Hire a journalist, you’ll get a lot of talent

As I walked in the door as a regional executive editor with Gannett in 2014, the features editor over the two newspapers I managed walked out the door, and so began the next 21 months during which only a couple of weeks I wasn’t recruiting. I wouldn’t have managed nearly as well as I did without a solid HR partner who helped me navigate the internal processes and also hone my skills as a manager. In the second year in the role, the recruiting crunch went to an entirely new level as I had nine open positions across four papers with a total headcount of 32. And of those nine open positions, three were for the four management positions at the papers.

I lost count how many resumes/CVs I looked at. For the entry-level reporting positions, many were people in other industries hoping to get a break or simply applying to meet an unemployment benefit requirement, but for the management positions, I saw a lot of resumes where the stories were fractured. These were not the tidy resumes of someone effortlessly climbing a career ladder. Some had left journalism for a time or drifted in and out of the industry. I remember interviewing one woman who was working in communications for the state of Minnesota and had read some of my blog posts and was excited about the opportunity of getting back into the industry and working together. Unfortunately, I knew that the position she was interviewing for would most likely be closed not long after we could have offered it to her. And I remember one person – who I eventually hired – and that one of my HR partners said had a resume that didn’t make sense. To which I replied, “Show me a mid-career journalist who has a resume that makes sense.”

Failing to impress the algorithms

Journalism – especially print journalism – was only one of many industries that took a beating in the Great Recession, but what a beating it took. As Pew recently reported, newsroom – digital, print and broadcast – employment has fallen by 23 per cent since 2008. In the same period, newspaper newsroom employment fell by a stomach-churning 45 per cent.

From October 2015 until February of this year, I held two full-time jobs. I was building a successful international digital media consultancy, and I was a job seeker, albeit most of my job search took the form of trying out future employers as clients. It was by far the oddest job search I have ever had. (I’ll detail all of the really odd behaviours in another post.) I hadn’t sent job applications out into the ether since my first job, but I can understand why many people became discouraged. You send them out into the great void rarely to hear anything back.

Do a search on resume algorithms or ATS and algorithms, and you’ll find that you’re not having to impress HR staff or hiring managers, you’re trying to catch the attention of algorithms or ATS – applicant tracking systems. As Muse says:

Undoubtedly, this saves HR managers the time and trouble of sorting through irrelevant, underprepared, and weak resumes to find the golden candidates. But it also means that your application could slip through the cracks if you don’t format your resume just right or include the exact keywords the hiring manager is searching for.

I broke one of Muse’s prime bits of advice, I stuffed my resume with keywords. No, that didn’t work. And I did feel as if I was flying blind at times as I applied for jobs in digital fields outside of journalism. I have to thank a couple of friends and a few recruiters who gave me advice on how to re-format my resume for non-journalism jobs. But I rarely was interviewed by employers outside of media, apart from a couple of times. Those times were usually due to extraordinary interventions by people in my network.

Journalists’ transferable skills

Fortunately, I didn’t have to transfer out of journalism or media, and I’m incredibly happy that I found not just a job but very much the right job for me in the right place. But there are so many journalists on the market right now, that many will have to complete a career pivot.

And this is my plea to hiring managers: Hire a journalist. Journalists, especially those with digital experience, are incredibly valuable employees. We’ve had to fight for customers (audiences) in a highly competitive market. We know how to work Google and social media to reach customers (audiences), and we know how to communicate. Many of us have run marketing campaigns on Facebook or possibly using Google AdWords. They work in highly data-driven businesses and have used digital analytics packages including Omniture, Google Analytics, Chartbeat or Parse.ly to grow their businesses. Many of us have great multimedia skills and know how to create videos that engage social media audiences.

I am quite happy in my new role, but there are a lot of other journalists, editors and multimedia producers out there like me. If you want to hire one of them, please get in touch. I know a few who are looking.

Editorial experimentation on the fly isn’t necessarily sexy

People always ask what advice would you give a younger self, and I think one of the things that I’ve learned over the years working is that so much innovation is simple experimentation and execution. It’s not particularly sexy, but in the end, it works. And success is infectious.

