC or typesetting terminal).
  • Ideally, operate a 35mm film camera well enough to take pictures in the field.

snoopy-typewriterThere was no technology to speak of when I was starting out. A notebook, a pen and a camera were the only tools I took with me in the field (no camera if a staff photographer was available to shoot the story). I had a police scanner that I kept in my car so that I could listen to their chatter on scene. That was it. No cell phones, no home computers, no internet or email or even fax machines in my first newsroom. Just a handful of Macs. The pages were designed with a pencil on gridded paper and copy was pasted up using pica poles, X-acto knives and wax. Nobody in the newsroom was expected to know how to do any other job done by anybody else on the staff–the photographers only took pictures, the reporters only wrote copy, and the paste-up crew built the paper by hand. The paper published twice a week, and there was no website or Twitter feed or Facebook page to keep continuously updated in between issues. We covered the news from 8 to 5 and everybody went home at the end of the day and turned off their phones if they felt like it because unless a house fire or car chase or shooting happened right in your own neighborhood and you could grab your notebook and get there while the action was still going on, the news could wait until you got to work the next day.

Such a simple time.

Today the news cycle in both media and business never stops. Every kind of company is expected to be available and responsive to its customers around the clock on every available communication platform. As a professional communicator with a specialty in marketing communications, I have to be an advanced user of a whole range of tools and technologies, such as:

  • PC and Mac operating systems for desktops, laptops and tablets
  • Smart phones and all the apps that go with them
  • Multiple software programs and suites, primarily Office and Adobe CS
  • Web design and authoring software as well as, at minimum, HTML
  • Offset printing: inks, papers, binding and more
  • Digital cameras (both still and video) and image editing software
  • Digital asset management
  • Social media: Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, blogs, and so on

I am now expected to, among other things, be able to design and build a full-fledged website, take the pictures for it, write the content, link it to all the social media platforms, and optimize it for search engines. (I really should know more sophisticated coding than HTML, too, so I can add fancy effects and advanced functionality to web sites, even though I never in my life intended to be a web programmer.) I have to know how to launch a full social media marketing campaign that will reach my target audience with fresh new content that is relevant to their interests on the platform(s) they prefer, often enough to keep them engaged but not so often that they feel pestered. I need to understand the differences in production processes for print and digital content, and how to facilitate both efficiently. I feel like I have to be everywhere, all the time, on every platform, on every site, all things to all people in order to be a contender in my field. I am working very hard every day to stay both current and relevant

Sometimes I wish I had chosen a profession that didn’t end up being so fiercely driven forward by technology, but I don’t even know what that might be. Every one of us has had to adapt to the world created by the internet and all the other communication technologies that have developed along with it. That can be really exciting, but on days like today, when I’ve waded through ten lessons in my web design class on how to format web pages using CSS, it can also feel a bit overwhelming.

I miss the days when being a writer was both the job title and the entire job description. But being just a writer won’t get you anywhere nowadays except perhaps a lonely garret room where you can starve while you draft your novels in longhand.




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