Posts Tagged ‘newspapers’

Celebrating Free-dom: The Journal Register Company’s Ben Franklin Project

July 4, 2010

Full disclosure: I reported for Journal Register Company newspaper the Daily Freeman from June 2004 to October 2005.

Ben Franklin portraitAt first glance, today’s Web and print editions for the Journal Register Company‘s 18 daily newspapers might not appear terribly different from any other day’s. That was part of the point of the rapidly-reinventing-itself chain’s bold Ben Franklin Project. JRC wanted to prove that free does not necessarily mean cheap, that free or near-free online tools can achieve the same production values as pricey proprietary software.

Take a closer look at the papers’ digital and print Ben Franklin Project editions, published on Independence Day to signify the company’s independence from proprietary systems, and you’ll notice they are different.

You’ll notice stories suggested and edited by audience members. You’ll notice crowdsourced solutions to community challenges. You’ll notice videos putting a fresh human face on persistent issues like immigration and unemployment. You’ll notice interactive maps pinpointing user-identified problems like risky roadways.

This was the Ben Franklin Project’s other, ultimately larger point: That free tools can improve both journalists’ coverage and their relationship with their audience by making the news process more participatory.

Screengrabs of YouTube video, Facebook page, home page and Twitter stream for various JRC newspapers.

That the papers — some with circulations as small as 6,000 — even attempted this ambitious project is groundbreaking for their famously slow-to-adapt industry. That they pulled it off is a remarkable feat. The executive behind this and other innovations at JRC — including citizen journalism labs and in-house testing of the latest tech tools — was rightfully celebratory in a blog post to employees this morning, exclaiming, “Take a bow. You did it.” CEO John Paton also rightfully recognized that this is only the beginning.

The success or failure of an initiative characterized — by organizers and observers — as revolutionary can be judged only over the long-term. Merely sustaining the type of work showcased today will require more hard work, especially as the novelty — for employees and audience members — wears off. Building up the Ben Franklin Project into what the journalism history books (history tablets?) would consider a revolution will require a lot more hard work.

  • It will require a firm technical and strategic grasp of the tools used to produce today’s editions. Employees, who had just over a month to learn many of the free tools they used, are by their own admission still getting the hang of pagination program Scribus. Microblogging service Twitter, meanwhile, is of greatest value to news organizations when they use it to converse with audience members and sources (two-way/pull/new-media thinking), yet many JRC papers use their Twitter feeds only to push out links to their stories (one-way/push/old-media thinking).
  • It will require abandoning these tools at the drop of a hat and learning new ones as better alternatives come along.
  • It will require engaging audience members — meeting them on the platforms they’re already using or educating them about the platforms they should be using — to the point they don’t have to be persuaded to participate.
  • It will require not letting the new way of doing things disrupt what was right about the old way. As empowering as they are, interactive tools are a complement to thorough, old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporting, not a replacement for it.
  • More than anything, it will require a bottom-up embrace of the digital-first, innovation culture Paton is evangelizing. No print-versus-Web, us-versus-them, that’s-not-part-of-my job whining.

Since a lot of people might have been too busy eating hot dogs/watching others eat (way too many) hot dogs, launching fireworks/watching others launch fireworks to follow JRC’s Ben Franklin Project coverage, here’s a sampling of what the 18 papers produced:

Screengrab of The Mercury road rage map

Screengrab of Oneida Dispatch video featuring JRC Director of Digital Content Jonathan Cooper.


The Inverted Pyramid: Legacy Media’s Ultimate Legacy

May 10, 2010

This is one in a series of posts based on or inspired by research for my Contemporary Media Issues class on how the challenges and opportunities associated with presenting news online are affecting journalistic values.

It was invented in the age of the telegraph yet is as en vogue as ever in the age the iPhone. It’s perhaps legacy media’s ultimate legacy. I’m talking about the inverted pyramid.

The inverted pyramid is the structure virtually all breaking news stories, and many other hard news stories, follow: Important stuff up top, less important stuff at the bottom. The form means that readers who don’t make it to the end of the story — either because the telegraph line went dead, the typesetter ran out of space, the businessman’s lunch break ended or the Web surfer received an instant message — can still make sense of what they read and walk away with the main gist.

