Wednesday, February 15, 2012

APME News: NewsTrain speeds along the training track

By J.B. Bittner
APME's NewsTrain is at full throttle in 2012. We asked Project Director Michael Roberts what NewsTrain is about this year, where it's heading and how he became involved.

Tell us a bit about your history with NewsTrain.

APME was considering the NewsTrain program back in 2002-2003. I was asked to design and present one of several test prototype programs. I presented that program in the spring of 2003 in Columbus, Ohio, and it became the basis for NewsTrain's workshop design. We presented the first NewsTrain workshop that fall in San Diego. I've been a speaker for NewsTrain ever since. I took on the role of project director in the middle of 2011.

What is the philosophy driving the NewsTrain program?

One goal is to bring high-quality training at an affordable price to journalists around the country. Another is to design programs – no matter the topic – that provide practical skills people can apply back on their jobs. To that end, the planning process begins with a needs assessment to determine what problems, new skills, or specific outcomes a NewsTrain workshop can help people address in each location we visit. 

Who does NewsTrain serve – your core audience?

Back in 2003, our target audience was frontline editors. In recent years, as jobs have changed and everyone has gone to multiple platforms, our audience spans the entire print-digital newsroom. Again, we try to tailor each workshop to the specific location. In general, our target skill level for any topic is mid- to high-level skill sets. We work in that zone where people have built a foundation and want to take a step or two up to the next level, no matter the topic or job category.

Four NewsTrains are already on the calendar for 2012. Tell us what you have planned for each and where and when they are scheduled.

In 2012, we will hold workshops in Phoenix (March 22-23), Miami (May 18-19), Toronto (Sept.13-14), and Chapel Hill, N.C. (October). Topics for Phoenix include watchdog journalism, multimedia storytelling, mobile journalism tools, how to shoot short video, how to develop community content, how to frame next-day stories for print that extend what appears online, and how to manage the constant change newsrooms face these days. Once we start the needs assessment discussion with the other sites, their workshop content will fall into place. I expect interest in social media, watchdog journalism, data visualization, and a range of management skills. I also hear more requests for writing and editing skills.

What should those who have never attended a NewsTrain expect to take away from the training?

NewsTrain workshops provide practical skills and tools people can take back and immediately apply on their jobs. I work closely with each NewsTrain speaker to build programs that help people do a better job. That may mean how to do something faster, easier, more effectively. Or it could mean how to do something new. There are so many pressing needs in newsrooms today. There are also many ambitious plans and initiatives people are trying to pull off. NewsTrain workshops are designed to help people solve problems, improve results, and achieve goals in the real work they do every day. 

What should those who have attended previous NewsTrains expect that is different this year?

There are many new topics. That is a function of the needs assessment process where we start the planning process by focusing on local needs. When we started this approach last fall, about three-quarters of the modules for our fall workshops were brand-new topics. Training programs and workshops, to be of value, have to change and adapt as quickly as the needs change in newsrooms.

How much does participants' feedback shape future NewsTrains?

We take participants' feedback very seriously. Each workshop concludes with a feedback form on the content and quality of presentations for each speaker. We study the feedback, share it with speakers, and make adjustments to increase the value and satisfaction people feel for a NewsTrain workshop.

How do you measure NewsTrain's success?

We track attendance levels and collate the numerical ratings and comments people share in the feedback forms. So we have some data. Our numbers are trending up. We also spend time in each workshop asking what people have heard over the two days they want to take back and try on their jobs. Those discussions provide a visceral feel for how well a program has served the needs of people in the audience. 

Personally, after almost nine years with NewsTrain, I think comments in those discussions are some of the best measures of a program's success. It is always humbling to hear from people who have taken the time and effort to attend a workshop, people who face a variety of problems and challenges back on the job. They've extended themselves to come to NewsTrain. So when they find something we presented will make a difference in their work, that's success. Times are tough all over the industry. Training should be practical and strategic. That's what makes a program engaging. It's a privilege to offer programs that help people with tough jobs solve problems or achieve new things. 

What else do journalists need to know about the NewsTrain program?

A NewsTrain workshop is a lot of fun. Along with designing programs that provide practical skills, we also make sure there is time in each program for discussion, exercises, and interaction. NewsTrain is not about lectures. NewsTrain workshops draw bright, talented people. We would be foolish not to build in time and opportunities for people to relish each other's company. The energy between our speakers and the participants is very high. NewsTrain workshops are a wonderful chance to meet people, share ideas, and actively learn together.

Michael Roberts is a newsroom trainer and consultant and project director for NewsTrain. Previously, he was deputy managing editor staff development at The Arizona Republic (2003-2010), responsible for all newsroom training, served as writing coach, and edited major projects. Outside his own newsrooms, Roberts helped create and launch NewsTrain, designed and taught the American Press Institute's first online seminar for copy editors, and has presented programs for the Poynter Institute, American Press Institute, the Maynard Institute, Freedom Forum, and various National Writers Workshops. Before the Republic, Roberts was features editor, AME/features-business, and then for 10 years the training editor/writing coach at The Cincinnati Enquirer. He also worked as a writer and editor at the Midland (MI) Daily News, the Detroit Free Press, and as a senior editor at two magazines. He taught feature writing at the University of Cincinnati and regularly presented programs at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, Arizona State University. 

More about NewsTrain: Contact Roberts at

J.B. Bittner is the editor of the Stillwater (Okla.) NewsPress. She can be reached at

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