In the past few weeks, I’ve learned a half dozen things that will help me make help ideastream, my current employer, make better decisions. We are trying things and testing them rigorously with data.

Here are just a few things that we’ve learned:

  • We don’t have the biggest Facebook following in the world, and we’ve stopped boosting posts because we’re not comfortable with Facebook labelling our journalism as political advertising. Like everyone else, this has impacted our reach and to a lesser extent our referral traffic. Facebook Lives are helping us with organic reach, especially Lives that tap into the networks of those we’re doing the Lives with. However, viewing length isn’t brilliant. Facebook video audiences are still a mercurial bunch. They don’t stick around for long, but we got a lot of good engagement with the Lives so we’re going play around with them more. The next nut to crack is to get test ways to get people to spend more time with us.
  • YouTube is an interesting space for a public TV broadcaster to play in. This isn’t breaking news, but people do watch longer form content on the platform. And we’re mining our prodigious archives to engage YouTube viewers with that longer, lean back content.
  • And for the first time in a full-time position (I did do this with clients and loved it), I am working with our marketing department, and we’ve been testing YouTube ads. This has been really interesting because it’s helping us reach people we haven’t been reaching. Our video audience tends to skew older and, in terms of digital, more to desktops. With our YouTube ad campaign, almost 97 per cent of the audience we’re reaching is mobile and tablet based. And it’s cost effective for us.

This is just what I’ve learned in the last week, and in this position, I’m able to do this kind of experimentation all of the time. We try little new things and get better with them every day. As I said, it’s not sexy, but as anyone working in innovation and succeeding will tell you, execution is a large part of the game.

Hired: Driving digital transformation at ideastream

Idea Center at Playhouse Square

Idea Center at Playhouse Square

As I looked for a new job and potentially a totally new direction for my career, I didn’t just want any job but the right job, and not just the right job but also the right move for the next chapter in my life. I have now found that job: I have started as the managing producer for digital media at ideastream, a public media group that serves 18 counties in northeast Ohio. The group includes eight services that span radio, TV — including managing state political coverage for all of Ohio’s public broadcasting stations — as well as distance education and professional educational development services.

If I were to look back on my journalism and digital media career, my focus has really been about helping organisations transform digitally. And this role is all about that, and I couldn’t be more excited. Here is the start of the job listing:

In a time of rapid and disruptive change in the media landscape, ideastream is laying the foundation for its digital transformation and future. The digital transformation and future ideastream is pursuing is one based on an organizational culture shift; one that envisions an organization that operates on the principles of agility, iteration and experimentation while making content and product decisions on the basis of data and audience engagement. ideastream further envisions an organization where its staff, as a whole and over time, has the skills and orientation to produce digital-first content and products.

In that context, the Managing Producer, Digital Media, will play a pivotal role in driving the organization’s digital culture transformation.

As a number of friends said when I showed the job listing to them, it is almost as if the job description was written for me.

Meeting the Challenges of Digital Disruption

In the final stretch of this job search, I realised that if possible, I wanted to play an important role in solving some of the challenges facing journalism and media during this period of disruptive change. I have done a lot of work to help my clients adapt to this constantly changing digital reality over the last two years, and I knew that to really meet these challenges that I needed to be part of a team again.

The public media membership model, plus ideastream’s mission of “strengthening our communities”, can meet the challenge of rapid change and disruption and also to address the issues of declining trust and civic engagement. I am excited to be a part of their team.

Campaign for Community: Filling the Void

In the end, I had a couple of opportunities, and I chose ideastream because I think they are working to address one of the biggest challenges created by digital media: the nationalisation of media, and with it, the decline of local media.

When I was preparing for the interviews, I read ideastream’s Campaign for Community, their recent major fundraising campaign. The Case Statement for the campaign says that for Northeast Ohio to leverage its strengths and meet its challenges that we need engaged, informed citizens. You really need to read the entire thing. It was music to my ears, and I’m sure it would be to most journalists and a lot of news consumers craving for in-depth, local news and information as well as civil debate and discussion.