Journalism has a love-hate relationship with the inverted pyramid,” the Poynter Institute’s Chip Scanlan wrote in 2003:

Its supporters consider it a useful form, especially good for breaking news. The inverted pyramid, or at least its most substantial element “the summary lead,” is used widely and is one of the most recognizable shapes in communications today. You’ll find it on the front and inside pages of most newspapers, as well as in stories distributed worldwide by The Associated Press, Reuters, and other news services elsewhere on the Internet.

Critics of the inverted pyramid say it’s outdated, unnatural, boring, artless, and a factor in the declining readership that newspapers have been grappling with for decades.

The inverted pyramid, its critics say, is the anti-story. It tells the story backward and is at odds with the storytelling tradition that features a beginning, middle, and end. Rather than rewarding a reader with a satisfying conclusion, the pyramid loses steam and peters out, in a sense defying readers to stay awake, let alone read on.

Love it or hate it, the inverted pyramid itself is not going to peter out anytime soon. It’s tailor-made for the way people consume news online, where they really could exit a story at any moment.

  • People consume a lot of their online news at work, either on their lunch or coffee break or when they should be working. Either way, they’re more likely to be skimming rather than thoroughly reading.
  • It’s well documented that, even if they have the time for it, people dislike reading long articles on computer screens. It strains their eyes and, unless they use the AutoPager Firefox extension, they have to keep clicking to get to the next page.
  • There’s a whole “world of interactivity,” as a college professor discussing laptops in the classroom recently put it during a panel discussion, competing for audiences’ attention.
  • For people out and about on mobile devices, real life insists upon itself more so than if one’s curled up on the couch with a newspaper or in the computer chair browsing RSS feeds.

Since it is sticking around, there’s something else journalists should know about the inverted pyramid. Scanlan hinted at it when he cited critics’ complaint that it “is at odds with the storytelling tradition.” The inverted pyramid format, it turns out, is extraordinarily difficult for the human mind to process.

The structure asks journalists to largely ignore the chronological, spacial and social relationships according to which our brains naturally organize information and instead organize information according to newsworthiness, something none of us is hardwired for. One researcher called it “one of the most unstable architectural forms the mind can conceive.”

The mind has a much easier time with narratives, as they mimic the way we naturally perceive and communicate about events.

While journalists should seek out more user-friendly story structures, often this is not realistic. No one’s going to start a story about a killer hurricane, “A little over a week ago, several thunderstorms converged off the cost of Africa.” While journalists might be boxed in — pyramided in? — for the text portion of their coverage, they still have options when it comes to which multimedia pieces they pair with this text.

A study published last year by four University of Missouri journalism scholars found that the cognitive stress audiences experienced when reading an inverted pyramid article carried over to accompanying video presentations. Users who had just read an inverted pyramid story, they found, remembered less about a video than users who saw the same video but had just read a narrative story.

Journalists would be wise, then, to pair with narrative pieces videos that contain a lot of information that’s not included in the corresponding article. Videos that are largely supplementary and repeat a lot of the information contained in the article, meanwhile, are probably OK to match with inverted pyramid pieces. If journalists must pair videos with a lot of new content with inverted pyramid stories, perhaps appending videos with a narrative caption might help minimize the damage.

Sit Back, Relax, Enjoy the News

May 10, 2010

How Active Users Let Others Be More Passive

This is one in a series of posts based on or inspired by research for my Contemporary Media Issues class on how the challenges and opportunities associated with presenting news online are affecting journalistic values. It is cross posted on the blog for my Citizen and Participatory News class, where it was published March 5.

Empty beach chair near clear blue ocean.

Forget for a second everything you’ve been told about the participatory news consumer. All that talk about the Web empowering people to lean forward. Minimize that window. And open this one: The Web’s also enabling people to lean back.

Not the most obvious conclusion to draw from a report subheadlined “How internet and cell phone users have turned news into a social experience.” I’ll explain. And I’ll explain how it might make news organizations’ jobs easier. (The report also, by the way, announced that the Web has overtaken newspapers as Americans’ No. 3 news source.)

Like countless Web research reports before it, Pew Internet’s “Understanding the Participatory News Consumer,” released March 1, reflects the power law distribution math popularized by authors Chris Anderson and Clay Shirky. Simply put, a subgroup of news consumers is doing most of the participatory heavy lifting spreading, curating and creating content. Yet, many more are benefiting from the “serendipitous discovery” of news these behaviors make possible.

