Failing on your feet

This post is part of the Carnival of Journalism, and the topic for this month is failure.

If I hadn’t failed repeatedly, I wouldn’t be a journalist. This is all a bizarre accident.

See, I never wanted to be a journalist. (Blasphemy!) I remember deciding when I was about 9 that if I did become a journalist I would write for the Guardian or the Independent but definitely not the Daily Mail because it was rubbish, but all that was obviously only a back-up plan. I was going to be a Writer.

So I grew up a bit, wrote a lot, won at school, won at being homeless and failed at being sane, and eventually dealt with that enough to pack up and get to university for a literature and creative writing degree. I did my best to become a Writer by arranging words in attractive orders as much as humanly possible. I held down a part-time job designing books, copy editing, typesetting and occasionally redesigning the perspex plates on the front of all the postboxes in the UK, which at the very least meant that millions of people read my work every day.

And then came graduation, and the growing realisation that I had literally no idea how to be a Writer and still afford to eat. I applied to two post-grad courses, one in creative writing and one in literature, and failed at both. I went for editorial jobs at Oxford University Press and Taylor Francis and loads of smaller places, and failed – in fact I failed at more than 50 job applications in three months, that summer.

Around this time I split up with my long-term partner, and moved out of the house we shared, and while sleeping on other people’s sofas I spotted a job ad for Trainee Journalists for the Eastern Daily Press in Norwich where I was living and I thought, well, at this point, the part time job won’t pay the rent, let’s apply.

When I did the application test – an exam in a room with 100 other people – I was still on sofas and hadn’t seen the news in the best part of a week. That made writing a 200-word news story on a current news issue pretty difficult. Luckily, I blag well, and if nothing else the years of wanting to be a Writer meant I could write well. So I got the call back, and was sure I’d failed the interview (I wasn’t sure what a red top was), and then a few days before Christmas came the job offer. Paul Durrant – he of the most excellent moustache and Brummie accent – phoned me and said: “Got some good news for you: you’re going to be a journalist.”

Man. What a failure.

So that’s me. I failed at Writing and won at writing. I failed so hard I failed myself right into a career that’s perfect for me, right into work I love and an environment I thrive in. I failed so badly that I wake up every day excited about what I do; I failed so hard that if you didn’t look at what really happened you’d probably call it deliberate success.

Since then, of course, it’s been slog and hard graft and an awful lot of trying incredibly hard all the time. It’s been monstrously long days and never turning my phone off and learning stuff in my spare time and making things happen. It’s been – it is – hard, and joyous. And I’ve never regretted the failures that led me here.

That’s my lesson. Sometimes failure is better than success. Sometimes you get better opportunities through failing than you do through succeeding. Sometimes the only way to win is to fall.

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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Education, education, education: the personal

This is one of a pair of posts. This one declares and explains my personal biases on this topic. The other one looks at the unanswered questions after the tuition fees vote.

When I was 16 years old I lived in hostels for homeless teenagers. Three of them, altogether, during the years I was studying for my A-levels. At that time – I believe it’s still true now, too – if you were between 16 and 18 and in full-time education you qualified for Income Support, Council Tax Benefit and Housing Benefit. No Jobseeker’s – you weren’t expected to work as well. That was lucky.

I received a grand total of £43.17 each week in cash. I had to go to the post office every Thursday with my benefit book and ID, sign the tokens, and take my money. I had a bank account – half the girls I lived with did not – and I tried to put £20 into the bank for later in the week, for bus fares and food and bits and pieces. £7 electricity, £7 gas, both on pre-payment cards. When the energy company hiked its fees one winter I had to pick one or the other. No hot water or heating for six months. £4 for the nominal rent I had to pay on top of benefits. £5 on food. I walked everywhere I could.

But I went to college. I went, not because I thought it was going to make me richer in the long run or for any sort of gain beyond loving to learn. I wanted to go to university to learn more. But I would have had to choose between bus fare and food, if it wasn’t for the Education Maintenance Allowance.