It didn’t hurt that the statement quoted Clay Christensen, one of my heroes in meeting the challenges of digital disruption, but what really drove me to seek this position was that one of ideastream’s goals was “filling the void”.

The ideastream team wrote:

There is no shortage of national and international content. Peter Diamandis, author and X Prize Foundation Chairman, observed recently that “a Kenyan on a smartphone has access to more information than Bill Clinton had as president.”   What most perceive as a precipitous decline in smart, critical, relevant content stems from a weakness in creating and curating content that is meaningful at the local level and is created in response to defined community needs that are solicited, understood and well-served.

Wow, just wow!

I started work just a couple of weeks ago, and I’m still learning the names of my new colleagues, still in the midst of a move, and still getting my head around northeast Ohio. But I am excited. I’m excited that 20 years after I joined the BBC, that I’m coming home to public media, and that I’m back in my element, driving digital change inside of an organisation. It’s great to be a part of a team hungry to experiment, committed to their communities and eager to elevate the impact of their digital work. We’re going to do some incredible things, and I’m going to take you along for the ride with us.

Creating journalism to engage as well as to inform

The media world is in full freak-out mode about the changes at Facebook, both the changes in the news feed but now its decision to let the Facebook “community” decide which publications are credible. For the record, I find the latter move much more problematic, but I want to focus on the shift to reward engagement. Like a lot of people, I see the shift as an opportunity for news organisations rather than a threat.

The change in the news feed is only a bad thing for news organisations addicted to passively playing the algorithm for cheap clicks. Even if it juices the pageviews for a while, the end of 2017 showed that simply chasing scale without a method to convert those users into loyal, returning users will not deliver a sustainable business model.

Meanwhile, a model built on winning loyalty was winning. As The Economist pointed out last autumn, many successful news groups are succeeding by working hard to convert the casual users, often from social media, into loyal users, loyal enough that they become subscribers. Those groups have married an engagement strategy with data science. Moreover, as Digiday pointed out with Aftenposten, your content strategy is very different if you focus on keeping paying subscribers happy rather than chasing traffic.

The challenge for many groups will be that as they have with many digital innovations, they treated Facebook as just another channel to passively share their content. They didn’t make an effort to engage with their audience, but rather, they prayed to the gods of virality that their posts would be shared widely. Virality would lead inexorably to clicks, and advertising would lead to revenue. As I said, the end of 2017 put paid to that strategy. It doesn’t work.

What to do?

Martin Giesler highlighted the conundrum for news publishers in a very good post on the feed changes. Jump to his immediate, medium and long-term steps to take to respond to the changes. He said:

As there’s no point in betting on traffic, many publishers will now focus on engagement. The problem here is that journalism is not primarily intended to generate interactions. Rather, it is primarily a matter of informing. In a journalistic sense, passivity is not a bad thing – quite the opposite of Facebook logic.

Exactly. Years ago when I was the blogs editor at The Guardian, the New York Times’ Sewell Chan met with me as he was launching the paper’s city-focused blog. I put the shift in publication to conversation this way.

A piece of journalism takes reporting and ties together as many threads as possible as quickly and efficiently as possible. A blog post teases out those same threads as the basis of a debate, discussion or conversation.

Slapping a comment box on the bottom of an article or column opened up a return channel, but especially on news articles, there are no calls to action. The intention of the content was to inform. What response did we expect from people?

Now, we need to think about content formats designed to engage.

  • We need a range of products and features that engage people whether they want to lightly engage or more heavily engage. Think of the range of engagement on Facebook itself. For example, news site Rappler in the Philippines has mood reactions on its content, giving people a lightweight way to engage.
  • Think of social media as the top of your engagement funnel and develop strategies that convert people into more durable, direct relationships with you and your journalism.
  • Work to convert users to products like an app, newsletter, podcasts, and events.
  • Develop novel ways to monetise that attention across the range of engagement products.

