7 ways social media editors, Web staff and programmers can break out of 'monkey' roles

In professional newsrooms, certain roles have long struggled against marginalization. Reporters and editors initiate the storytelling process, to be later joined by photographers, designers and other specialists who often wish they had more involvement, sooner.

The modern newsroom has new "peripheral" roles, like social media editors, Web producers and programmers. New jobs, but the same problems, familiar for decades to photojournalists and designers.

Recently many social media editors have lamented that some are pigeonholed as “Twitter monkeys” who just handle the TweetDeck stuff so no one else has to. Web producers may get boxed in as “Website monkeys” who SEO the headlines and wrangle the insufferable CMS so no one else has to. And programmers get siloed as the “Code monkeys” who just turn product requirements into apps.

But these are smart people, not smart monkeys. They have skills, expertise and ambitions that can either be stifled or stimulated.

Social media editors can:

  • coach other staff on using social media themselves;
  • plan special social-powered reporting projects;
  • join the long-term planning process to brainstorm social components to major news; projects experiment with emerging social networks (like Pinterest) to see what could be done;
  • and stay abreast of cutting edge tactics in the industry.

Web producers can:

  • help editors understand how to best tell stories online;
  • brainstorm multimedia components;
  • plan for extra online features and promotion strategies;
  • and learn from analytics data.

Programmers can:

  • help shape the design and scope of a project from the outset;
  • explain what’s technologically possible;
  • suggest a more efficient approach and advise how long development would take;
  • and offer good story ideas.

If you are in one of these specialist roles, how do you break out? If you are a newsroom leader, how do you empower your specialists to contribute all their abilities toward better journalism?

Steps to shaping the newsroom role you want

1. Ask for it. The obvious but so often overlooked first step is to make sure the people in charge know what you want. This is a key part of “managing up.” Explain what you’re doing now, what else you would like to do, and how that would help the organization. Don’t assume the bosses will be unsupportive.

2. Leadership initiative. A boss who understands and supports your goals can do a lot to make them happen. She can tell other editors and reporters to work with you and Socratically ask them once in a while whether they have consulted with you on a particular project. She can put you in the right planning meetings and make sure social media has a spot on the agenda.

3. Build workplace relationships. The boss can only do so much by fiat. If you really want reporters and editors to work with you, reach out and get to know them. It takes a certain level of day-to-day rapport to stay in the loop and top of mind. And it’s not easy for some people to approach a stranger to float ideas or admit they need help, so don’t be a stranger.

4. Get access to planning. Even if you build good relationships with the staff, they won’t always remember to come to you. You need access to the official meetings or documents where story planning happens, so you can see everything for the coming weeks and weigh in early. That goes both ways -- make sure your own projects are shared there as well.

5. Stay close. Physical proximity goes a long way. A lot of planning and decisions happen through informal huddles in the middle of the newsroom or in the heat of breaking news. Try to position yourself close enough to hear the important stuff and join conversations.

6. Demos, not memos. A phrase coined by Matt Waite, this is the technologist’s equivalent of the reporter’s “show, don’t tell” axiom. If you still need to convince your boss or others of an idea outside your direct area of expertise, do a pilot project or example. Show them the results, don’t just tell them ideas. That advances the followup conversations, Waite notes, “from ‘what do you mean by...?’ to ‘what if we did this?’ ”

7. Make time for the big-picture stuff. Even with the complete support of your boss and colleagues, you may be your own biggest obstacle. You have to make time to take on new tasks and goals. For social media editors especially, real-time networks can seem to demand all of your time. Schedule periods for other staff to cover TweetDeck while you step away for other things.

Finally, of course, you still have to do some of the monkey work. Probably a lot of it. That’s the “job” part of the job. But even that can be fun when balanced by these other opportunities for professional fulfillment, career growth and cutting-edge journalism.

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    Jeff Sonderman

    Jeff Sonderman is the deputy director of the American Press Institute, helping to lead its use of research, tools, events, and strategic insights to advance and sustain journalism.


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