A year ago, Ryan Roslansky, the CEO of LinkedIn, wrote an article titled “You need a skills-based approach to hiring and developing talent” where he cited a lot of interesting data and also shared some obvious trends.

If you are lucky (like me), you are working at an organisation that doesn’t care for your formal education (I was expelled from two universities before I got my master’s degree, it took me twelve years to get there), but hired you because of your skills.

In my experience, this has been more true for any news organisation than for a general corporation where formal education still plays a big role, although less and less so.

In his piece for the Harvard Business Review, Roslansky pointed out that many large enterprises of the likes of JPMorgan Chase, Amazon, PwC and others said they were going to spend billions of dollars in the coming years on upskilling their workforce.

LinkedIn’s research also showed that employees who see good opportunities to learn and grow are 2.9 times more likely to be engaged than those who don’t, and 91% of employees say it’s very or extremely important for their manager to encourage learning and experimentation.

Unlike large enterprises, news organisations haven’t done a great job in upskilling their staff. If you look at Reuters Institute’s research from the beginning of 2022, the largest issue news leaders see as the biggest barrier to innovation is the lack of skills to deliver solutions.

Fostering a culture of learning amid the pandemic-induced shift to work from home has proven hard for news publishers. Especially for those that have had little or no upskilling policies in place and relied on ‘learning by osmosis’ in the newsroom where younger staff mixed with more seasoned operators picked up skills.

Editorial + Product + Finance= <3

All that said, there are certain skills without which news organisations striving to build a sustainable business and future-proof themselves cannot operate. Or better put – having these skills inhouse would increase their odds.

Depending on when you are reading this piece, the following might not be a complete list – which should tell you a lot about where this is going.

I tried to write this piece several times over the past two years. At first, I started with positions your news organisation needs to succeed and prevail. The problem with that approach is that position titles are no longer the same or even similar across two different organisations.

Just look at the top titles at Tesla – Elon Musk calls himself Technoking. Substack’s COO Hamish McKenzie is now using the title Chief Writing Officer. At Block, formerly known as Square, CEO Jack Dorsey changed his title to Block head.

OK, I picked the more controversial ones,but you get the point. I try to be in contact with my peers and even though all of us have about 80% the same responsibilities and skills, none of us have the same title.

The other angle I tried over the past two years was to come up with a team approach. Editorial team responsible for journalism, commercial team responsible for overall finance, marketing team responsible for communication, PR and promotion of editorial products, product team in charge of the overall product (web, apps, newsletters…), analytics team responsible for data insights, subscription team responsible for subscriptions or memberships and so on.

This approach was also flawed. Having so many teams means there will be more clashes between them as more and more “jobs to be done” are shared across multiple teams – how do you decide which one takes the lead?

Also, at some point it is going to be ineffective as teams will hire people with the same skills you already have (which doesn’t have to be an issue, I would love to have more analysts) and you will lack other skills.

Sure, the ideal approach is to think and structure the organisation as if it was a single big team, no walls between departments as it used to be. Of course, you still have the lines you don’t cross (journalists writing native ads one day and news stories the other day), but having walls is something different.

For the purpose of better framing the skills a modern news organisation needs in 2022, I decided to split them in three buckets – editorial, product and finance. Various publishers approach this differently and that’s fine if it makes sense for them.

Editorial: Journalism, newsletters and podcasts, audience growth and engagement (SEO, social media, new platforms)

As I’m talking here about news organisations, it makes sense to start with the main and most important product you have – journalism. There is no way around it; if your core product sucks, there is little you can do to succeed.

“Quality journalism is the most important for us” (or a variation on this statement) has been a publisher’s mantra forever. What changed in the last few years for successful publishers was the shift towards a more specific understanding – “best journalism for our audience”. A small, but important change. Now you have a measure of success.

Another shift that is happening among successful publishers is the understanding that the newsroom isn’t the cost centre of the company, but the value generator.

Having the best journalism skills you can get on your market goes a long way.
We have the best journalists” is a claim I don’t like very much as it is hard to prove. Saying you uncovered the biggest scandals, won the most Pulitzers (or other journalism prices) or have the most subscribers has a specific messaging rooted in widely understood measures of success.

Journalism isn’t just about the content; as I said the most successful outlets out there understand they are fulfilling the needs of their audiences. In order to keep them or turn them into paying supporters, they understand the value of audience engagement via getting the most relevant content to them via the most convenient distribution method.