I was one of the first, a keen member of the pilot group in Birmingham who were given £30 a week to stay in school, and bonuses at the end of each term for attainment. That nearly doubled my income, that £30. I could afford more than one meal a day. I could get the bus to and from college. I could buy pens and folders and paper and books, saving £5 a week for a trip to Waterstones and coming home and laying them out on the floor, thick papery rectangles, full of stories, gateways into worlds. I saved up and bought a phone. I stayed alive, and I had hope, because I had my education and I was going to go to university, in the end, and I could study at night with my belly full.

Maybe my education wasn’t worth it. I didn’t do science or engineering or any of the subjects that are supposed to be valuable to the country, the ones deemed worthy of keeping their budgets. I couldn’t afford the train fare to go to open days for universities but I got into Cambridge to do English. I didn’t go, because I wanted to write. In the end I did American Literature with Creative Writing at UEA – a world-class course. It took two years working odd jobs after my A-levels before I got there, before I’d saved up a pot I could use in emergencies, but I got there. I worked for two of the three years I was at uni to make ends meet. That was just before tuition fees. I wouldn’t have gone if I’d had to pay any more. I couldn’t have faced the debt.

There are figures out there that suggest the EMA wasn’t effective enough, that most kids would have stayed on at college anyway. Maybe I’m a total statistical outlier; that’s fine. But for me the EMA wasn’t just about retention rates. It was about self-esteem. Would I have accessed a “hardship fund”? Maybe, but I would have had an even harder time telling myself I was entitled to it. Would I have got it if it’d meant filling in more forms, more figures, more time spent proving I was poor enough and well-intentioned enough to qualify? I doubt it.

And it was about attainment and attendance, too. Not just going, but paying attention and staying on the ball. Teachers could and did refuse to sign the forms if I acted up. That’s horribly punitive – none of the other kids had £30 taken away for playing up in class – but it got me to do my homework, even at times when there was so much else going on in my world that concentrating was next to impossible.

And it meant being free from fear that I would end up eating nothing but tinned peaches from the hostel donation cupboard for weeks just as my exams started, because my benefits had a hiccup.

Perhaps I would have stayed on at college on £43.17 a week, because I wanted it so hard. But I doubt, with all the extra worry and fear, that I would have gotten the grades I did. And I wouldn’t be here, now.

This blog is a direct consequence of the EMA. Whose voices are going to be missing from the conversation in 10 years’ time, now the EMA is gone?

On location

It’s been a little quiet on the blogging front the last month or so. Lots of reasons – a big move to the big smoke, living in the cloud while waiting for broadband and wifi internet to be installed at home, and most of all a job where instead of writing about all the awesome things we should be doing online, I’m getting to actually make them happen.

It’s an exceptionally good feeling, and at the end of most days I’m all idea-ed out – I’ve been throwing myself into getting to know what we’ve got at Citywire, and finding ways to start improving some of the most obvious things. New share buttons have started appearing on part of our site; our journalists are starting to tweet under their own names while I take over our group account, and we have the very lean and early beginnings of a Facebook page. On top of that there’s been a lot of work behind the scenes, nitty gritty nuts and bolts to bring us better data on how well what we’re doing works.

Getting to know London, especially in the absence of a broadband connection, has changed my media and browsing habits enormously. For more than three weeks we didn’t have a TV aerial at home, so there was no TV news for me – and I didn’t miss it, thanks to Twitter. I didn’t go to any one site in particular for my news – the things I was interested in have found me. Perfect.

Newspapers are free here, as long as you commute. I read more papers voluntarily than I ever have – the morning Metro and the Evening Standard, cover to cover, on the train and the Tube. That fills ms in on anything Twitter hasn’t told me – they’re not my main source of news, but they fill in the gaps, and if they’re not there I don’t miss them. I see hundreds of people reading these papers every day – far more than I ever did in Norwich. The free model works, so long as you have your distribution sorted.

I use apps more than browsers, especially Twitter and Reeder. I still use mobile more than static, because much of the time I don’t know where I am or what’s near me. And that’s been a big surprise for me. Location based services have been a godsend.

