My Shiny New Title

16 Apr

I’ve spent the last 45 minutes or so updating my brand-new, barely-out-of-the-box job title on Facebook and LinkedIn. I’ve got all my basic employment and education info up-to-date, including past job descriptions and some random, mostly irrelevant skills, and under my name, it now reads, “General Manager.” I’m pretty stoked about it.

Now, I’ve come to this question:

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My objectives? Great. Here ya go: To hire a team of amazing people. To form healthy, positive relationships with our new clients. To not totally mess up this whole managing-people thing. Oh yeah, and to make this new business that largely rests on my shoulders work.

My objectives are pretty clear. But a summary of myself? That’s tough.

Here goes.

My name is Rachel Rowan. I turned 23 two weeks ago to the day. I graduated from the University of Florida last year with a B.S. in journalism — a fact that still makes me giggle and then quietly freak out a little when I think about it too hard. I work for a residential and commercial cleaning company called Student Maid. I’ve worked for this company since the summer before my junior year of college (that’s almost two years, for those keeping score at home). I was hired as what we call a “move-out” employee, meaning I was one of a couple hundred students who decided that deep-cleaning empty student apartments in the middle of a Gainesville summer was as good a way to make money in a recession as any. I’m now in charge of opening Student Maid’s very first branch in my hometown, of all places, and making sure I don’t do anything to drastically diminish the stellar reputation of the company’s home base in Gainesville.

“nbd,” as the kids say. (“No big deal” to the outsiders of the social media vernacular.)

I’m totally on board with this new venture. I have been since the beginning, and I feel generally good about the direction it’s headed. We (the Gainesville team) have made a running start at the uphill battle of launching a new branch, and we seem to be making promising headway.

It’s just, y’know. I’m a journalism major. A grammar nerd who gets her jollies from correcting abysmal syntax and then going out of her way to destroy every rule she’s come to protect at will (see: this paragraph). I’m not driven by the same things as goal-oriented, business-savvy people are. I like words and stuff.

But in a few days, I’ll have business cards with my name on them followed by “General Manager.” Business cards. Real ones. With a logo and phone number and email address that’s just myname@mycompanysname.com.

That’s some real-world grownup shit, right there.

The fact that I’ve known this was going to happen for at least six months hasn’t really helped make any of it seem real to me. It’s only recently hit me that I’m moving back to my hometown, not to my parents’ house as an out-of-work college grad with a relatively useless degree as I’d always expected I might, but to my own place as a grownup with a salary and the future of a whole company in my hands.

No pressure.

Student Maid’s owner, Kristen, asked me today if I’m nervous about it all. Hell yeah, I’m nervous. I’d be an idiot not to be. I’ll be responsible for the success of a whole business, even though I have little to no personal business experience except what I’ve seen and done in the last six months.

I’m nervous, but not about everything. I feel good about my ability to relate to people and get to know them first as people and second as employees. I’m aware of my weaknesses and the things in my personality I need to work on (I’m too nice, too passive, too laid-back about a lot of things. The best advice I’ve been given recently is, “Not everyone has to be your friend,” and I intend to keep that at the back of my head when I know people have asked too much of me.). I know that one of the hardest parts of starting a business is building a client base, but we’re lucky enough to have a good head start on that. I feel good about it; I do.

I’m nervous about the technical things. What if I miss an important deadline? What if I misplace a receipt? What if I ignorantly mislead an employee and it causes an HR nightmare that’s totally my fault? What if I screw up on the things I’m supposed to be really good at (cleaning, quality checking, spelin wurdz corectly (see what I did there?)) and it makes not only me but the company and its employees look really, really stupid?

Hell yeah, I’m nervous.