That’s where newsletters, podcasts and even a mobile app comes in. All those three can be as well put in the product bucket. At the same time, I consider all three skills (let me know if you disagree).

Newsletters, podcasts and mobile apps can be considered twofold – being a delivery vehicle for an already existing content or serving as an extension of your journalism by creating content specific to all of them.

I see newsrooms increasingly hire SEO editors instead of social media managers (or upskilling social media managers to become SEO editors first). The return on investment is simply better. 

And you need someone who is looking out for new platforms and has the opportunity to experiment. Many newsrooms (especially smaller ones) still haven’t set up a TikTok account. With audiences fleeing Meta platforms to TikTok this means they are no longer being reached by your content.

Business: Strategic thinking, commerce (grants), legal, marketing & PR

Business and strategic thinking is an important second step after good content. Take the example of an independent new outlet that’s just starting. I interviewed Alexandru Enășescu, a Romanian journalist who runs his local news publication on Substack and got initial funding to do it. He said they put “greatest focus on the business side as well as the editorial side”.

Without a business plan a publication cannot succeed. Now, strategic thinking skill is something that you would have thought is needed only on the top of the leadership. The truth is the more people within the organisation understand its importance and learn it, the better in the long term the publisher will be doing.

Harvard Business Review has recently published two useful explainers on what is strategy and on developing a strategy.

You also need commercial skills with the organisation. I’m trying to put it as generally as possible because many media companies have different business models.

Some are still leaning heavily towards ad-supported revenue (which is fine, if it can work in the long term), then you have non-profits where commercial skills mean something entirely different (chasing after grants and donor funding) and finally the most universal at the moment – recurring revenue (memberships, subscriptions, pledge drives, donations…).

Legal skills are the most likely to be outsourced, even at bigger media companies, but if you can get someone inhouse who is at least versed in those matters, in the GDPR era it will be a huge win for you.

I put marketing, PR and communications in the business bucket because their purpose is diverse. You can look at marketing and PR as only spending money (“cost centres”), and many media managers do, though that’s only if they are not fulfilling their purpose.

Product: Design, data analytics, engineering, subscriptions (memberships) and non-news products

This bucket is the hardest. We live in an era where you can build an entire news organisation on a platform like Ghost, Substack, Newspack or others. If that’s your case, the most important skill you need out of this bucket is data analytics. To be able to unpack data and turn it into insights is crucial.

A while ago, I attended a virtual INMA conference (don’t recall which one exactly). I will never forget what Grzegorz Piechota, researcher-in-residence at INMA and an ex-fellow at Harvard and Oxford universities, said while moderating a panel on subscriptions – newsrooms instinctively tend to hire more content creators when in fact a data analyst in house would be much more useful.

Or look at a recent blog post from Karl Oskar Teien, director of product at Schibsted’s subscription newspapers in Norway and Sweden, where he wrote on the product strategy of Aftenposten.

The outlined product strategy for 2022 mentions the need of personalisation as they produce more articles than readers can read. And categorization of content should be structured in a different way than just following print sections.

There is a lot of data analytics work, and I want to point out what they feel at the Aftenposten product team – there is too much content and it is not reaching the right audiences. Almost never is the answer “let’s create more content”.

When I talk to smaller newsrooms, having a developer on staff is out of the question. They are simply too expensive. The problem is that if these outlets need to work almost on anything that is related to reader revenue and they are running an old WordPress site or other legacy CMS, without a rather big input from a developer, things are just not going to move forward.

I have experienced this several times working with smaller outlets. They manage to get funding for new projects and seldom do they ask for money on website development.

For smaller or medium-sized news organisations not running on an out of the box ready to use platform like Substack, a part-time developer is a must. Another mistake many of them make is they think it’s a one-time job. Unfortunately, the website needs constant care and updates; otherwise it will get to a point of being useless.

And last but not least, having someone who understands recurring revenue products and what is needed to run successful subscriptions or memberships is another key skill. Even if you are primarily ad-supported, a subscription-based product is a great diversification and one day might save your business.

I am biased here, as I work on digital subscriptions, but I think it is the most branched skill. You need to understand editorial, product and also business. And the more you are able to know all of them, the better the results.

Consider these skills as basic and general at the same time, with specialisation based on what kind of news organisation you are working for. And if you think I missed something crucial, let me know.