I know, I know. Foursquare has a problem with checkin fatigue and meaningless badges that reward grind and a game mechanic that isn’t really a game. Gowalla is a loot quest at best, and even with trips and items its fundamental mechanic isn’t entirely satisfying. Facebook Places is stuffed with privacy issues. There’s a study out that shows the number of Americans using location services is small – 4%, and dropping. And until I moved cities, I was one of those who tried for a while and then stopped bothering.

But then I moved, and suddenly instead of knowing my home city inside out and backward, I didn’t know where anything was, or who anyone was, or where to go for a pint of decent ale or a good cup of coffee. It’s an incredible, dislocating feeling, moving to a new city and especially London, and I’m lucky to have my husband with me through the upheaval. But now there’s a layer of information on top of the city streets that just wasn’t there six years ago, the last time I made a move like this. And that, for me, has value.

So being able to find a decent restaurant or a pub from my phone is not only good, but helps me feel a little more welcome, a little more embedded in my new community. What’s better is the added layers of information that some social networks are building on top of location data. Untappd tells me where I can get a well-kept pint of London Pride. The Foodspotting community is perhaps a little richer than me – I’ve looked at some pictures of incredible food but not yet used it to eat – but a service like Rate My Takeaway (complete with hygiene scores and a price list) would be useful regularly.

For that matter, location based classifieds would be pretty handy too. A system of virtual newsagents’ windows where I might be able to pick up a second-hand sofa locally, for instance. So would a deal-finder that would let the local supermarkets – and corner shops, and grocers, and butchers, and so on – compete for my weekly shop by telling me what was on offer today. Not online deals, but real ones. And I could use a “what’s happening” app that tells me, right now, what’s happening at the places I’ve scoped out that might get me mixing and mingling – not reviews afterwards, but upcoming and current events. (I’ve just downloaded the Time Out app – we’ll see if that does the trick.) Not games, but services – not fun, but useful.

Digital people talk about how newspapers missed the boat on digitising classified ads. I don’t know whether location is another space where traditional media is missing the boat – given the low take-up numbers it’s possible there isn’t a boat to miss. But I wonder if the numbers are down to the fact that location services, Foursquare in particular, are still creating an ecosystem, laying the foundations for a whole world of mobile information layers that could, in the end, be a profitable and useful space.

Moving on

I’ve changed my Twitter name – I’m now @newsmary. I can’t be @edpmary any more, because I’m going to be leaving the Eastern Daily Press and Evening News.

I’ll be moving to financial journalism publishers Citywire in London at the start of November, where I’ll be doing social media work, SEO and digital planning, and I hope to be an active part of their currently-forming data journalism operation.

In the last three years I’ve discovered what I love.

Three years ago, I sort of tripped over and fell into journalism. I was six months out of uni after a course in American Literature and Creative Writing – and believe me, no matter how impressive your marks are, that does not give you much traction in the jobs market. I was applying for editorial assistant jobs and design jobs and database admin jobs because of my experience in those areas, and I saw an ad for a local journalist and I applied. A horrendous current affairs exam and a face-clutchingly gruesome interview later, and I’d beaten more than 100 other people to get a job in journalism. The people that hired me saw something I didn’t even see in myself.

That changed, though. I went up to train at PA in the Evening Chronicle and Journal offices in Newcastle and, though I had a hard time with homesickness and loneliness, I grew to love the work. I went from decent-writer-but-scared-of-interviewing to feeling much more confident and happy in my role. And I won an award for getting good at it, and I came back, and I worked for the EDP and then the Evening News when we merged, and I loved it harder and harder every day, even as it became more difficult. I loved the thrill of seeing my name in print, next to my story and my words.

A few months after I started work I discovered Twitter, and it changed everything. I started this blog. I got lots of things wrong, repeatedly, on the internet where everyone could see; discovered Google Reader and used it religiously; fell in love all over again with data and coding and spreadsheets but this time in the service of storytelling and data journalism; played with video and audio; fell in love with the internet, full stop. Started reading Paul Bradshaw and Clay Shirky and Jeff Jarvis and Jay Rosen, and more and more of the many, many others at the coal face. Started getting evangelical about what news can do online and what online can do for news. Crowdsourced. Liveblogged. Livetweeted. Visualised. Wordled. Piped. Started waving my hands in excitement and enthusiasm at things that had very little to do with the day-to-day life in the newsroom of our print-first papers.