For instance, three-quarters of online news consumers report receiving news links from peers through e-mail or social networks, according to the report, while about half take credit for forwarding them.

Considering Web users at large, “participators,” as Pew dubs netizens who create, pass along or transform content, form an even smaller minority. Thirty percent of Web users in Pew’s landline and mobile telephone survey say they’re accessing news-related content on social networks, while a little more than half that proportion say they’re creating content. A quarter of users had commented on stories or blogs, 11 percent had tagged content and 9 percent had created their own article or multimedia piece.

Being steered to information by others is part of the “foraging and opportunism” by which the report says modern audiences access their news. Indeed, an even 50 percent of Americans say they rely on others not just for interesting information but for news they “need to know.” Users also unwittingly steer themselves to news. Some 80 percent of online news consumers say they regularly stumble upon news while completing other online activities.

It’s never been easier for news just to fall into people’s laps. Sure, offline a friend might photocopy you a magazine piece or you might glimpse an interesting article in a newspaper a stranger left behind, but these instances are rarer, and considerably more delayed than online interactions. It used to be, if you wanted news, you had to go get it. The Web lets us go get it like never before, and that’s generally what people pay attention to, but it also enables those who want to to sit back and let it come to them.

In this environment, it would seem wise, then, for news outlets to take Malcom Gladwell’s advice and go about trying to influence the influencers. Knowing they can no longer be everything to everyone, this clarifies their mission. Even if influencers’ influence is less than anticipated, college-educated, in their mid-30s and earning earning $50,000 or more, as Pew’s survey describes them, by themselves they’re a smart market to pursue.

So, what do the participators want? According to Pew, they want more stories about science and technology, health and medicine, and state government and they want those stories presented interactively. Smart wish list. Science and technology are taking over our lives whether we pay attention or not. Health is slated to be one of this half-century’s biggest stories as the baby boomers age. And state government coverage needs rebuilding after legacy media cutbacks gutted capital press corps. Interactivity, meanwhile, is much less appreciated by the broader population. I would argue, however, that this is so because most users are basing their opinions on inferior interactive experiences. The participators have seen the real deal, and they want more.

Pew’s data are based on a random sample of 2,259 adult land line and mobile phone users surveyed by Princeton Survey Research Associates International between Dec. 28 and Jan. 19. The poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 2.3 percentage points overall, with confidence falling to plus or minus 2.7 percentage points for the 1,675 respondents identifying themselves as consumers of online news.

Photo credit: / CC BY-NC 2.0

After Hostile Comments, One Source Says ‘No Comment’

May 10, 2010

This is one in a series of posts based on or inspired by research for my Contemporary Media Issues class on how the challenges and opportunities associated with presenting news online are affecting journalistic values.

The previous post mentioned how abusive comments can scare off other commenters. A recent blog post by a Washington Post reporter told of how they can scare off sources as well. This is no small matter. The institution of journalism is built on the premise that sources trust that what’s published about them represents them fairly. If this trust is lost, we all lose.

Post reporter Christian Davenport told how a few insensitive comments burned a bridge he had spent weeks building with a reluctant source. The source, a debt collector named Michael Sutherland, was one of the few in his industry to even consider speaking on the record for Davenport’s story about debt collection during the Great Recession. Patience and assurances that “he was committed to being fair and accurate” won Daveport access. Of course, no matter how committed Davenport was, the cumulative tone of the Post’s coverage was dependent on how well commenters shared his commitment. These two comments, which still appear under the original article, provide an indication of how they did:

griffmills wrote:
What scum….Scam-acne-face-Sutherland and all his little minions, scum….special place in Hell for them
2/14/2010 8:57:18 AM

billdinva2 wrote:
Debt collectors are the scum of the earth. They should be hung up by their private parts and shot. Hint: Ignore them. Don’t answer the phone. When they sue answer and bury them in discovery. The debt collection industry runs on default and goes after the weak.
2/14/2010 4:31:58 AM

When Davenport e-mailed Sutherland seeking feedback on the story, Sutherland replied that he was upset about the way he and his colleagues were portrayed in the comments. He swore off ever speaking to a reporter again. True to his word, he didn’t return Davenport’s e-mail seeking comment for the reporter’s blog post.

