Monday, October 30, 2006

Beware the serial-skiller

Multi-tasking is a vogue phrase and should be consigned to the corporate training manual.

OK, so this from someone who used to take shorthand notes, dash down the steps of St Albans Crown Court, grab the 35m Practica he'd left with the copper on the door (bottle of Jack Daniels at Christmas) and snap away at the defendant as he left for the night.

That was the murky and highly-competitive world of the seventies stringer but it does bear me out on one point: had the copy I filed to that night's Evening Standard been as dodgy as the snatch shot that emerged from the darkroom, I'd have starved to death years ago.

The point is that you can take multi-tasking too far. And in the scramble for change that is newspapers today, I fear that's just what may be happenning.

It's one thing to have your reporters appreciate they have more than one publishing platform (I forced it down their necks at the Telegraph for years) but quite another to imagine you can create a Universal-Soldier-style journalist of the future whose "skill sets" (one more for the manual) slot perfectly into any task. They can't and they shouldn't.

I once pulled a sub out of the pub in my Mirror days because his "touch" was perfect for a late feature; I hand-picked the writer I wanted to cover a complex fraud trial on my local paper and I once stood aside, as a reporter when an editor decided an older face was needed on a doorstep.

As a digital editor, I became the subject of pub gossip when, having promoted one guy into the highest production role on the site, I later refused to consider him for news editor. His organisational, technical and "people" (yup, one more for the manual)skills were superb. He just hadn't got the same track record in breaking news. Others, who I'd placed behind him at the time of his earlier promotion, had. Sadly, he quit.

Everyone who worked for me in the past five years multi-tasked - but in the technical sense. I had people who could do things with photographs a passport forger would be proud of. But I wouldn't want them writing tomorrow's splash. And I've heard some of the best writers around express real fears over the prospect of sitting in front of a microphone.

At the highest level, specialist skills developed over years, are what makes a newspaper or magazine great. Mix and match and you dilute.

OK, so there are those who take to absolutely everything like ducks to water. And don't we just love them. But the key is to get the fit right: playing to your strengths by playing to their strengths.

When we win the World Cup with Michael Owen in goal, Paul Robinson dancing past defenders on the left wing and the first-team physio stepping up for that deciding penalty, I'll eat my words.


Russell Claydon said...

Richard, really agree with this post and the football link at the end highlights the point very well. I'm a trainnee journalist at Cardiff (who your addressing today) and am currently being taught to multi-skill, which is fine beacause it allows me to see what areas I am good at but I certainly expect to find that I am not good at everything! Look forward to your talk at Cardiff today.

Richard Burton said...

That's exactly right. You need a broad range of the key skills - and an understanding of a broad range of others. It's brilliant to know a reporter on holiday is capable of snapping and sending his tsunami pics as he legs it up the beach. But that doesn't mean stuffing a camera in his hand and sending him to do a fashion shoot when he gets back.