That’s where the disconnect began. Bit by bit as I explored this incredible new world, I realised the papers I work for don’t live there. They pass by regularly, sure, and they do some things very well, but they live in print and not in a series of tubes, and in recent times the focus has been unerringly on print. But that’s meant that in the newsroom where I wanted to be working for mobile and for web and harnessing the power of the internet for storytelling in all its forms, it’s become harder and harder to spend any time doing it.

If I was coming new to regional journalism now, I don’t know if I’d have time to explore Twitter and the web and data journalism and computer assisted reporting and fall in love the way I have. It’s something I do in my spare time, at home, at the end of 10-hour days or the mornings before a late shift, on my own. But in a sea of things I love doing, it’s what I love most. I’ve discovered that, for me, what’s better than seeing my name in print is seeing my work sprout wings and fly online, whether it’s got my name on it or not.

I believe, at Citywire, I’ll be in a newsroom that lives on the internet. It’ll be my job to have ideas about what we do online and on mobile and how to make it social. I’ll be throwing myself into social news, mobile news, online news, and I’ll be working out ways to make useful, relevant, awesome journalism. I’ll be part of a team including data researchers, and I hope I’ll be doing data journalism at work as well as working with data behind the scenes.

I’m going to miss the EDP and the Evening News. I’m going to miss Norwich and Norfolk. It’s going to be a huge wrench to leave behind the daily visits to new places to talk to interesting people. I’ll miss court and I’ll miss the buzz of breaking a big story and I’ll even miss council meetings, I expect.

But I won’t stop being a journalist. I won’t stop doing journalism. I won’t stop telling stories. You’ll see me more, not less, because I’ll have support and I’ll have time (and I’ll be in London instead of the wilds of Norfolk).

I want to do online journalism, not journalism online, and here’s a place where even if it’s not my byline, my face at the top of the page, I can help make that happen. I can help build an aviary for journalism and help it grow wings and fly. I can set up camp at the shifting frontier where journalism and the internet meet, and get busy building something brilliant.

Eulogy: old friend Xbox

Today I am in mourning for my xbox 360. After 4 years of long service it finally red ringed last night while I was trying to play my first proper sidequest on Mass Effect 2.

I feel a need to mark its passing somehow. I bought it way back in spring 2006 if memory serves – it was a first generation machine, obnoxiously noisy, occasionally buggy, and lacking an HDMI port.

While other people swapped broken consoles constantly thanks to Microsoft’s poor performance – I have friends who went through 4 360s in a year thanks to the dreaded red ring – mine soldiered on quite cheerfully. It survived 6 house moves – including going from Newcastle to Norwich wrapped in T-shirts in a suitcase on the train. It saw me through relationships ending, through graduation and a career change and my NCTJ prelims. It saw me married.

When thinking about major time periods in my life, I can link them still to the games I was playing at the time. All, or almost all, Xbox. Second year of university, wrapped up in work and writing constantly – Oblivion. Applying for jobs after uni – Guitar Hero 2. Breaking up with a long-term partner – Assassin’s Creed. NCTJ course – Portal, Braid, Fallout 3.

And looking back it’s striking how often I played out the conflicts and themes in meatspace life through gaming. In periods of intense factual learning I gravitated towards puzzle games with neat solutions; when I felt I couldn’t get anything right I retreated to conquerable, affirming rhythm games; at times of uncertainty and doubt I repeatedly threw myself off tall buildings.

Gaming has been self-care and healing, escapism, social interaction, fun, exploration, achievement and space where achievement no longer matters. It won’t end here – I have every intention of going out today to pick up a replacement. But this does feel very much like the end of an era. The next one won’t be the same.

I wonder if this is how I’ll feel if my iPhone ever dies.