Successful media organisations have been doing this for years so should take Facebook’s changes in stride. You could never entirely base your business on the someone else’s business, especially one that introduces opaque changes so frequently as Facebook. Facebook is just pushing you to make necessary changes to end your dependence. Embrace it!

Does your journalism solution scale down? Or why local journalism is dying

When I was with Gannett, my regional president nominated me to take part in the Newsroom of the Future process, and it was quite an honour to be nominated after only a couple of months with the organisation. Gannett classified its properties into five tiers, and I was the only person in the room responsible for managing papers in tier four and five, meaning its smallest papers. Everyone else, to my knowledge, was working for a top 35 market out of Gannett’s, then, almost 100 properties. I remember one meeting in Cincinnati, and I projected my organisational chart on the screen. There were audible gasps in the room as they realised how few bodies were in the newsrooms at small sites like mine. And to the organisation’s credit, a senior member of the leadership reminded everyone in the room that half of Gannett’s properties operated at that scale.

In that same meeting, I remember clearly as solutions were mooted that I said that I worried that they simply didn’t scale down to the hyperlocal journalism at small sites like mine. The solutions being suggested didn’t take into account the physical distances involved and the unique nature of the communities. There is more to write about from that meeting, but the overriding sense was that the solutions scaled up so they would scale down as well.

I bring up this up because so much of the discussion about journalism is focused on the question: Does it scale up? I want to applaud Sam Ford for asking these questions about scale and championing other experiments that focus on scaling down. In a media world where scale has become everything and even if the shine has come off the scale play in 2017, the reality is that national players like the New York Times and the Washington Post might be turning the corner, but that isn’t the case at regional or local newspapers in the US. If anything 2017, was not a year of rebuilding but another year of grinding losses, brutal consolidation, and heart-wrenching cuts.

What is interesting in the process driven ideas that Sam talks about is how civically grounded they are. I think the future is going to be small-scale indie digital shops like the ones represented by LION Publishers, but I also see the solution coming from civic partnerships. I am also on the board of my local library, and I do wonder if the mission of libraries as local information hubs might be reimagined to fill in some of the information and civic engagement gaps left in news deserts.

Why this digital media bust will be different (and ways that it will be the same)

By now, we all have heard reports that Buzzfeed and Vice will miss their revenue targets. Mashable has been sold for a fifth of its 2016 valuation, and there are more reports of chaos at Mic after its pivot to video. And Spirited Media, which was seen as a promising model for local media, laid off staff in what CEO Jim Brady called a “shitty week”. What does this mean?

  • I’ve been saying this for a few years now, the chase for scale with 20th Century mass media strategies doesn’t work in the age of the Duopoly. Their scale dwarfs the scale that media companies can cost-effectively create.
  • Advertising as the sole source of revenue has been looking shaky for quite a while, and with print advertising collapsing across the English-speaking world and digital advertising being eaten up by Google and Facebook, media companies will have to find other revenue streams. (Kudos to Jim Brady and
  • VC funding for mass Millennial media products is done for the moment.
  • The “pivot to video” was driven much more by advertising revenue than audience demand.
  • Look for 2018 to be the “pivot to affiliate”. Media folks are herd-like creatures, and the success of Wirecutter and Penny Hoarder will not have been lost on them.

I agree with Josh Marshall, we’re in the midst of a digital media crash, or more accurately, a VC-funded digital media crash in the middle of a broader legacy media crash wrapped in an even broader media realignment the likes of which we haven’t seen since the invention of the printing press. As I wrote about at the beginning of 2016, there has been trouble in the Attention Economy for a while. I thought that we were reaching Peak Content,  a point where the race to create more content in the foolish chase for scale ended because it just became economically unsustainable.

Of course, those who followed funding closely knew that there was trouble in VC-funding of media. I had heard from friends in funding circles that recent investment rounds were going for ridiculously low multiples in terms of earnings, and for those who follow media funding closely, like my grenade-tossing friend Rafat Ali, this reckoning has been coming for a while. And that reality is hitting start-ups big and small. Brady said that the layoffs at Spirited Media were caused by a lower than expected funding round.