But I know that I’ve got to take these things as they come, and I’ve got to meet the challenges as they arise. When I contemplated getting a minor in business as a college freshman, I never thought I’d be in the position I am now (which, incidentally, is a young businessperson who wishes she’d followed that whim to minor in something useful instead of anthropology). But I’m here, and it’s happening, and I’m doing it, and if I screw up, I’m gonna deal with it. If I screw up, it means I have to figure out how to fix it, and if I can figure out the fix on my own, I’ll feel that much more valuable.

(This is beginning to sound like a pep talk to myself. But it kinda is.)

So here’s my summary, LinkedIn, if you and my “connections” must know:

My name is Rachel. I’m 23. I’ve been given the opportunity to do something completely outside my zone of expertise and comfort, but I’m building the framework for expanding that zone at every chance I get, so that someday soon, I can say, “Wow, look what I did. That’s cool.”

Aside

TEDxUF

23 Feb

I just got back from my first TED experience: TEDxUF 2013.

I knew generally the idea behind TED Talks before the event, but this morning as I got ready for the day, I realized I really had no clue what to expect from the speakers. I’d seen a couple of TED Talks on YouTube, and they’d been very cool; their topics had been geared toward technology and entrepreneurship, two things I have a general interest in but am not particularly passionate about.

I briefly browsed the lineup of today’s local speakers before TEDx started, and their bios didn’t give much away: There was a doctor, a couple of local business leaders and entrepreneurs and a few other people whose occupations were less easy to pinpoint from the few lines provided on the website.

Once it started, TEDx turned out to be everything and nothing that I expected. Cliche as that is, it’s the easiest way I can sum up my feelings after watching today’s 12 talks (nine from live speakers and three from YouTube videos shown to the crowd).

Though I’d never grasped it in so many words, TED is basically an event that connects people — not necessarily people of note; just people — and their ideas with a captive audience ready to listen and learn. I saw how thrilled each speaker was to watch the audience catch on to their talk as they gave it. If we didn’t fully understand the idea, at least we could tell that they were passionate about it.

My favorite talks were those by Rebecca Brown, Phoebe Miles and Ken Staab. What struck me most about each of them was that they were physical proof that “show, don’t tell” — an adage often drilled into writers’ heads — is the most effective way of communicating an idea. None of them had to say, “I really like this thing that I’m talking about!!! It’s really cool!!!” It was clear from how passionately they spoke that they were serious about their love for their subjects.

The subjects themselves surprised me. I had assumed that TED was more technology-focused, and that most of the talks would center on some way-cool science discovery or ideas to improve the planet with complicated algorithms and processes that needed several more years and millions of dollars in funding before they could be put into action.

What I found was that the ideas discussed included technology, yes, but they were also geared toward bettering yourself and your life by examining others’ anecdotes and personal epiphanies. Many of the speakers started their talks by looking back into their own lives and extracting an example of an incident that changed them somehow and made them reexamine life in such a profound way that they wanted to share that change with us.

Rebecca Brown founded an organization that I would never have imagined existed. It’s called Streetlight, and it connects college students who plan to work in the medical field (and some who don’t) with terminally ill adolescent hospital patients who will most likely die before they reach their 20s. The first thing she said about her job (though she never called it a “job;” it’s something she’s devoted to without question that happens to take up a lot of her life) is that she does not find it morbid. And she’s not a saint, she said. She’s not a doctor or psychologist; the only training she has is as a death counselor, which is something else I didn’t realize existed.

Rebecca’s talk came with its share of sadness, as you can imagine, but the overwhelming message of her talk was that death is not something that should be glamorized or spotlighted to the point of overshadowing a person’s footprint on the world. She said the students who befriend dying teenagers end up as better physicians, nurses, etc., later in life, but she hasn’t figured out exactly why. She guesses, though, that it has something to do with the vulnerability shared by both parties and how intimacy is naturally born of the relationships by virtue of knowing that one person’s life will soon end very abruptly.

It was a lot to take in in a 20-minute talk. She brought us through with humor and quick wit and showed us with a few short stories why she doesn’t think death should be as scary as it’s made out to be. People at the end of their lives just want friendship, she said. If you can be a friend to them and remember them on their terms, that’s all they really want.

