Forty-Five

This week I'm turning forty-five years old.

To mark that occasion along with my graduation, some friends came out to tackle an invasive species removal project at a local city park:

A tradition started five years ago as a gift from my wife Kelly and the friends who participate, I like celebrating with an activity that feels useful and that hopefully benefits the wider community. This year's project was cut a bit short by a sudden downpour, but we managed to clear out a good section of tree line, which will in turn help protect a reforestation project happening nearby. Afterward we gathered with still more friends at a local restaurant to continue the celebration.

It was a good day and I felt fortunate to be surrounded by folks who are, as one of them put it, "glad I exist and have survived this long." 😀

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I finished my journalism degree

This month, July of 2022, I completed the master's degree in journalism program that I started in 2019 at Ball State University.

My diploma is not yet in hand but all course work is completed and all credit requirements are satisfied. I'm quite proud to be at this milestone, and I'm grateful for what I've learned and experienced along the way. Here are a few highlights and reflections:

The courses

My program focus was on "reporting and storytelling," which covered a range of topics and disciplines including reporting and storytelling itself, a lot of theory and analysis work, developing and practicing my academic research skills, learning data journalism tactics and tools, exploring past, present and future models of journalism, thinking about what voices and perspectives are missing or under-represented in local news, and more.

Here's a full list of the courses I took:

  • Studies in Journalism and Communication Theory
  • Social and Cross-Media Storytelling
  • Journalistic Judgments
  • Data Journalism
  • Emerging Technologies
  • Diversity & Media
  • Intro to Statistical Methods
  • Media Audiences and Content Strategy
  • Social Media Analytics and Engagement
  • Capstone Creative Project (2 semesters)
  • Evolution of Remote/Distributed Newsrooms

That list represents three years of study, hundreds of book and article chapters read, hundreds of pages written for various papers and assignments, hundreds of hours of lectures and presentations, various articles, podcasts, websites and videos completed, and a lot of time and energy.

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What I've been working on

A few folks have asked what I've been working on since leaving full-time employment at the end of 2019. Here's an update:

Graduate studies

I've continued my graduate studies in journalism, and I'm currently planning to graduate next year with a master's degree focused on reporting and storytelling. My classes thus far have included:

  • Studies in Journalism and Communication Theory
  • Social and Cross-Media Storytelling
  • Journalistic Judgments
  • Data Journalism
  • Emerging Technologies
  • Diversity & Media

Coming up this fall I'm diving into "Intro to Statistical Methods" and "Media Audiences and Content Strategy."

Overall the program at Ball State University has been good for me. I'm learning a lot and the material is interesting and relevant. It's pretty focused on building a skillset in research, news reporting and media production, and given that I've done a lot of those kinds of things professionally and for personal projects, there have been times where my impatience to apply my skills and knowledge has made me wonder if I needed to finish the degree program at all. But most of the time I just appreciate that I'm getting to take my interests and knowledge to a new level in a new context, and that I'm honing in on what I might (and might not) be able to contribute to the world of journalism.

Growing my SaaS application

About a year ago I launched a software-as-a-service tool called WP Lookout, aimed at helping WordPress professionals keep track of things happening with the themes and plugins they depend on in their work. I've continued to add new features and get a few paying subscribers, and it was fun to have it featured in some industry press coverage (WP Tavern, Post Status). This summer I've been working with a contractor on marketing and strategy for increasing user signups.

Overall this project continues to be one that mostly scratches some personal itches (solving a technical problem I had for myself, learning the Laravel framework, getting practice launching a modern SaaS offering), and the fact that it might be useful to other people is a bonus on top of that. There are plenty of other features I'd like to add to it, but I'm also trying to make sure my time invested is proportionate to the value it brings me and other people, especially since there are other (unrelated) SaaS tools I'm working toward building and launching, along with various open source software projects I contribute to.

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Does your organization need help figuring out remote work?

If your business or organization has been struggling through the unexpected shift to emergency remote/distributed work, and now wants to step back and build a distributed work culture that actually thrives, I'd like to help.

How does accountability and management happen in a remote workplace? How do we avoid Zoom meeting burnout? What does a productive home office setup look like? What cultural shifts are needed? What collaboration tools and software might be most helpful? How do we make decisions quickly when we're not in the same place?

If your leadership is asking these or similar questions, I can help you find some answers.

There are now a ton of great articles, podcasts, interviews and other resources out there about the mechanics of remote work. For some organizational leaders, that might be enough to get you started. For others, you may benefit from a collaborative, customized process to look at your particular organizational culture and structure, and develop a plan for shifting into sustainable distributed/remote work.

So I'm beginning to offer just that as a paid consulting service. Through conversations, workshops, assessments and other forms of engagement, I'm helping organizations move past the emergency reaction phase and into a long-term distributed/remote work setup that works for everyone.

