Going Journo

Why I left product / growth to join a journalism org

It finally happened.

After years of hanging out with reporters, geeking out on the news behind the news, and silently stalking the feeds of my favorite Poynter / Nieman Lab thinkers, I’ve made a jump to the Deputy Director role for the New Mexico Compass, a non-profit journalism startup in my hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

In the last seven years I’ve been a teacher, coach, bar manager, and occasional freelance writer…before graduating to customer service, project managing content platforms, and, most recently, the last 1 ½ years in operations for a venture backed San Francisco tech startup.

Throughout it all I’ve kept a keen interest in journalism, content, and what it means to tell a good story. Some of my friends like to joke that I’m “almost a journalist,” a thing I’m a little bashful about hearing but very much appreciate.

Why the change now? And what’s next?

Well, one reason is practical — I was laid off a few weeks ago. I’m not normally psyched about something like that, but after a bit of reflection I decided it was a good thing.

As Gunther Sonnenfeld (a VC, technologist, and all around rad human) says: most of us should get fired more often.

Joining the Compass is definitely akin to jumping into the deep end of the pool.

I try to avoid cliches in general, but it’s probably the best way to explain the nature of the challenges that a tenacious, built from scratch journalism org faces. Overwhelming amount of water, lots of learning to swim quickly.

We’re not currently funded, and in addition to building partnerships / comms strategy / emergent practices, part of my job will include working with the co-founders to make sure we have an operating budget that includes at least 3 full-time employees by the end of the year. This will be different than what I’m used to, especially because in a non-profit environment the returns for financial backers are less obvious and profit driven than for other startups.

None of these things are easy. But the inherent risks also reveal a great deal of opportunity.

As Ezra Klein said earlier this year when he joined Vox Media to helm their politics & news vertical:

“We are just at the beginning of how journalism should be done on the web.
We [want] to build something from the ground up that helps people understand the news better. We are not just trying to scale Wonkblog, we want to improve the technology of news, and Vox has a vision of how to solve some of that.”

In particular, I’m interested in applying some of the things I’ve learned about growth, marketing, content, and iterating a product in fast, intense environments. There are plenty of good ideas there that can be applied to distributing and presenting journalism, and there are lessons in the other direction as well.

Another reason for the move is the fact that I’ll get to work with two extremely talented journalists.

Editor in Chief and Co-founder Marisa Demarco has 10+ years of experience, including time working for the primary daily and weekly newspapers here. She’s a smart, fair, and tough reporter that knows how to manage a newsroom and find and tell stories that matter. She’s also a fine artist and musician, and is responsible for Albuquerque’s first woman focused music festival, Gatas y Vatas.

Managing Editor and Co-founder Margaret Wright is one of the best writers I’ve met — she has that rare, skillful eye for telling stories in a nuanced but clear way. Her experience managing the local weekly and her approach to reporting and writing both reflect a thoughtful, deliberate perspective on what journalism should be and do. She’ll also be working via our parent organization — the New Mexico Journalism Collaborative — to educate and foster citizen journalists, and to create an open-source model for journalism that’s useful to beginning and experienced reporters.

They’re both exceptional humans and I’ve kept in touch with them over the last year hoping that we might be able to work together in some capacity — so I’m pleased to be joining the team.

While I’m planning out how we get our operating budget, I’ll be launching a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo in the next couple of weeks for the first major reporting project we’re embarking on — an interactive database of public records surrounding fatal shootings by Albuquerque Police starting in 2010, including video and audio footage, witness reports and other primary sources.

We think it’s going to be a big step forward for us, and a model for investigative and open-access journalism here in New Mexico.

After some thought I’ve also decided to keep doing work in content, growth, and analytics — specifically, for startups and at the small agency level, and will see if I can cover my bills with that and freelance writing work.

I seem to keep getting myself into more and more unstructured environments. I guess for someone who loves building from scratch, that’s almost a dream come true.

We’ll see if I’m eating my words in 12 months.

Cover photo credit: http://gratisography.com/