In his post, Davenport discusses the obligation journalists feel to protect sources from “an outfall that might result from agreeing to go on the record.” That’s now harder for them to do. More ominously, there’s the potential that the threat of harassing comments will discourage would-be sources from ever talking in the first place.

One Good Thing About The Great Recession

November 9, 2009

It may not look like it now, but the past two years have been good for journalism. As ugly as it was, The Great Recession hastened the process of uncovering new models the industry already desperately needed.

Among those supporting that process is the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, whose grants are reinforcing the dwindling ranks of state capital press corps, including in my native Maryland.

Led by a Maryland journalism veteran who was State House bureau chief at the Baltimore Examiner when it closed in February, just-launched nonprofit MarylandReporter.Com plans weekday state government coverage through its Web site and subscriber-based newsletter.

Reports by its now two-man team are already getting picked up by mainstream sources, and should only increase in breadth and depth once the state’s General Assembly convenes in January. Given its narrow focus and experienced staff, MarylandReporter.Com should get its share of scoops.

Also encouraging, and something one might not expect from legacy journalism refugees, is its early embrace of social media. Even before its site went live, and even before, by their own admission, its Tweeters were fully comfortable with the tool, MarylandReporter.Com was on Twitter reporting news, establishing its brand, and engaging in conversation about both.

The rub is that MarylandReporter.Com and other organizations like it will have to find a way to earn money on their own before their seed money runs out. Even those who fail, however, won’t fail in vain. At least they’re experimenting. And, importantly, experimenting in ways that would never be feasible at larger, for-profit outlets. As journalism reinvents itself, pushing the limits and learning what doesn’t work is a necessary step for discovering what does.

The Culture of Change

October 26, 2009

This is the first of occasional posts based on my research on the future of the interactive newsroom.

On the gridiron, a high octane offense or a stingy defense can get you to the Super Bowl just the same. Indeed, recent title games have showcased some vastly different styles.

Building the newspaper of the future isn’t any different. If it works, no one approach is better than another. Every successful team, and every successful company, however, shares at least one thing: a winning culture.

This was manifested throughout my research.

Get the culture right, and changes to organizational structure, newsroom layout and workflow have a much better chance of succeeding. Get it wrong, and they’re likely to fail. The other variables are easy enough to change on the fly, culture much less so.

Curating a culture means asking how process and personnel changes will complement or contradict existing attitudes, then nurturing the connections and pacifying the conflicts.

Process changes can include adding tasks to — mid-cycle Web updates — or removing tasks from — gavel-to-gavel meeting coverage — workers’ routines. To nurture connections, managers can portray the 24-7 news cycle as a means to more aggressive reporting. To pacify conflicts, managers can insulate fundamental areas, like investigative reporting, from cuts.

Personnel changes can include bringing in workers from rival media — hiring a broadcast veteran to produce Web videos — or from outside of journalism — hiring a Web developer with a background in e-commerce. To nurture connections, managers can demonstrate that changes advance the public interest values common to all platforms. To pacify conflicts, managers can promote collaboration between journalistic and technical workers and honor their contributions equally.

Once managers decide on a direction, they have to decide how aggressively to pursue it. Do they force workers to reapply for their jobs and become multimedia proficient? Or do they encourage workers to modernize their traditional roles at their own pace? An organization with a relatively young staff whose short-term survival is dependent upon finding a new model might choose the former; an organization with a core of veteran journalists whose short-term survival is not under threat might choose the latter.

I Walk (Off) the Line

October 4, 2009

Nonlinear Storytelling Starts Before Post

careertnOne month into the fall semester, my classmates and I have completed or are working on a diverse complement of projects. We’ve produced Flash slideshows, planned mock marketing campaigns and have begun developing biographical Web sites. No matter the product or audience, our professors have encouraged non-linear storytelling. Even if we have set starting and ending points in mind, we should create opportunities for users to take side trips along the way.

How to go about achieving this is a question commonly put off until post production. The content is still gathered in a linear manner. This can be fine, but it limits from the get-go the spontaneity that non-linear storytelling is all about.

The approach my Interactive Writing and Design professor is requiring students to follow for their biographical Web sites forced me to consider this more directly than I ever had before. The Web sites can take virtually any form so long as they include six images acquired during a class field trip last month.

