You don’t necessarily have to be a certified multimedia ninja to break in as a reporter at a mainstream news organization. But you do need a basic level of digital and social media savvy, Sonya Sorich told the Auburn University Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists tonight. Sorich is audience engagement coordinator for the Ledger-Enquirer in Columbus, Ga., and writes the news site’s American Idol blog

Sorich has a pretty cool gig as a features reporter who specializes in driving traffic to the Ledger-Enquirer’s website and writing about entertainment and pop culture, including live-tweeting during TV shows. One recent example was last weekend’s Miss World competition. Her editors depend on her to write stories for online and print, to blog, to live tweet and offer up observations on daily occurrences on Twitter, to contribute to the paper’s Facebook presence.

Of course, the emphasis on digital-first, print-second journalism means that reporters are under consistent pressure to get good stories and information up on the website constantly. And the de-emphasis on copy editors’ role and numbers in the newsroom means that some tasks that the copy desk handled in the past now get done by reporters. At the Ledger-Enquirer, reporters all have the capability of posting stories at any time from any place without their going through an editor. To me, that emphasizes what I’ve long argued: In a world without copy editors dedicated to serving as the last line of defense, the role of copy editing training becomes more crucial than ever. Why? Because the industry demands that every reporter serve as his or her own editor.

I asked Sorich what digital and social media skills were expected of reporters breaking in at the Ledger-Enquirer. She offered this list:

  • Twitter: When her editors are hiring, they expect job candidates to have Twitter accounts and to be active on them. “When someone throws up 24 consecutive tweets because they just applied for a job, it’s pretty easy to look at their account and see they have a six-month gap since the last time they were active,” Sorich said. So you need to maintain a consistent Twitter presence and understand and do the basics, including posting a balance of personal observations and links to your own content and content that others have created.
  • Facebook: Yes, editors look to see if you’re on Facebook and understand how it functions because so many legacy media outfits that are going digital have established Facebook presences to reach out to the billion-and-counting users on that platform.
  • Smartphone and iPad skills: You need to know how to shoot video and photos with your phone and how to upload content to social sharing sites. What is meant by iPad skills? Well, for starters, you need to be able to use apps that a reporter would expect to use to find information and record it. That means knowing how to use audio recorder apps, be aware of the various public information apps such as police scanner apps (I like the Police Scanner Radio Scanner app, at least for major cities). Of course, having access to a mobile web browser is essential for getting background information on the fly. Sorich said a lot of papers are using Instagram, though McClatchy, the parent company of the Ledger-Enquirer, does not because of legal rights issues.
  • Search engine optimization: “You don’t have to take a whole class in it,” Sorich said, “but you should look to see how the best sites put together headlines to attract traffic.” To get a handle on what works and what does not, I recommend testing keywords using the Google AdWord Keyword Planner. The Ledger-Enquirer uses Omniture, but you can also use Facebook Insights and Google Trends to see what search terms are hot.
  • Basic html: No, you don’t have to be able to build a website from scratch using nothing but code. “That’s what a coder does. You don’t have to be a coder,” Sorich said. But you do need a basic understanding of what code does, how to boldface or italicize words and how to insert links. And you need to be able to look at your text, recognize when something looks a little off, and be able to troubleshoot it. That stuff is easily learned in about a day of tinkering with the visual and text views in WordPress.
  • Content Management Systems: I asked about this, and Sorich said not necessarily — at least you don’t necessarily need to know any single, specific one. But you do need to understand the logic of how CMSes work, how files are created and updated and categorized and tagged.

The new reality is one where every reporter must also think like a marketer and use digital tools that make your material easy for the kind of people who are interested in your stuff to find. That kind of thinking was anathema with a lot of old-school editors who were convinced that they knew exactly what everybody ought to hear, even if they didn’t necessarily know what they wanted to hear. The new media journalist must balance both.