Recently there was a discussion among a group of journalists about the skills they would require in future to enhance their chances of employment. Reporters, it was suggested, might need to know how to program computers, how to use databases and spreadsheets, how to write 'non-linear' or 'hypertext' stories and how to practise what the Americans call 'computer-assisted research and reporting', which means using electronic research tools. Copyeditors (or sub-editors) would certainly have to know QuarkXPress, the pagelayout program. But would they also need to know HTML, the language used for writing Web pages? And what about photographers? Would they have to understand electronic imaging and photo-manipulation?
Naturally, there were some objections to this technocratic future, largely from those who see such matters as distractions from the task of discovering interesting things and writing them up in an honest and appealing way. But the technophiles struck back: as an editor choosing between twenty or thirty candidates for a news job, aren't you likely to choose the one with computerassisted reporting skills? Possibly, replied the technophobes, but really a wise editor would choose the one with the dirtiest shoes.
This seems to sum up the argument. Will the journalists of the future step into the dirty shoes of people who have been pounding the streets looking for stories? Or will they be wearing the elegant footwear of people whose mastery of desktop technology means they never have to walk further than the coffee machine?
What gives this argument a particularly ironical spin is that it was conducted not over a drink after work, or even at a conference, but in what is known as 'cyberspace'. The participants were arguing in JFORUM, the journalism discussion area that forms part of CompuServe, one of the oldest and most useful of the 'on-line services'. Even the most avowedly technophobic were sufficiently at home with the technology of modem and e-mail to engage in intelligent debate with strangers by sending written contributions down the telephone line to a central point where they were collated into a sort of conversation that any subscriber could read or take part in.