In 20 years working on the internet I’ve never stopped being an editor. We’re playful creatures, always mining what we know and trying to make new connections. Headline writers especially draw from everything around them – quotes from the musical “Hamilton” seem to be all over the New York Times these days.
Our ability to make connections accounts for our success in whatever we fall into – and very few of us are able to stay in journalism. I’ve kept fairly close – I develop an association’s website and do freelance ghostwriting. I start every weekday morning writing a newsletter subject line. Even as a designer I can’t resist a visual pun.
Fans of the Mark Haddon novel shouldn’t draw too many parallels here. Editors still have a fairly conventional way of viewing the world. But editorial work is a good starting point for representing the user experience. Service designer Richard Verne brought a few of us together for a panel this fall, and got me thinking about how my editorial experience helps in my current role.
Content management. We all stumble onto what we want to do. I spent a summer in college working in a law library, updating binders full of legal opinion. This was my first job in content management. CCH published its Federal Tax Reporter and other textbooks in binders, and as legislatures and court rulings made new law it would print new sections, or even just single pages with a sentence or two changed.
I can’t say this summer job led me to a career in law, though I do work for the bar association. As a journalism student, it wasn’t what I envisioned in a publishing career. But 20-plus years ago, when the internet seemed like a fad, I knew better from my summer of minding binders.
Human-computer interaction. Editors were the original disruptors. Word processors replaced typesetting machines like this one. Early in my career I sped up the process working as a typesetter. Note that there’s no screen on this one. You saw just the line you were typing, because that’s all you could change. I wrote whole articles that way. For an editor, I was unusually comfortable with technology.
Full-stack development. As a suburban copy editor at the Sun-Times I was writing business stories and Atex compilers – “set variable 7 at system variable 16.” At any Sun-Times terminal you could type “GET fan,” and it would print the word aficionado. Steve was having fun with macros. Knowing my way around code led me from the pagination desk to the internet and databases.
Information architecture. The Tribune hired me away from the Sun-Times before my desk turned into a Trump Tower parking space. I built a real estate website that incorporated photos, median prices and school scores into the listings – all radical at the time, but the template for Zillow. After starting the breaking business site and doing reports for CLTV, I returned to data visualization and taxonomy.
The Tribune website was expanding in a hurry, and as a business and technology reporter I had a good sense of what the sales and development staff needed. So I tracked projects on a spreadsheet, studied the project management body of knowledge, which was called the PMBOK, and managed the backlog in what we called the BAQ, which stood for the Big Ass Queue.
My boss gave me a copy of “Project Management for Dummies” and said don’t be offended, it’ll help. Later I worked with the head of the project management office, who recommended a book that conformed more closely to the PMBOK.
I was no longer a dummy, I was doing “user experience.” I wrangled XML feeds from a new CMS, built mapping apps and redesigned the Tribune website every 18 months or so. It didn’t faze me that I was replacing systems I built. After all, part of being an editor is the rewrite. And I wanted more proposals to get green-lighted, but newspapers can be cheap. Maybe I was being a dummy after all.
That leads me to my freelance career. Editorial work saved me. I latched onto work as a radio producer and blogger before I started getting design and UX assignments. And my technology reporting led me to the open source community, where I updated my development skills at Chi Hack Night and other tech events.
Newspapers are righteous places to work. They’re businesses with a First Amendment charter. Their code of ethics starts with “Seek truth and report it.” And the user experience is part of the DNA. The business model has its challenges. But serving the customer and the community come first. That’s a good pattern for all of us.
So there you have it – a career figuring out new technology. People my age know how to do it. If you’re hiring, think about that.