Another talk I really enjoyed was that of Phoebe Miles, who is the daughter of the inventor of Gatorade. Her talk centered on the relationship of the arts and human genius and how one informs the other. Almost every scientist who’s made a major breakthrough, she said, could also add “accomplished musician” to their credentials. Examples include Albert Einstein, the Greek mathematician Pythagoras and her own father. She said music is math made into sound, and to demonstrate the point, she had a cellist on stage play certain notes and musical passages that confirmed the theory.

The takeaway point from her talk was that the arts should be taught alongside the “harder” subjects like science and math because they all intersect. Our brains will see patterns and solve problems more quickly and easily if we’re familiar with music and its patterns. And, she said, it’s never too late to teach yourself: People who pick up an instrument or any other form of art in their later years live longer, happier lives.

The third talk I really enjoyed was Ken Staab’s. Ken is the uncle of a boy named Tyler who was diagnosed with a genetic condition called dystonia, which basically prevents muscles from working together properly, causing extreme pain and irregularity in movement. Ken is an economist who watched his brother and sister-in-law’s struggle with their son’s (and daughter’s; both children have been diagnosed with dystonia) disease and saw their anger at the fact that the health care system, the way it’s set up now, is preventing the best researchers and doctors from finding a cure to this terrible disease. The pieces were there, he said, but the money that could be put toward finding a cure was being funneled elsewhere because of a broken system that is centered on benefiting the medical industry’s bottom line.

Ken and his family’s solution was to found Tyler’s Hope, an organization with the one very specific goal of curing dystonia as fast as possible. With enough people fired up about the cause and countless charitable 5Ks, bake sales, etc., Tyler’s Hope raised $1 million to put toward research. They found the best, most dedicated doctor in the field and connected him with the best researchers, and because of that initial boost, the doctors have since turned that original million-dollar investment into $6 million in grants and other funding. The money donated to Tyler’s Hope gets to the doctors and researchers as cash, eliminating the usual delay that occurs when charitable funds are put into a trust.

Ken’s hope is that Tyler’s Hope will start a domino effect of efforts like this that funnel money directly to specific problems so that they are solved with as little delay as possible.

There was one YouTube’d TED talk’s message that I loved, and it boils down to thinking about leadership as a way to profoundly impact and/or change someone’s life. The smallest interaction can affect someone else’s life in a stupidly huge way, and you have no way of knowing what that might be. So make sure every interaction you have with strangers (or even people you know and love) is positive, and don’t be afraid to help a stranger out if you think you could benefit them, even if you think it’s only in a small way.

I didn’t expect to learn about any of these things at TEDx. I was ready to be wowed by cool technology or especially awesome scientific research (which I was), but I wasn’t expecting to be bowled over by life lessons and encouragement. This session of talks made me realize not only how many cool people live in this community, but also that people still understand the value of sharing ideas. And they not only understand but are really, really excited to spread those ideas even further, as evidenced by the prevalence of TED Talks on YouTube.

What I’m taking away from today’s talks are not the platitudes about passion and finding your niche and all that, but how excited these people were to share what they feel are the ideas that are going to help change the world. And none of them tackled major issues like climate change or world hunger: They focused on tiny steps in the right direction to prove that these ideas are already changing the world.

The talks that resonated with me were the ones that proved the meaning of passion without saying it outright: Show, don’t tell. They gave examples of the kinds of stories I want to be able to tell one day so that I can reflect on my own epiphanies that I think will change the world. TED is about people connecting with people on one of the most basic levels: communication. Talking to each other and sharing ideas is the only way humanity will ever begin to understand itself.