Another media crash

I have lived through a few media crashes already in my career, including the dot.com crash and the Great Recession. I think this crash will be much more like the dot.com crash, which in media terms has long passed from memory because most of the media folks in digital media in the late 90s left. They struggled to get hired back into legacy media, and they simply pivoted into something different. I consider myself fortunate, I was working for the BBC as their first digital correspondent outside of the UK. Our unique public funding model allowed us to continue to innovate even in the teeth of the crash. It’s been tough for mid-career journalists like myself to stay in the industry since the Great Recession, and sadly, in 2017, I saw it get tougher for younger journalists as well.

But this crash in digital media will be different than the dot.com crash. In 2001, people questioned whether you could make money with digital advertising, and there are some who are asking the same question. But it’s the wrong one. People are making money, billions of dollars in digital advertising. It just isn’t the media, and that has been the problem for a long time, even before the last two years when it became clear that The Duopoly were gobbling up most of the digital advertising revenue in the world.

How it is slightly different this time…

But this crash is different because unlike the dot.com crash, which wiped out an early wave of digital-first media companies, we do have models that are working. And I’m not just talking about the Financial Times or the New York Times. There are a lot of really fascinating start-ups that have solid models deeply serving much smaller audiences – Skift, The Skimm and Penny Hoarder. As Rafat, founder and CEO, of Skift wrote on Twitter.

There is a lot that is working, and I’ll go into that later. It will have to wait until taking a much-needed break over Thanksgiving.

The tension between local news needs and the economics of local content

With the recent closure of DNAInfo and the “-ist” network (Gothamist, Chicagoist, etc) by its billionaire owner, allegedly in a fit of pique over a vote to unionise, there has been more focus on challenges of local news. To me, this is the real crisis in journalism in the English-speaking world. The economic basis for local journalism, advertising, has come under extreme pressure as print subscriptions decline and Facebook and Google gobble up more of the digital advertising pie.

In a recent edition of my newsletter, I flagged up this interesting quote from Patch CEO Warren St. John, who told Axios:

“is that economically, good local news isn’t be designed to serve national or scaled interests, and the driving forces behind it need to come from the community level with community interests.”

This seems to run entirely counter to the consolidation in local news right now, but as local news becomes regionalised by groups focused on cost-cutting and efficiencies of an already lean business, there are opportunities opening up for local scale news businesses. The next few years will be interesting to watch. I predict a lot of experiments in communities smaller than 100,000 that aren’t close to larger metro areas.

Nuzzel: NYTimes creates a podcast winner and Damain Radcliffe looks at local trends

I do a daily international advertising and media newsletter. I’m going to start posting on days when there is a lot of good content. In today’s edition, we have Damian Radcliffe talking about trends in local journalism, and I also have a link to a very promising tool to add better metrics to your email newsletters. And the NYTimes has a podcast winner on its hands in the form of The Daily. Moreover, it’s not just successful in terms of reach, but it is also attracting some serious revenue. You can check out the other stories and also subscribe here.

Is sunlight the best disinfectant and still the best guiding principle for journalism?

This is response to a friend of mine on Facebook who asked if the famous quote from Louis Brandeis: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman”, should still be the guiding principle for journalism. 

I’ll wade in, although I’m not an educator. Have you ever seen Good Night and Good Luck? Fabulous film about Murrow’s challenge to McCarthy. What’s incredible about it is that it shows the power of Murrow’s challenge, but it also highlights the cost. Murrow was able to do this in part because he had a trust that I think is hard to replicate these days, and I think establishing, much less maintaining, trust is just as much of a challenge as garnering enough attention.

