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We’ve got a pipeline problem in media tech + product

Let me tell you a secret: Some of the best jobs in news right now aren’t in the newsroom.

Across media organizations small and large, local and national, legacy and startup, there’s a newly professionalized flank of technologists who spend their days making better news products.

Some of these teams grew out of legacy IT departments, or in the case of pure-plays, were modeled after the composition of teams at traditional tech startups.

These product & technology teams are driving innovation in their organizations. Look at Trei Brundrett’s team at Vox, Mark Wilkie’s team at BuzzFeed, or Zach Seward’s team at Quartz. These teams do something different than the work of interactive news developers, who are concerned with a daily, weekly, monthly, or even longer story cycle. Rather than being concerned with a story itself, product & technology teams focus on the tools, platforms, and workflows that make such storytelling possible, and hopefully profitable, too.

I didn’t know these product & technology jobs existed when I was in college.

When we started Onward State, I worked with our developers, and through self-teaching myself became acquainted (as I had to) with the in’s and out’s of our WordPress-driven website. Onward State was great product for a long time (the site, today, is… not great… from a product and design perspective, even though the students continue to do stellar work), and this was because we knew that success meant creating a website our peers would enjoy accessing. Such a delightful experience is very hard though! Bugs happen. Ads are required. Tastes change. The modern media technology & product team exists because the landscape shifts so quickly. No longer can media organizations afford to hire an agency for a redesign twice a decade, subsisting on an anti-user CMS – not just the direct monetary cost, but an indirect audience cost, as what connotes a “good user experience” is a fast-moving target.

My most recent job title was “software engineer”. Five years ago I would have thought this prospect ridiculous. Today I see it as having been inevitable. In the search for scale, technology and product offers leverage to the individual that a journalist can spend a lifetime seeking. It’s easier to affect a million people for the better through a couple lines of code than a couple lines of prose.

This is not to say that these jobs are better than traditional editorial roles. But they are different and tend to be better compensated. Not to mention just about every media organization is thirsty for these skills. I know this from experience, having spent the past 10 months helping hire engineers to Fusion’s technology team. Good candidates are truly hard to find.

We’ve got a pipeline problem in media tech + product. Not only are the candidates who apply for such jobs fewer than the market would suggest they should be, but the candidates who do come forward under-index in diversity compared to any reasonable comparison population. It’s hardly a novel insight to say that tech isn’t diverse, but in journalism, an industry traditionally somewhat exempt from diversity problems (except at the top) it seems to be an inefficiency within our power to address.

Mind you, this is not an indictment of the interactive news programs popping up at universities like the University of Nebraska – Lincoln (led by the indomitable drone-expert Matt Waite), and it is not an indictment of traditional student media. And universities are getting better. Just this morning I had a Twitter exchange with one of my favorite professors at Penn State, Curt Chandler (the dude who taught me multimedia, full-stop), and Dean Marie Hardin.

These are great efforts, and indeed where we should be going. So much has changed in just few years since I graduated! But I see a couple of ways that people like myself can do better, as alumni and as professionals.

  • Ask faculty you know at your college: How can I help? What do you need? There are efforts ongoing at your alma mater, I’m sure of it. But this is a quickly changing landscape, and given that we have a vested interest in fixing the pipeline problem, surely there’s more you can do.
  • Push your student media to restructure. Watching the Daily Emerald under Ivar Vong and Ryan Frank was pure delight for me. They walked students through the product processes core to the business today. I hope to see Onward State and The Daily Collegian do the same in the years to come.
  • Explain to young journalists – There are opportunities to support news outside of being a journalist per se. Your journalism training will still be indispensable, but by investing in technology and product skills, you raise your own earning power & diversify your options should a layoff happen (as they do in this business, as I also know from experience).

I’m also putting together a pocket guide for the field. What are the jobs? How might you train for them? Where can you find openings? If you’ve got ideas or suggestions, hit me up on Twitter.

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Real publishers, real problems, real opportunities

Here is a copy of my presentation and prepared remarks from WordCamp for Publishers 2019 in Columbus.

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