Social Media Report

19 Apr

To promote my topics blog, I relied mainly on the tagging capabilities of Tumblr. What’s great about tags is that they allow bloggers to include their posts in a collection of other posts within the same topic. So when I posted about the band Hanson, I tagged the post so fans and other people browsing the Hanson tag could read, share and comment on it. This strategy worked well: Through tagging, my posts gained “likes” and “reblogs” on Tumblr, and my blog also gained a few followers over time.

I used Tumblr to connect with people before creating my posts, too. For example, before I wrote a post about Third Eye Blind, I reached out to fans of the band via Tumblr tags to ask them what they would include in a brief post that gave an overview of their favorite band. I got several helpful responses from people and a few followers from these kinds of posts alone.

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I used Facebook to advertise my posts as well, but I knew that there I would only be sharing among friends because of my privacy settings. Keeping that in mind, I only advertised the posts I knew would interest my friends so as not to flood anyone’s newsfeed. This strategy seemed to work, too: I got some good responses from friends and family. The downside of using my personal Facebook was that I couldn’t connect to a larger community than the people I’m friends with, but that’s why I didn’t use Facebook alone.

I think the most valuable thing about using social media to promote something like a blog is how easy it is for posts to go viral. Through Tumblr’s reblog function, for example, posts can be seen by hundreds of people, even if only a few reblog them, because of how the site is set up. If one person with 1,000 followers reblogs my posts, it’s possible I’ve reached at least 1,000 people without having that many followers of my own. Though none of my posts went viral, I generally saw an increased number of “likes” on my posts as time went on and people began to share them.

Social media is kind of like word-of-mouth for the Internet. Its advantages lie in the opportunity it gives people to talk with other people – strangers or not – about what they like and why they like it. If you’re well-spoken, entertaining and generally informative when using almost any kind of social media, people will respond to you, as long as you’ve made an effort to reach them through tagging or other kinds of promotion. 

Specialization, user experience important considerations for digital media

18 Apr

Digital media is all about choice. For example, you can choose to read news in an app on a smartphone or a Web browser on a laptop. You could also listen to it in a podcast. The point is, it’s up to you — which is why it’s important for journalists using digital media to connect with audiences understand that it’s not just about the content they produce; it’s also about how users get to that content.

Journalist and computer scientist Jonathan Stray says  journalism’s product should be more than the content of stories, which is a notion that deviates from many popular ideas that center on establishing whole new forms of writing for digital media. While he still strongly advocates new writing styles for the Web and practices such as adding in-text links to stories, Stray argues that the goal of journalism should be agency, not just information dissemination. He says it should endeavor to distribute niche-specific information to people who can use it to “change the world” the way they see fit. Instead of just publishing information journalists think “everyone” should know, Stray says journalists should find ways to deliver content to specific groups of people who will find that information most useful. But they should keep in mind how that information is going to get to people. They should understand why some users choose to consume media via smartphone app and some favor TV: Journalists’ intent should be to make those choices worth users’ while.

I think looking at digital journalism as a way to work with people instead of talking at them, so to speak, is a good way to approach many platforms already in place. Catering to the user’s experience, as Stray says, can be helpful in a way that publishing general information to mass audiences isn’t. If the goal is giving people the tools they need to receive (and put out their own) information, then digital journalism could become a new way of empowering the masses.

But in order to promote user agency, journalists must commit to keeping up with as many platforms as possible. The idea of the “total journalist,” as BBC’s Robert Peston puts it, is at once inspiring and exhausting. Considering all the different kinds of media Peston interacts with in a day is overwhelming: He contributes to more than 20 media programs on radio and TV each day, all while keeping up with a blog that he updates frequently. This kind of frenetic connected-ness may seem daunting now, but being a “total journalist” could give an edge to digital journalists that those in print and broadcast can never have: the option to specialize information to specific groups. Benefits of specialization could come in the form of  increased readership and more advertising revenue. Time will tell if such fragmentation will catch on, but in a world of unlimited choices, the more specific that information is, the more likely it may be to attract an audience.