This wasn’t just any field trip. It was a trip to the Elsewhere Artist Collaborative, a former thrift store whose massive collection of salvaged items inspire the artistic process, often becoming works of art themselves.

For their Web sites, students were to locate and photograph objects relating to six themes: nature, ancestry, family, community, career and entertainment. A thumbnail of my career image is above. My peers and I are now in the process of writing stories centered around the six images.

The way journalists are trained to gather news is another non-linear model. A good reporter shouldn’t have his mind made up as to where his story is going. Sources should drive the direction of the story and lead the reporter to other sources. Too often, though, whether out of deadline pressure, laziness or overt bias, a reporter pre-defines the story, asks the usual players their take on it and calls it a day.

In pursuit of non-linear stories, four of my peers and I are considering a journalistic approach to content acquisition for an extracurricular project we’re working on even though it’s a promotional product.

Saving Legacy Media From Itself

September 28, 2009

rescueWhile startups were embracing — and by virtue, defining — the world of new media, traditional news organizations were mindlessly singing “We’ve got to hold on to what we got.” No wonder they’re now livin’ on a prayer.

According to a here-and-now, keep-the-stockholders-happy mindset, their behavior made sense. Newspapers, the poster children for distressed legacy media, were making double-digit profit margins unheard of in virtually any other industry. Why innovate when the model you dominate and built your company around continues to reliably pull in cash?

(Plenty of newspapers are still making money, by the way, many still at margins a retailer would sell his soul for. They can’t keep pace with Wall Street’s expectations, however, and many of their parent companies are swimming in debt.)

It’s human nature, and, therefore, market nature, to go against one’s long-term self-interest — choosing the cheeseburger over the salad, sub-prime loans over ones borrowers can actually pay back — until a misbehavior affects short-term well-being: The cheeseburger eater’s daily routine is turned upside down as he recovers from a heart attack. The lender is knee deep in defaults and its name and assets aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.

Climate change is an extremely high-stakes area in which society consistently ignores its long-term self-interest. However, China, which famously had to shut down factories during the Olympics so competitors could, well, breathe, has begun to view environmental recklessness as a threat to its immediate economic health.

If China can come around, legacy media can. And it by and large has. Some companies, though, enticed by the Web’s broad reach, are stretching the push model they should be abandoning.

Though many dress as if they’re poor, journalists don’t make for the most sympathetic charity cases. They regularly rank somewhere around lawyers on lists of least liked professions. Be that as it may, democratic societies need strong, active news organizations to function. Ask Thomas Jefferson.  To that end, industry leaders, policy makers and concerned citizens can be taking action toward a sunnier journalistic future:

  • Produce and widely share information, like the American Press Institute’s Newspaper Next reports, that shows why old models are failing and suggests what new models might work.
  • Publicly recognize innovative efforts. The Pulitzer Prize Board’s decision to accept entires made up entirely of Web content is one example of this.
  • Give intelligent feedback. Cancel your print subscription? Tell the paper why. Have an opinion, good or bad, about the paper’s Web site? Share it.
  • Join the dialogue about alternative models, such as U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin’s proposal to grant public-TV-like nonprofit status to certain newspapers.
  • Support independent organizations like Poynter that foster innovation. Publicly shame companies that pass off a disproportionate share of their profit to shareholders instead of reinvesting it in their journalism.
  • Encourage young people to become newspaper literate. Print, online, whatever — just get them reading!

Research Proposal: The Future of the Newsroom

September 6, 2009

Using Interactivity to Improve News Gathering and Delivery

The technological surge that has followed the commercialization of the Internet has added some weight to the journalist’s toolbelt.

Ask a reporter as late as 1992 to file a Web story, and she would probably start thumbing her Rolodex for spider experts. Ask a reporter as late as 1996 to blog about the day’s political scuttlebutt or a reporter as late as 2005 to tweet a link to tomorrow’s big enterprise piece, and she would ask why you were talking so funny.

Today’s reporter, of course, would recognize what you were talking about, but might pretend not to in order to buy some time to close out her print story, lay down the voiceover for the accompanying video or follow-up on an online news tip.

