Getting things done

What gets done is what gets done, an entirely excellent piece about stopping working and logging off in order to work better and more effectively by @stef, turned up on Twitter today in a very timely fashion for me.

Suddenly, doing the occasional late night turns into a regular thing. You have meetings where you’re estimating how long something will take to do, and because last meeting you managed a certain amount of work, you commit to that next time. But the problem is that last time you had to pull a few late nights and now you’re writing that into your plan for the next piece of work. It’s a slippery slope.

Essentially, by doing lots of out-of-hours work you’re over-estimating the amount of work that can get done, and building potential team burnout into your plan.

At the moment, work is busy – very busy – because the Guardian in Australia is effectively a small startup, even though it exists within a much bigger corporation. It’s a small newsroom with a lot to cover, and after two months we’re still settling into our stride and learning what works and what doesn’t. When you don’t yet know what’s important – or you do, but you also have to do other mundane things to keep things running – it’s hard to prioritise time. And when – like me – you have a job which is fractal in nature, it’s very easy to end up working constantly, all of the time.

Fractal jobs are those where every task contains within it a multitude of smaller tasks. They’re jobs that multiply the more attention you put into them, where doing one big thing is fine but there are also three smaller things you could do to make it better, and each of those also could be improved if you did five other tiny things. My job incorporates SEO, social media monitoring and interaction, data analysis, community engagement: all areas that expand to fill all available space, if you let them. There’s always something else to do.

There’s a real skill involved in knowing when to stop tweaking, how much time to spend on the big things and how much to get invested in the smaller elements. And, being only two months in, I’m still learning where those lines are, and which things aren’t yet worth the investment of time for the returns they give. It’s also crucial to carve out time for experimentation and exploration, both of which become tricky when you’re paddling to stay afloat. It’s tempting to set that time aside at weekends, in space that’s not meant for work time. But that time’s not for work, and I’m increasingly certain that the more space I get to recover, the better I am at actually getting the useful things done.

On that note: it’s Friday. Time for some time off.

Upping sticks: moving to Sydney with Guardian Australia

I’m moving: not away from the Guardian, but with it. I’m going to be moving to Sydney for a secondment with the Guardian’s new Australian team. My role is editorial audience development, and will encompass SEO, analytics, community coordination, social media, and probably a whole bunch of other stuff I don’t know about yet. It’s a small, brilliant team full of interesting folks, with lots of exciting opportunities ahead; I can’t wait to get started.

It’s also literally half a world away. I’m lucky – we’re lucky – to be in a position where Grant can come with me, and can hopefully work and live alongside me, rather than having to be apart for what’s likely to be at least 9 months. We’re at a time in both our lives where upping sticks to somewhere with wombats and wallabies is not just possible but sounds like it could be bloody good fun. It will be hugely sad to be so far away from friends and families, but it will also be a very big adventure.

It turns out I own an awful lot of things I don’t need. And an astounding number of Nerf guns, which I clearly need to keep somewhere till we get back, along with the fire axes and the smoke machine and all of the books. If I owe you a coffee, a beer, an email or a chat, now’s a very good time to cash it in, while I’m still hunting for paperwork and trying to get our lives stowed away before we leave. Also if you’ve seen my birth certificate, I need that back.

And, in unrelated news, I’m hosting The Story conference next Friday. Hopefully I’ll see some of you there.

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.

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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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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.