Note to self, aged 15

The JCARN prompt this month is to write a letter to your 15-year-old self. Well.

It gets better.

This will be the mantra of your coming years. This will be what guides you, what gets you up in the morning and gets you to sleep, eventually, late at night. This will be the phrase you cut out of newspaper letters and paste on your walls in seven different places you call home. This will be the only thing you believe without empirical evidence, not because it is pleasant but because you have already seen the alternative, where it was worse, and that is no longer an option.

It gets better.

You will crawl out of the hell of the depression you live in now. You will eventually discover other ways to contain the fire inside you that has you tearing at yourself. You will learn to name your emotions, and you will learn that they cannot, must not, be excised. You will learn to budget, to cook, to clean. You will find yourself laughing from time to time. Between the drama, somehow, you will pass exams.

It gets better.

You will leave the shattered remnants of your teenage years and flee to a new city, where you will fall in love, and out of love, and in love again more permanently. You will discover talents, and interests, and the Cow Tower on the river bend. You will learn to think in systems as well as stories. You will not sleep, until eventually the nightmares recede. You will learn to eat. You will learn to work. You will learn that you are valuable and worthy of respect. You will sometimes believe it.

It gets better.

You will move. You will grow. You will find London and, within it, friends. You will make things – games, poems, stories. You will smile almost every day. You will no longer need to make lists of what is good in the world. You will know it in your bones. You will work well in a job that makes you happy. You will play well in a world that makes you happy. You will create muscles where once was skin and bone. You will still have bad days, but they will be rare and nowhere near as bad as they once were. You will fly half way around the world and a lorikeet will crash into your window.

But first, before it gets better, it gets worse.

You will decide there is no purpose, no future, nothing of worth to you, and you will try to destroy yourself. You will not succeed. You will see out the millennium with a glass of fake champagne in an NHS medium-security ward, a nurse at arm’s length. There will not be fireworks. You will get birthday cards from the other patients. You will punch walls until your fists bleed. You will lie on the carpet and not make your bed and only emerge from your room for coffee. You will not take your hat off for five months. But slowly, you will take your first steps toward believing what I now know to be true.

It gets better.

We are in a buyer’s market for news – and for journalists too

International Money Pile in Cash and CoinsFor this month’s Carnival of Journalism, Michael Rosenblum asks: “Is it possible for a good journalist to be a good capitalist?” My answer: yes, but the people who employ journalists tend to be a lot better at it than the journalists themselves, thanks to the state of the market and the laws of supply and demand.

Entrepreneurialism – while it can be brilliant and is a vital part of the ecosystem – is risky, difficult, sometimes soul-destroying, and the odds are against you ever making more money from it than you could from more traditional employment. Freelancing is, of course, not the same thing as being an entrepreneur, and while plenty of journalists go down that route the money is often scarce and the financial position insecure. At present journalism jobs – outside specialist markets like financial journalism – are few and far between, and even at their best the money pales in comparison to some other professions, as Michael points out in his introduction post.

Many journalists don’t want to be – aren’t cut out to be – technical or technological innovators, or freelancers chasing clients for cash. Some of us love digital production and want nothing more than to be playing with new ways to tell stories. Others want nothing but to be allowed to get on with their important investigatons, or their war films, or their pithy columns. I am unequivocably in favour of journalists learning new skills in order to do their jobs more efficiently and more effectively – but when it comes to demanding they move away from their specialism and into areas they may not enjoy or be good at, I get a little uncomfortable. Not everyone can or should be a jack of all trades.

This is a supply and demand problem. This isn’t an issue of journalists not wanting to make money – it’s an issue of there being an awful lot of very talented journalists, from new graduates to grizzled veterans, all of whom would like to be able to eat. Journalism right now is a buyer’s market, and content is very cheap. The people at the bottom of the rung who can afford to work for free will do so; freelancers who can undercut the competition will get the gig. Employers who want to employ journalists and cut costs at the same time can pay so little, because so very, very many people want a job in journalism, have sunk years of time and a great deal of money into the prospect of a job in journalism, and are willing to work for little cash because of their principles and desires.

Much like news online, journalists’ skills are devalued not because they are not respected, but because they are abundant. Much like an absolute paywall, unless you have unique content or the ability to ensure everyone adheres to the same pricing strategy, charging more for your work is likely to simply make people turn elsewhere. The macro issues affecting the industry hit journalists individually too. The solutions to both problems remain unclear.

#jcarn: Dear Santa, please bring us all more time

Given the recent dearth of posts on here, my request in response to this month’s Carnival of Journalism prompt is probably not surprising, though it may be impossible.

Dear Santa, for journo-Christmas I would like more time. Not just for me, but for everyone.

I was lucky enough, recently, to be part of a Guardian hack day. As a result, some awesome tools got built, including three that I started using inmediately. They’re still very much in beta, being improved and worked on occasionally, but I use them constantly. They’ve changed my job. Not by giving me new things to do, but by automating some repetitive, tricky, admin bits of the job and therefore making them require less time and attention – so I can spend more time and energy focussing on the bits that really need it.

