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Jack of all trades, master of none

Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times

There’s something to be said for being a generalist. 

In the plant and animal kingdoms it’s the specialists who suffer when an ecosystem is out of balance. They may thrive when conditions are favorable, but take away that one food source they rely on, or that insect they’ve evolved to use as a pollinator, and it’s the end of the road. The decline of a bug leads to the extinction of a plant leads to the death of the mammal that feeds only on those leaves. 

Meanwhile the crocodile that eats anything it can fit in its mouth continues on, as unchanged as it has been since the time of the dinosaur. 

The same holds true for technology. At one time a working knowledge of BASIC was all you needed to work in the computer industry. Today that knowledge gets you nothing but the ability to revive an obsolete Radio Shack TRS80. If you didn’t go on to learn PHP, COBOL, C++, Java, Ruby, or Python, you were left behind. Even those languages are used for very specialized tasks, which means the person who knows them can earn a very comfortable living. But when that eventually changes – and the only constant in technology is change – the specialist needs to evolve or move on. 

The newspaper industry is much the same. Once every newspaper employed at least one full time photographer. That was their only job. They shot photos while the reporter conducted interviews. Then they came back to the dark room to develop negatives and prints. Prints were passed to layout people who pasted them up and got them to the plate makers and the press to make the days papers. 

They did this every day. 

I actually got my first newspaper job because I could develop film. We had a machine that did all the real work for us, but I knew how to open a film canister and spool undeveloped film onto a reel in complete darkness, so, between school board meetings and science fairs, I could do that while the photographer went on to another shoot. In my first editor job (speaking of specialization, I was the entertainment editor) those skills helped out again. Our overworked photographer hadn’t had a weekend off in nearly two years. The fact that I could shoot my own photos, and come in early on a Saturday to develop film shot by the sports reporters, meant I had an advantage over the other folks who applied for the position, so I got the job.

It wouldn’t be long, though, before digital cameras caught up with the resolution offered by film and the need for those skills became as obsolete as a working knowledge of BASIC is in the computer world. 

Today reporters are often expected to write, shoot photos, layout pages and proof each other’s work, usurping roles that used to be held by photographers, layout designers, and copy editors. If you think this extra responsibility means they are paid more for the extra value they bring, though, you’d be sorely mistaken. If anything the compensation, in terms of buying power, is less than it was for any one of those specialists in times past. 

But, at least we can still smile our crocodile smiles – all the way to whatever is on the buffet table of the event we’ve come to cover.

Jeremy D Wells can be reached at editor@cartercountytimes.com

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