What do you actually do?

Since I started at Citywire, I’m often at a loss to explain precisely what I do at work, especially in a neat soundbite dinner-party conversation sort of way. My job title is “Digital Media Executive”, which doesn’t honestly offer much help; I’ve taken to saying that I “facilitate online journalism” or – depending on the dinner party – that I “commit random acts of journalism”. And those are both perfectly decent soundbites, in that they sum up the general approach while avoiding the specifics altogether.

But I think it might be time to get more specific – not least in the light of what’s shaping up to be the next very boring gatekeeping argument over whether someone like me “counts” as a journalist. So here’s what I actually do all day.

Data journalism

Some of the time I do stuff that most people would consider journalism. I write short opinion pieces, often casual ones for our forum community. And I research both for my own work and for other people’s – often that involves tracking down data sets and providing background details for newsy pieces, or providing story ideas.

Sometimes I do data analysis and visualisation too – taking complicated numbers out of spreadsheets and running them through spreadsheet programmes on or offline, plugging the numbers into ManyEyes to see what’s possible and then replicating it in Excel or in our own in-house graphing programme. I haven’t done much graphical design in this job yet, but it’s on the agenda.

I sit with the journalists, and I work with them, and they’re my first responsibility. Anything I can do to help them with the tech side of the job, I do. And I do it first.

Web Analytics

This is the flip side of data journalism – it’s the data of journalism, the stats and figures of what works and how. I run our Google Analytics profiles. I spend days sometimes with my brain in the data, trying to work out where our readers are coming from and what they’re doing.

Though I’m not much of a professional statistician, it’s my job to analyse raw data and turn it into insights; this is why we did well, this is the sort of story that works, this home page design is better for retaining visitors than that one, this is what would happen to our traffic if we put all our stories behind a paywall. And this is the work that’s taught me the most, so far, about how web journalism works and the ebb and flow of people that exists behind the traffic stats for any website. Just like data journalism needs to be both about data and people, so does good web analytics – and that’s something I’m only just starting to learn to do well.

Community management

And as well as gaining insight into the tracked anonymous users on the site, it’s my job to talk with our registered users, building a community on the site who congregate around our content. This isn’t just comment moderation, though that’s a part of it; it’s also making judgement calls about appropriate content on our forums, it’s encouraging other writers to get involved and talk to readers, it’s listening when they suggest we do something and being a voice within the company for our community’s suggestions and beliefs and ideas. And sourcing stories from our users, too; I’m a link between reader and reporter, in both directions.

It’s also a strategic role. What tools does our community need, and how will we build them? What will our comment threads and our forums look like in six months, a year? What do we need to change or encourage or punish to make them come good? What should our guidelines look like? Do we want people to be able to partipate without posting? How do people work, anyway?

Social Media

And the community doesn’t just exist on our site. There are communities off-site, fragmented around the web, where we play an important part. So part of my job is participating in those communities and building relationships with people who might want or need to know about the things we write about. This isn’t just promotion – it’s conversation, story sourcing, research, content curation and distillation (which is arguably another journalistic pursuit). And I act as a sort of news canary (another good dinner-party soundbite) – an early-warning system for brewing news, concerns and issues.

There’s strategy here, too. Teaching writers about Twitter, as someone who’s been using it for journalism for some time, and working up participation guidelines for them. Deciding what success metrics are important, and measuring them, and working out whether we’re doing something useful or not. Building a reputation for the whole team, not just for being good at promoting ourselves but also for being responsive, responsible, useful, journalists. There’s a high standard to reach, and hopefully by reaching it we’ll not only do better journalism but also make money at the same time.

Alphabet soup – SEO, IA, UX

The core of this part of my role is search engine optimisation, but it also covers social optimisation and elements of information architecture and user experience design. I teach other people how to write for the web – well, sort of, because most of them have been working on web-only properties longer than I have and have a better idea of how to do it well. I try to draw out useful general principles for keeping our stories searchable and readable, making it easy for readers to find what they want.

But the bigger issues I tackle are to do with site structure, title tags, navigation, taxonomies of information, ease of use on the website. Those aren’t often things I can directly change, but it often falls to me to flag them up and work towards devising improvements. That’s a direct consequence of my web analytics work – when I’m the one finding things we can improve, it also falls to me to work out how and to make business cases for doing the work.

Web design

And because resources are always limited, I end up tinkering around with the back end of the website, tweaking bits and pieces to improve my ever-growing list of alphabet soup wishes. That means HTML, CSS, Javascript, and occasional timid forays into C#. It means getting your hands dirty, getting it wrong, split testing ideas to make sure you get it right next time, making little incremental improvements, and, crucially, ceding control to helpful developers when you’ve done your worst and it still won’t work in IE6.

Reading the internet

Yeah, seriously. I can only do these jobs by staying on top of what’s happening in the world, in all the communities I inhabit for work and for pleasure. I read incessantly, Twitter, Facebook, RSS, new things from new places, and I do my best to stay current with what’s going on in all the industries that impact what I do. (Yes, even the really boring and possibly evil ones.)

I take what I’ve read and I pass the best bits on, because that’s the other kind of journalism I do, and because I hope that my personal Twitter account is just as much a resource and a source as any professional one, and I hold myself to higher standards still. And I keep what’s relevant and use it every day to inform the decisions I make and the way I work, to back up my hunches and make sure I’m always learning more about what I’m doing.

Connecting people, ideas, things

Honestly, the most important thing I do is making connections. Connecting writers with case studies and subjects. Connecting ideas together to make new ones. Translating from reporter to geek and back again. Connecting data to story. Being a link.

And for that matter, this shouldn’t be a list. It should be a web, because everything is linked with everything else and decisions in one area have consequences in others. And it’s by no means comprehensive – the odd jobs and occasional asks are too numerous and disparate to include.


I’m hoping this will kickstart me into posting more often about more practical aspects of my job – I do a great deal across many different skill sets and disciplines, and I’m often learning new principles and testing ideas without much to go on. If I can learn by reflecting, or with the help of comments, and if my experiences can be resources for someone else, then so much the better. (Plus @currybet told me I should blog more, and he is wise in the ways of such things.)

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Mary Hamilton

I'm a journalist-type tech-ish geek person, working in that interesting ambiguous place where reporting the news meets all sorts of peripheral skills. In my spare time I herd zombies, design games and write stuff.

6 thoughts on “What do you actually do?”

  1. This is great. It’s good to know that other people doing similar roles exist. I do something not unlike what you do, maybe a bit more focus on the web design, UX, IA (across multiple titles) side of things and a bit less on the data journalism and community management.

    What I definitely need to do more of is Reading the Internet, distilling and curating. I have let the latter two lapse shamefully.

    1. Definitely agree that it’s good to know I’m not the only one doing this sort of thing – I think if you’re interested in this sort of work, at the moment it can be hard to find examples of people actually working in this way. (And even harder to find work doing it, but that’s a separate issue.)

      I do love telling people it’s my job to read blogs. I wish more people could do the same.

      1. It’s such fun too. It really allows you explore the idea of journalism as much as the practice. And to experiment to see where it goes next, even dabble in new things yourself. It’s wonderful if you love the web, the net and have a broad focus/short attention span 😉

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