When training your newsroom, fear the experts

Bad teacherIs your newsroom offering training in digital reporting? Are you considering doing so, and looking for trainers? Here’s my advice:

Beware of experts.

What I’m talking about are one-topic specialists: the SEO genius, the group that’s produced sterling video documentaries, the social media consultant with 20,000 followers. They may know everything there is to know about their topics and have all the skills you want your newsroom to acquire. But do they have the one skill that’s crucial to training?

Which is to say: Do they know how to teach?

Not long after I became a full-time online journalist, I got the chance to create and run a newsroom-wide training program. It was … not awful. But when I emerged from months of classes, I had learned how much I didn’t know about training. That’s why I started working on a master’s in education that I will finish in the spring. I needed to know more about how to gauge training needs, how to design programs to address them, how to evaluate success. Along with what I’ve gotten out of college classes, I’ve also learned by doing — by teaching more classes, training others to teach them, and living with the results as an online editor. I’m pretty sure I’m a better trainer now. I’m certain that I’m much better at spotting bad training.

Bad trainers are the ones who read off the PowerPoints.

Bad trainers are the ones who ask no questions.

Bad trainers are the ones who waste 30 minutes of a one-hour class waiting for web pages to load.

Bad trainers don’t understand why any other responsibility or goal would get in the way of doing things their way.

Bad trainers are not necessarily bad people. They just lack needed skills.

Does it bother you when people say that there are no special skills required to be a journalist, that anyone can write? Then it should also bother you when they say anyone can teach.

Both journalism and education run into a fact we seldom appreciate: Using words is easy; communicating is hard. A topic specialist who simply disgorges her knowledge in PowerPoints and handouts may look like she’s training, but are people learning?

In my ideal world, every newsroom would have an experienced trainer in-house, who would oversee everything, from learning how to use your new cellphones to understanding the kind of reporting needed to support narrative stories. In my less-than-ideal world, newsrooms would only bring in trainers who had proven track records of effective teaching. I’d settle for at least not plunking your social media whiz in front of 20 reporters and walking away pretending you’ve solved your problems.

Because I fear that the last option is the only one many newsrooms would be willing to pay for, I’ll devote a few coming posts to tips for would-be trainers.