Twice in the span of one month I did something I hadn’t done for a decade — worked in a newsroom.
Those two partial weeks that I spent enfolded, tauntaun like, in the guts of GeekWire taught me more about the current state of journalism and entrepreneurship than a year of reading armchair opinions ever could.
Some brief background: I have, in the past, committed journalism. I’ve done it as a broadcast news director, anchor and reporter; as a magazine, newspaper and web freelancer; and as a commentator and columnist. But the last time I did it inside a newsroom regularly was the four years I spent as KCPQ-TV Seattle’s on-camera tech analyst, attending editorial meetings and developing segments several days each week. It was fun, but that kind of work ended for good in 2002. Or so I thought.
GeekWire co-founders Todd Bishop and John Cook knew of my background beyond my contributions as a founding GeekWire columnist. And, I suspect more importantly, they knew that as a consultant I had some control over my time. So they asked me to fill in for two weeks of afternoons: first, when Todd went on vacation, and — after it became clear I wouldn’t break anything (in the office) or attract unwanted legal attention — a second time, when John did.
What did I learn in the year-old startup news crucible that is GeekWire?
1) Individual skills may not be transferable. But combinations of skills may be. Writing for a tech news site is very different than reporting for turn-of-the-century “old” media. It has the constant deadlines and rapid output of all-news radio, but requires the readability of crisp newspaper copy. In about 40 hours I completed 41 brief stories, including two longer analysis columns. This allowed Todd or John to focus on more in-depth and field reporting.
Had I treated each story like a thoughtful column, I’d have been doomed (and gone in one day). Had I treated each like a radio or TV story, it wouldn’t have been suitable for the digital page because in broadcasting, you either write for the ear (grammar be damned) or the eye (supporting, but not duplicating, what video shows).
Instead, I went with Todd’s suggestion to think of each story as three-to-five paragraphs. That forced a discipline of identifying the kernel of the story quickly. If a lede (the story opening) was clever, it still had to have substance and move the story forward. And to make it readable on screen, I thought about how I might explain the story to a friend briefly over coffee, between periods of staring at our phones.
None of these represent an overall set of skills transferred from a single job I’d had before. Rather, they were applicable component skills pulled apart from previous experiences and re-combined. It’s a mindset that can go beyond entrepreneurial journalism to any new venture for which there’s no direct precursor. Find what applies, no matter where you learned it, and pull it together.
Sometimes a skill isn’t represented by the work product that results. Rather, the skill lies within the process that leads to the product.
2) Publish. Then polish. In tech news, speed counts. Not just competitively. It’s a matter of survival — if you don’t keep up you get buried, even with good editorial triage.
So before hitting “Publish,” I worried only about two things: structuring the story logically and getting the facts right (and the more core the source — for example, a study or legal filing, rather than a news release or blog reference — the better).
The cute turn of phrase that would take time to get to work? Delete it. The detailed half-remembered context that required checking numerous facts? If not critical to understanding, link to something equivalent. The perfect image that probably could be just one more search away? A logo will suffice.
The audience is waiting. Publish, damn it. Then go in, proof copy again, adjust images, and make the headline fit more fully on two lines (Todd, John and I all hate widows and orphans — but only typographically).
And yes, all of this drove the perfectionist columnist within me nuts. It’s a columnist’s sacred duty to turn in “clean” copy, giving an editor as little ammo as possible for sullying one’s precious prose.
That concept of launch first, fix fast? It’s not just for apps or web services. It’s for anything digital. Even — when time is of the essence — words.
3) Handle intense pressure by juggling. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, nothing so concentrates the mind than the knowledge one has to produce a post an hour. That kind of certainty kept me from becoming distracted in GeekWire’s more casual newsroom setting by temptations such as the Trader Joe’s across the street, or by concerns that my “desk,” a black folding card table, would be gravitationally overwhelmed once it realized it had to support both a laptop and monitor.
Stuck? Always have two or three story priorities in the mental hopper. If one isn’t falling into place neatly, pause and switch. I found it actually easier to have three pieces in motion at all times because then you have the freedom to focus on what’s important — the post — but the flexibility to move to another instance if a source doesn’t get back to you promptly, or the kernel to be explained clearly doesn’t quite gel.
It’s not multitasking. It’s sliding pieces into place as elements come together. And it’s a mental trick that works for far more than stories; I also use it with multi-faceted consulting projects. The key is to only have two or three priority tasks, not a multitude of equally medium-importance tasks. And no: checking Twitter or Facebook repeatedly does not count as a “task.”
In those two weeks, I also had reinforced that attitude matters, age doesn’t, and there is almost always an interesting angle in an oft-covered story that others have overlooked because they don’t have an eye for the fascinating detail. I think GeekWire distinguishes itself that way.
Yet reflecting on all three lessons, I’ll be the first to admit this isn’t the kind of environment for everyone. But neither are startups generally. You either revel in adrenalin or you collapse.
What’s important is knowing that any precursor work you’ve done may apply to a digital startup — as long as you’re flexible enough to step back, part out the underlying skills you’ve learned, and not unlearn but reconstruct them.
Now, if only Trader Joe’s would deliver.
Frank Catalano is a consultant, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies whose GeekWire columns take a practical nerd’s approach to tech. He tweets @FrankCatalano and consults as Intrinsic Strategy. He hopes Todd and John replace the card table. Soon.