Murrow won but at a high cost. His show was cut in air time due to high production costs. One of his team, Don Hollenbeck, committed suicide. The whole thing is bookended by a speech that Murrow gives about not letting televisin become just “wires and lights in a box”.
No one apart from Murrow seemed able to resist McCarthy and shatter the grip of fear the Wisconsin Senator had on the US. (I say this, writing from Wisconsin.)
It’s why Murrow is both a hero of mine and a teacher. He is responsible for creating much of the storytelling grammar of TV journalism just as I hoped to help create some of the storytelling grammer of digital media.
But he also a hero because he earned trust and then used that trust to do something that helped end one of the darker periods of US history.
Now in the present, if you look at the Gallup trust survey, every major institution in the US has seen a collapse in trust since 2005 (a small uptick recently), and the collapse in trust in journalism is almost totally driven from the right wing of the partisan divide. At the moment, there is a big chunk of the American population who strongly believe that when we shine a light it is to put something in shadow, cast it into darkness. And there is definitely the implication from conservatives that I know that we do this for purely malicious reasons. (Of course, I don’t believe that, but it is a strongly held belief.)
Look, this is way too long as a Facebook comment, but it is to say, that while I don’t believe trust has much to do with the decline of journalism as a business. I do believe that the decline in trust of journalism is emblematic of a collapse in trust in, well, just about everything.
And to that point, I have been asking people: What would it take you to trust in journalism, government, schools, churches, business, each other again? No one gives me much of a satisfying answer, but as I look for something productive with the rest of my career, I think this might be a worthy new mission.

Career Pivot: The first step

It’s coming up on two years since my job as a regional executive editor and news director disappeared, one of the tens of thousands of US newspaper jobs that simply doesn’t exist anymore, and I’ve been waiting to write a post about my job search because, I’ll be honest, I wanted to write the post announcing that I had landed a really cool job. I have got close a couple of times, but I can, in all honesty say, the jobs just weren’t right. And this time, I want the job to be right. I want the best culture I can find and also something that feels a bit sturdier than the full-time roles I’ve had since I took the buyout from The Guardian in 2010.

And so I waited to write about the job search, which is really more than a job search. It’s a career pivot. That’s the other reason I haven’t written about this process. It’s not that I’m committed to leaving journalism, but it is the realisation that journalism most likely won’t be able to provide me with enough stability to enjoy the most important things in life: My wife Suw, family and friends.

That’s not to say that I don’t have ambitions. In the last two years, I’ve built and expanded on the international media consultancy work that I started after I took a buyout from The Guardian in 2010. I’ve worked in a dozen countries in 2017, providing digital transformation, data and long-form journalism workshops to journalists across south and southeast Asia. I’ve been doing some really incredible and satisfying work with the newsrooms of Trinity-Mirror in the UK, helping staff and editorial leadership turn their analytics into editorial action and launch new audience engagement initiatives. And I produced a report on newsroom innovation management for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford.

My consultancy has given Suw and me the space to explore this career pivot. I had already started to think of a pivot the summer before the job disappeared. I knew that it was coming. I was heavily involved in the restructuring that led to it being eliminated. But when the role did go up in smoke, people who I spoke to asked me what I wanted to do next. There was a part of me that wanted to answer that I wanted to do what I had always done: Create the future of media. But I knew my digital skills, my data-driven creative passions could be used in a number of other ways, and realistically, it was time to update my personal mission statement.

The summer before the job went away, a good friend told me that I most likely wouldn’t find the kind of job I wanted in a major media organisation and suggested that I look to media start-ups. And that is one avenue I’m exploring, and if you’re a media start-up looking for a crack audience development or head of product, get in touch.

Another friend identified said that I had a passion for communications and community, and I’ve definitely been rolling that idea around in my head. I like this idea. Journalists are driven by a mission, and I would love to talk to people about other public service missions that I could support.

But this is a good first step. When I started blogging with Suw back in 2006, the blog was part of a brilliant community of writers, journalists and “social technologists” as Suw often describers herself. I loved that time because blogging really was social media, and it wasn’t just about the writing but also about the community of support that I felt. By not writing about this important transition, I’ve really deprived myself of that support.

So I’m doing something I rarely do, I’m writing something that feels half-finished, something that doesn’t feel definitive or even all that confident. But I know that I’m still writing this chapter in my life. It is unfinished, but to start the next chapter, I need to do this, write and re-connect.