Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Making a Difference -- a Different Way

What's it like being the editor at an Internet startup? My former newspaper colleagues keep asking me this. And I've had to come up with an answer. So I asked them to think about starting a newspaper from scratch. While I've never done it, I assume this is what it's like. But I bet the conversations are similar to some I've had in the last six months. They go something like this...

Co-worker: Hey, what's the font going to be?
Marisa: What font? For what?
Co-worker: For the web pages....
Marisa: We don't have a font?
Co-worker: That's your job.
Marisa: Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh.
Co-Worker: So what's it gonna be?
Marisa: Well, I dunno.
Co-worker: Umm, you might wanna think about it.

As you can tell, I'm usually the one without the answers. And that means I occasionally make it up as I go along. Fortunately, I have had lots of practice at this --I've worked at newspapers. In my career as a print journalist, but particularly as an editor, I've been forced to "play it by ear" a lot.

For instance, I've directed the birth of a number of new -- if not long-lived -- products. You know the kind. One minute you're quietly sitting in a meeting and the next minute you're sideswiped by the Mack truck of an idea for a new product being slung by a manager in a flailing department trying to deflect attention from the fact that he can't meet his goals this month.

As an example, when I was a newspaper editor in a blue-collar, steel town some years ago, one such person suggested that we start a monthly Baby Boomer publication. And between the creation and the journalism, an understaffed, overworked newsroom of talented folks planned, designed and wrote a product that lasted....drum-roll here....a few months. Why? The advertising department just couldn't sell the ads to maintain it.

Another time I was asked to reassess the content in 10 sections and launch a new weekly section before my 90-day probationary period was over -- and do it without increasing expenses. A few weeks into the project, the only editor who was helping me quit to take a public relations job -- imagine this -- paying more money and working fewer hours.

I've even run two community newspapers 28-miles apart with no printing press and a joint copydesk in the middle of an area where a quarter of the folks couldn't read. One time, in the dead of winter, the phone lines and electricity went out, forcing the staff to put out two newspapers with battery-powered lights, a couple of gas generators (Note to former employer: The windows to the second-floor newsroom DID NOT open) and wearing coats and gloves to keep warm.

None of that, though, has really prepared me for being the editor of an Internet startup. It's not that I don't have the expertise or the background to pick fonts for web pages or assign stories to reporters or make certain they've got well written headlines when they're published. To be honest, it's the topic of the web site -- divorce -- that I struggle with the most as an editor.Think about it. What kind of content do you offer to someone who is going through the kind of pain that makes it hard to breathe? Sometimes the burden of that responsibility exhausts me, and I leave here wanting nothing more than to sit mindlessly in front of the TV for hours.

And then, just when I wonder what it is I am really doing, a friend tells me the story a woman who came to the site, a woman she talked to, an abused woman who didn't know how to get herself or her children to safety. And I learn of how this woman read a story on the site that helped her find the strength to leave.

And I am reminded of why I became a newspaper reporter so many years ago. Back then I believed that words could make a difference in the world. In the last few months (though not quite so young), I have recognized that words can still make a difference -- no matter where they're published.

And I realize I haven't strayed that far from where I started.

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