The Internet was new, and the newspaper industry was struggling to bridge the cultural gap between “new media” and “old media.” Between “digital natives” and Luddites who had teethed on IBM Selectrics.
I can’t say I had a conscious strategy for building a bridge. Journalism school teaches you nothing about business planning. What I did have, though, was a passion for my work and insatiable curiosity.
Within a few years, I was online editor at my mid-size newspaper—a brand-new position that came about because I kept doing the job until someone saw that it was necessary.
Here’s how that happened and how this accidental system can work for anyone who wants to create a new role.
Develop needed skills
I knew my technical skillset was weak. I could create websites with a simple WYSIWYG. That helped me figure out what I needed to learn.
I started schooling myself in basic HTML. I could no more create a complex website than developers could do investigative reporting. But I could run it after it was developed and, even more importantly, I could now speak and understand geek speak.
That’s Lesson 1: Know your weaknesses and work to fill the gaps.
No one wants to look like a grabby job-jumper—in a situation such as mine, there was no job to grab anyway. If you offer help, though, few people will turn it down.
I began working to figure out how to get more work the newsroom already was doing online. I coordinated the paper’s data-driven reporting—another niche I’d slipped into by learning the software on my own. I knew many stories had heaps of information that never made it into print. Online doesn’t have space limits.
What would it take, I asked the online manager, to put the data on the web site? Give me spreadsheets, he responded. We’ll make it happen.
That early effort was crude and laughable. The spreadsheets weren’t searchable, so all readers could do was scroll through dozens of spreadsheets with hundreds of columns. Much to the surprise of many, they did. Online was delighted, and the newsroom was jazzed about publishing work that used to gather dust on desks.
That’s Lesson 2: Start somewhere, even if it’s small. It can be enough to get buy-in.
Find something no one else wants to do
Social media was another problematic area for both newsrooms and online departments. Everyone was starting blog sites, but it was hard to balance bringing law to the Wild West and ruining the free-wheeling vibe. Everyone had forums because someone at a seminar had recommended them. But no one wanted to moderate them.
I did. I had jumped on Usenet early, and the whole unrestricted exchange was exciting. I started blogging for the paper.
That’s Lesson 3: Everyone loves a problem-solver, particularly when the wicket is so sticky that no one wants to wade in. If you don the hip boots, you’ll earn not only a hearty “thanks,” but additional credibility when you propose your next move.
Springboard off your successes
A couple of years down the road, it was job review time and I finally went in with an answer to that dreaded question: where do you see yourself five years from now?
I see myself as an online editor, I said. I know there’s a need for someone who speaks geek and speaks news, and I’ve proven myself bilingual.
Three months later, the position was created and I was in it. Admittedly, my success had more to do with timing than with planning. I certainly hadn’t set out to create a job. But by improving my weaknesses, looking for opportunity and stepping up to fill gaps, I was able to create a role that benefitted me and the company.