Case Study 10: Wordle

18 Apr

My friends and I used to use word-cloud-creator Wordle to make 8.5-by-11-inch art for our dorm room walls. Now, journalists can use the tool to pinpoint frequently referred-to topics over time by putting a series of texts, such as successive States of the Union addresses, into the cloud creator. While Wordle still provides the option to spice up the words by playing with colors, fonts and text orientation, the idea behind it — categorizing words by size — is helpful in discerning main ideas of texts quickly. 

For example, in President Obama’s 2010 State of the Union address, the words “Americans,” “jobs” and “people” stand out in the biggest fonts, meaning they were mentioned most frequently. In 2011, topics didn’t change much, but a notable addition was the word “new,” which appeared frequently enough to become one of the largest words in the cloud. A reason for the change could be a shift in policy change for Obama: He was trying to push forward new legislation, such as the health care act, and his focus was on the future. The president’s most recent State of the Union, which he gave in January, adds “energy” and “right” to the mix, perhaps indicating a focus-shift toward energy policies and frequent mention of the president’s ongoing battle with “the right.”

Without reading the full texts of each address, it is possible to discern their major themes by looking at a Wordle word cloud. The tool can save journalists time if all they’re looking for is an overview of topics; Wordle is not a statistically sound or expert-proven model for discovering trends, but it can be useful as a jumping-off point for stories that compare political addresses or even multiple stories about ongoing criminal trials or community issues. 

I think Wordle could also be useful to bloggers who want to check their own sites for frequent topics. If they want to figure out why they gained more “followers” during a certain period of time, for example, they can enter their URL in Wordle and find out if a dramatic topic-shift is the cause. If so, bloggers can orient their blogs toward topics they know their readers care about without going back through months of posts.

Social media must be personal to be effective

6 Apr

One of the greatest benefits of social media is its ability to personalize news. Telling stories in first-person, as bloggers often do, can help writers establish personas their readers can become attached to and recognize as that writer’s shtick or “brand.” Personality is an important part of social media, and it’s easy to establish a rapport with readers by making personal posts or interacting with them via comments and messages.

News organizations that are trying to stifle that connection, such as E.W. Scrippsjust don’t get how social media is supposed to work. Personality makes social media effective. People like hearing from other people, not faceless corporations. On my Facebook news feed, for example, people read stories on the Washington Post Social Reader app and then share them so the articles show up on my news feed. I’m more likely to click on these links that my friends recommend than random links to stories recommended by faceless, voiceless news blogs because I’m familiar with my friends’ tastes and trust their judgment. The same goes for bloggers who establish a rapport with readers: The more readers feel connected to a writer, the more likely they are to take their opinions and recommendations to heart.

While there is room to debate what should constitute the difference between personal and professional use of social media, when it comes to online journalism, personality is what’s going to sell it. I’ve noticed that well-known news sources that have Tumblrs often get positive feedback when their staffs decide to reblog pictures of kittens or leave comments snarky comments on a post. I came across a post yesterday, for example, that was an infographic about what the average American household bought in December 2011. the Newsweek Tumblr reblogged it and added, “Dear average Americans, please spend more on books, magazines and newspapers and less on alcohol. Your friend, Newsweek.” (The infographic showed that alcohol accounted for 0.9 percent of money spent while books, magazines and newspapers accounted for only 0.2 percent.)

Readers are more involved with the news process than ever as reporting becomes a collaborative process, and reporters reach out to readers via crowdsourcing and hashtags on Twitter. To get the conversation going, however, it’s good for journalists to be able to be candid and accessible. They are more likely to get a response by inviting comments and feedback than by keeping the conversation one-sided. Social media can also let the audience speak first. Browsing Twitter trending topics and sparing more than a passing glance to your Facebook news feed can unearth trends and dig up leads to stories people care about and bring to light issues you may have no been aware of. Understanding your audience and speaking your readers’ language is essential.