That’s wonderful. It’s a gift of time. It means I can work smarter, not just harder. I wish, if I have to be limited to one Christmas wish, that every journalist and everyone involved in making journalism – including developers – could have at least one tool, in 2012, that makes the tedious admin bits of their jobs faster. I hope that every tricky CMS for journalists that contains unnecessary time-consuming admin processes releases an update that makes it no longer so.

And, because this isn’t a one-way process, I hope that every journalist takes the initiative to go find out where their techies live and actually talks to them, in person, about the problems they have. There’s no point griping only to each other about the difficult bits, or in keeping quiet and carrying on doing things that don’t make sense: tell developers what’s wrong, because otherwise they won’t know it needs fixing. Sometimes what looks like a tech problem is actually a communication issue, because the people who need to know that something’s broken haven’t been told.

These fixes often aren’t the big, sexy, exciting projects for devs. They’re the sort of thing that, if it exists, you very quickly take for granted. Things like, say, a spellchecker that also flags up common house style violations, or a geolocation module that understands when you type “Norwich” that you want the geographical area defined by the boundaries of the city of Norwich, not a point at the centre of its postcode area. They’re often small niggles that you’d only notice if you’re doing these processes day in, day out, many times a day.

In an age of cutting costs, one of the most precious resources we have left is our time. Anything that saves it, that means it can be spent doing journalism or making tools that journalists can use, instead of busywork, is a wonderful thing.

Oh, and if you work in a place that has admin staff, go say thank you to them. They deserve it.

#jcarn: Workflow hacking

For this month’s Carnival of Journalism, we’ve been challenged to write about life hacks, tips, tools and techniques that help us work smarter and more effectively.

It’s been an interesting one, because it’s forced me to quantify the things I do to try and work efficiently. The things I’m sharing here make me sound like some sort of uber robot journalist geek, which I’m not, really, but trying to follow these principles helps me pretend.

Your job is not your admin

  • Every job has a tedious admin phase you have to deal with every day. But that’s not your real job – it takes time away from doing what you need to do.
  • The most basic ways you can be more awesome involve cutting down on admin time and increasing the time you spend actually working.
  • I keep track of what I do to work out which tasks take up time without contributing anything meaningful. I’ve used Rescue Time, Remember The Milk, Epic Win and custom Google Docs to track this in the past.
  • Once I’ve worked out where there’s time to be saved, I start working out how to save it. This is useful admin time.
  • It’s always worth learning keyboard shortcuts for any program I use daily. It saves small chunks of time over and over again.
  • I use a To Do list for big stuff that needs it rather than day-to-day routine things – I’m using Remember The Milk at the moment, but I tend to rotate list apps every few months because otherwise the novelty wears off and I stop using them. I’ve used 2Do, Google Tasks, Outlook Tasks, Doomi, enormous spreadsheets and Epic Win in the past.

Repeated tasks can be automated

  • It’s worth a day of my effort to automate something that takes me more than about 20 minutes a day to do. If it’s an interruption or a flow-breaking task or something I will have to do every day for a year, it’s probably worth more.
  • I think of certain tasks – finding sources on Twitter, for instance, or researching a topic for a story – as building a re-usable resource, not a one-off event. It takes much less effort to build a Twitter list or filter and aggregate a few RSS feeds the first time around, so you can go straight back to your sources if you’re doing a follow-up.
  • I use a lot of dashboards. The new Google Analytics beta lets me customise and keep half a dozen ways of slicing web data at my fingertips, so I can answer common business questions in seconds not hours. iGoogle combined with custom alerts by RSS lets me filter the entire web for certain subjects. Hootsuite and Tweetdeck let me monitor social networks in similar ways.
  • I use macros to automate tasks in Excel and Word. I use Google Docs with various APIs to build a few regular reports, occasionally combined with ScraperWiki. I build a lot of very specific spreadsheets where I can plug in data in a certain format and get back insights very quickly. I try to build things that can be re-used or re-purposed.
  • If there’s a boring repetitive task, there’s almost certainly a plugin or a script somewhere on the internet that’ll help you make it faster or easier. Sometimes those are more work to rewrite/implement than it would be just to get on with it. Other times they’re lifesaving.
  • Greasemonkey can be astonishingly helpful in saving little annoyances (and big ones, sometimes). For instance, I love this script that automatically pushes the “access analytics” button in Google Analytics. It saves one click – but it saves it three or four times every single day.
  • After all that – I do very little coding. I mostly borrow other people’s code and put it to use in new situations.