Applied properly, interactivity can help journalists better communicate with their audience, their sources and each other, leading to higher quality, more useful content. But, reshaping traditional newsrooms to accommodate it has confounded many a manager. New tools are emerging at a dizzying pace, usually do not fit neatly into any single position and ask shrinking newsrooms to do more with less.

Take Twitter, for example. Even though the microblogging service has been around since 2006, it exploded in popularity over the past year, forcing newsrooms, who seemed to be just finding their footing with blogs, to pay attention to it. They had to decide whether they should tweet, who should tweet, how often they should tweet, what they should tweet about and to what extent tweets should be edited. Meanwhile, they were experiencing some of the heaviest attrition the industry’s ever seen. Tell a reporter newly juggling five beats because his deskmate just got canned that he is now also expected to bang out semi-daily tweets and he just might, well, chirp at you.

It is little surprise, then, that only 5 percent of U.S. newspaper editors surveyed by the Project for Excellence in Journalism last year said they could confidently predict their newsroom’s organizational structure five years hence. My research aims to give these editors some clarity by offering them a flexible organizational model they can adjust according to their company’s size and mission as well as to future business and technological developments. The model will be informed by three source types:

  • Others’ research such as cases studies of two regional Spanish multimedia companies and a northwestern U.S. newspaper’s reorganization task force report.
  • Interviews with leaders of innovative newsrooms such as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where a recent reorganization required half the newsroom to apply for new or different jobs, and The Washington Post, which is in the process of streamlining its award-winning print and Web operations.
  • My own case studies of two distinct newsrooms comprising face-to-face interviews with managers and front-line workers, executive questionnaires and in-person observation.

My research will consider interactivity not only as an instrument to enhance news delivery and presentation, but also as an instrument to enhance news gathering and intra-newsroom communication. I will identify best practices for organizational structure, physical newsroom layout, information technology, workflow and corporate culture and outline them in an interactive Flash, Prezi or other presentation.

A particular focus will be whether specialization or generalization should be favored for a given task. I will also explore whether the reorganization experiences of other industries hold any lessons for journalists.

What I’m Doing Here

September 6, 2009

Just another weblog. WP’s default tagline says what we’re all thinking, doesn’t it? “Yawn, another blog.” Here’s why I’m joining this exclusive 133-million-member club and why, I hope, it won’t put you to sleep:

Well, it’s for school. Elon University’s brand-spanking-new interactive media master’s program to be exact. My 36 classmates and I will be filing regular dispatches from the front lines of this emerging field. We’ll be responding to class discussions, chronicling our futures-oriented research and posting whatever else we find interesting. 

Before we get going, I thought I’d share my admissions essay. Written in February, it offers as good an overview as any as to how I arrived here and where I want to go next. My about page fills in the rest.

Why do you wish to pursue a graduate degree in Interactive Media at Elon?

A year ago, with not quite four years of community newspaper reporting and copy editing under my belt, I foresaw answering a similar prompt for a business school or law school application. My heart resisted leaving journalism, but my head worried about earning a comfortable living.

With media companies hemorrhaging money, jobs and audience members, few would have blamed me for fleeing to another field. My dad, as devoted a newspaper reader as you’ll find who cherished my choice of vocation, even encouraged my search for greener pastures.

I weighed my professional future against the backdrop of the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, the first where candidates and those covering them fully embraced interactive media. Somewhere in between an animated snowman querying candidates about global warming and the president-elect texting supporters as he began his victory speech, I realized I’d be a fool to leave journalism now. The old model of gathering and delivering news may be dying, but the new model is just coming to life – and today’s practitioners are the ones who will define it. Elon’s interactive media program offers me the exciting opportunity to be among these pioneers.

Its flashy technology alone makes interactive media an enticing field. Just ask any of the millions of full-grown adults who drooled over the iPhone 3G last summer. But, what captivates me most is interactive media’s capacity to improve the quality of journalism. Readers can scour public documents for irregularities a lone reporter missed. Citizen bloggers can call out mainstream outlets when their reporting isn’t up to snuff. Mobile phone users can send and receive breaking news as it happens. Given all journalists have accomplished without these tools, there’s no telling what they’ll accomplish with them.

A master’s degree in interactive media from Elon would prepare me to navigate this new landscape as a manager at a community newspaper, a position I’ve long aspired to. At the same time, it would provide me skills that, if need be, could be easily transferred to a more lucrative field.