Google Trends and Google Correlate

Google Trends and Correlate are two examples of how the Internet has made research ridiculously simple. Just by entering a word in a search bar, years of data are simplified into a chart like the ones above and catered to your needs. The examples I chose were just for fun, but they nonetheless show the practicality of the tools.

The first chart shows how often actor Darren Criss’ name has been Googled in the last couple years. It is interesting to see what Google came up with for Criss, whose claim to fame was starring in a musical Harry Potter parody that went viral on YouTube before he landed a role on “Glee”: The trends directly relate to his exposure to the public eye. For the summer of 2010, when the Potter musical was becoming a hit, the numbers are modest, but when rumors of Criss’ casting on “Glee” begin to circulate, they jump. The trend peaks the day after Criss’ debut episode of “Glee” aired, and Google helpfully provides links to articles that surfaced around that time to explain the cause for the peaks in trending.

Google Correlate is great for searching for an initial relationship between two search terms. Correlation, as we know, does not equal causation, but if two terms are Googled together often enough, there may be a story idea buried in the data. I chose to enter “Harry Potter” into Google Correlate to see what it came up with, and, unsurprisingly, “muggle” was on the list. The chart shows that the search history for the terms is similar, but interestingly, there are small peaks where one is searched far more than the other. Correlate could be used to show the relationship between two concepts, ideas or events, but more research would need to be conducted before conclusions could be reached about causation.

 

Media Ride-Along: ChicagoTalks.org

5 Apr

ChicagoTalks.org is a nonprofit community news site. Affiliated with Columbia College Chicago, CT is built on citizen and student journalism, reporting on issues around Chicago.

Barbara Iverson, the site’s co-founder and co-publisher, started ChicagoTalks in 2006 after working on the English version of OhmyNews, a Korean news site that allowed people to register and submit stories for publication.

Iverson got funding from Knight’s J-Lab and help from Columbia College professor Suzanne McBride. Six years after its launch, ChicagoTalks continues to publish the work of many community members and Columbia College students and faculty.

Iverson said in an email that the college’s journalism students generally publish at least one story per semester, while graduate students publish at least four stories per semester. Submission is open to anyone, though, and stories frequently come from nonprofit groups in the area.

To ensure the quality of published work, teachers edit student work and select particularly good stories to submit to ChicagoTalks. Editors look at all stories before they are published to the site, verifying information with writers by phone or online. The student editor is the only paid employee.

“We don’t pay our contributors, but we use a Creative Commons license and everyone gets attribution for their work and retains all rights,” Iverson said.

ChicagoTalks is funded by donations. On the site, visitors can donate via the Kachingle service. In the fall, the site will work with a class at Columbia College called Virtual Newsroom in which students will study search engine optimization and CT’s metrics in order to experiment with advertising and revenue models Iverson has been considering.

SEO is important to ChicagoTalks, but Iverson emphasized the value of solid newsgathering in light of the site’s “hyperlocal” focus.

“We will publish stories if we think that someone in the community will benefit,” Iverson said. “However, (the site’s student reporters) understand that their reputation is tied to stories they publish.”

To market itself, ChicagoTalks shares links to similar sites and asks those sites to “share back.” Students who work on the site are taught to use social networks to advertise stories. CT cross-publishes with other local sites, such as the Beachwood Reporter, and it worked with the Chicago News Cooperative before CNC folded. One of the site’s stories was even published in the New York Times.

Because trends point to mobile devices and tablets taking over as the “method of choice” for consuming journalism, Iverson said ChicagoTalks will continue distributing content without a print component. CT routinely adds video, audio and Storify pieces to its stories.

ChicagoTalks is one of the only organizations of its kind in Chicago, so it doesn’t have much competition. Iverson has been able to pursue a growth strategy at her leisure. Her latest project is a collaboration with a DePaul University reporting class, which will contribute to the site in the same way Columbia College students do.

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