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!