All information can be filtered

  • Twitter lists, search operators and even individual users if they’re focussed on a specific topic of interest. The -RT search operator is fantastic. Topsy‘s advanced search is also amazing powerful. And it has an API, which I haven’t yet worked out how to use to best advantage.
  • RSS folders in Google Reader (or a similar reader service) and combinations and filters using Yahoo Pipes. Postrank is an awesome service that helps you filter popular and engaging content from feeds. Combining Postrank with Pipes gives you neat automatic filters.
  • Google alerts, especially using advanced search terms – you can use with keywords to build a video alert service, for instance.
  • Google custom search – great for checking whether anyone’s covered a particular story, or for working out who on your beat is talking about a certain subject – just give it a list of links.

Interruptions can be limited

  • I use rules in Outlook to limit the number of times I see email alerts – I have several set up to filter out various levels of noise, including a white-list for emails most likely to need urgent responses. It was well worth the time spent setting these up – if every pop-up on-screen is only 5 seconds of attention, I’ve still saved more than 5 minutes a day.
  • I use rules in Gmail to sort incoming mail by priority, and use the email game to deal with it all in small bursts, quickly and efficiently, when it’s convenient rather than when a mail comes in.
  • I turn off email notifications for sites I visit every day anyway. I set up as much as possible to come via RSS (where I can filter it using Yahoo Pipes and categorise it in a sensible folder) or via Twitter (where its immediate impact is limited to 140 characters).
  • When I need to focus, I stay away from Tweetdeck completely. I have a 2-column view in Hootsuite with nothing but mentions and direct messages, so I can see anything requiring urgent responses at a glance. I turn my iPhone off.

Waiting kills productivity

  • If a task I do regularly is governed by a set of rules and involves waiting for something to happen, I do my best to automate it away. I win twice.
  • If I’ve got to do something that involves waiting, I plan for the wait: go take a break, stretch, do a simple time-limited task.
  • I have a  folder of RSS feeds from folks who write short, and I read a couple while Iwait. And I have Reeder on my iPhone, for long out-of-the-office waits (some people call them “commutes”).
  • I save up several stop-start tasks and use them as a “distraction loop” – taking each one in turn and switching when a wait starts.

What do you do to hack your workflow? What tools do you use to simplify the stuff that doesn’t matter and help you spend more time on the stuff that does?

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.

Driving innovation: pie in the sky

This post forms part of the third Carnival of Journalism – a monthly blog carnival focussing on, well, journalism. It’s my first time taking the plunge to properly join in.

This month, the focus is driving innovation, with detailed prompts looking at either the Knight News Challenge or the Reynolds Fellows programme – both fine endeavours aimed at encouraging journalism innovation. But while I was researching them, I fell to thinking what I might do if I had a vast pot of money and was asked to use it to drive innovation.

These are my pie-in-the-sky idealistic naive ideas. This is what I’d do, if I ruled the world.

Training. Fellowships are great at rewarding the very best and the very brightest – the people who’ve already proven themselves. But there are huge pools of talent further down the ladder, people who are hungry and excited and want chances and learning. I’d offer training opportunities, broker partnerships between educators and news organisations, and champion ongoing education in journalism. And of course it’d run courses, my imaginary magic organisation with infinite funds – it’d help fill in skills gaps for older workers and help hold the NCTJ to account when it came to teaching the skills needed in innovative newsrooms.

Partnerships. It’s easy to see where the links should be sometimes, but incredibly hard to make them happen. Individuals benefit from being round the same table with people from different industries and with different viewpoints, at all levels of business. I’d develop a sort of “skills swap” fellowship, encouraging organisations focussing on news, web development, technology, gaming, data and other relevant areas to essentially trade employees for a while, so that their guys learned new skills and their teams were exposed to new ideas. I’d aim for it to spark innovative ideas within larger organisations, and the swappers would have to create a Journalism Thing – in co-operation with each other and with their organisations – as part of their participation.

Intersections. Like every industry, journalism needs injections of ideas outside its existing sphere in order to avoid disappearing inside its own navel. There are dozens of areas with things to teach journalism, and journalism has a huge amount to teach – so one of my organisational remits would be to run events to bring those worlds together. Traditional conferences, hack days, foo camps; strategy events for managers and making-things days for practitioners. All aimed at sparking ideas, creating connections and, yes, driving innovation.

Startup loans. The Knight News Challenge is a brilliant way of getting people started – but they build a competition which necessarily means hundreds of fantastic ideas lose out. We need that, but I think the startup ecology also needs finance options when they hit hard times, or when they want to expand. And with a dramatic lack of lending going on right now, a startup loan fund aimed at journalism projects could help provide short- or even long-term finance to help build a successful innovation ecology.

Resources. Legal support and training. Business information. Links to the academic community, to the business community, to investors of various types; research fellowships, practical workshops, hotdesking office space, a “library” of tech kit (camcorders, laptops, software, hardware) for innovative projects to lease at a smaller incremental cost than buying it out. My magical organisation would be a nexus of conversation about and resources for innovation in journalism, and a big part of our remit would be to not only build those resources but also get them to where they’re needed.

So that’s me. What would you do?