Visit Distributed.Coach To Learn More

I'm passionate about the benefits — to individuals, organizations and society as a whole — of the distributed work model. I also enjoy helping organizations think about and plan for change. I've built and led fully distributed teams, and I've also built and led organizations where everyone came in to the same office to work together. I’ve seen both models up close, and I know from experience what works and what doesn’t. Especially as the implications of COVID-19 have forced so many organizations to rethink their operations, but even prior to that, I have wanted to contribute to this global shift in how we work.

If you are a part of an organization that would benefit from my expertise, or know someone who is, learn more and get in touch at Distributed.Coach.

Helping out at the local newspaper

I'm excited to be able to say a bit more about one of the ways I've been spending time professionally in recent months. Since January, I've been consulting with the folks at Hometown Media Group, the parent company of two weekly newspapers here in Wayne County, Indiana, as their Digital Editor to help them update, streamline and manage their expanding digital offerings.

It's been a really fun and challenging application of my longtime interests in news media, technology, small business and community building. It's been rewarding to bring to bear my skills and experience previously helping national and global publishers, now for the benefit of reporters covering the place where I live. It's been a geeky delight to help them shore up their technical foundations with the tools and best practices that I've used, implemented or created elsewhere. And I love being a part of the strategy conversations around how and where people get their news in our region, and what kinds of improvements will serve readers and subscribers best.

All of this work is a part of answering that recurring question around what I can contribute to the field of journalism. I'm so glad for this experience along the way.

And although the ground-shaking that has come with the COVID-19 pandemic makes a lot of the future uncertain for newspapers (and everyone), it's also highlighted the essential nature of local news with high standards for factual reporting. We have some neat projects and updates in the works for the weeks and months ahead to honor that responsibility, so I'm looking forward to helping them out for as long as I can be useful.

At some point down the road I'll look at sharing more about some of the technical work I've done here that might benefit other newspapers working on improving their online publishing efforts.

If you're living in or connected to this part of Indiana, I hope you'll consider buying a subscription and supporting local journalism. Their prices are incredibly affordable, but more importantly the staff and ownership of Hometown Media Group are doing impressive work, especially these days when advertisers are especially cautious and the breaking news is truly nonstop. They care deeply about the community and the people they serve, and would appreciate your business if you're able.

Create a story, join a story, tell a story?

As I have been thinking about and working on "what's next" for me professionally, a theme has emerged around storytelling. Despite the fairly technical nature of my work to date, storytelling is a concept and a practice that has consistently been woven into the challenges and projects I take on. And as I ponder the future, it's been useful to see how each possibility fits (or doesn't fit) with that theme too.

Here are some of the general possibilities I'm considering through that lens:

Create a new story. Found a company. Make something new. Write actual stories or books.

Tell other people's stories. Journalism. Publishing. Podcasting. Interviews. Investigations.

Be a part of someone else's story. For a while, anyway. Get another job at an organization I believe in. Help lead an organization or team through a time of transformation. Give my time and talents to a cause I am excited about.

Work on story-telling tools used by others. Launch a product or service. Build or contribute to software. Do consulting or freelance work.

Learn from the stories already out there. Read books and articles, listen to podcasts. Catch up with friends and colleagues. Browse the aisles of the library. Wander in the woods. Explore new places.

I'm early in my own process of discernment, but I'm settling on one point of clarity: I may be retiring from doing "just one thing." Recalling the different modes of living out my multipotentialite self, I think it's time to shift away from the Group Hug approach ("having one full-time job or business that fully supports you, while leaving you with enough time and energy to pursue your other passions on the side") and instead shift to the Group Hug ("having one multifaceted job or business that allows you to wear many hats and shift between several domains at work"). Embracing my multiple passions and a skillset that spans many different kinds of roles and industries will, I think, mean honoring the time and focus each one deserves, instead of largely relegating everything except a narrowly focused job or project to what I can get done in my spare time. Easier said than done.

I've also had a hard time describing this time of transition to others in any kind of concise or confident way. As one person said, I'm not conforming to normative standards for professional/life changes. It's great to acknowledge that, but still makes for awkward light conversation.

Helpfully, I recently encountered Scott Berkun's article, Changing your life is not a (mid-life) crisis, and it's full of good stuff, including:

I imagine for myself a lifetime of changes initiated by me. I know I’m too curious, and life is too short, to follow the conventional footsteps that everyone is quick to defend despite how miserable they seem in the following. We use the phrase “life long learner” but it’s corny and shallow, suggesting people who quietly take courses or read books after college as if the essence of life were merely a hobby. We need a term for life long growers, people who continue to examine and explore their own potentials and passions, making new and bigger bets as they change throughout life.

A hard thing about this time is resisting the temptation to make safe bets that I know I can win. I've been there and done that, and even when I've taken risks or tried new things that others were uncertain about, I've had an almost embarrassingly good run of professional success as a result. So now I'd like to take some risks make some bold moves and step further outside my comfort zone along the way. I want to create, or tell, or be a part of a story that has some good twists and turns.

Let's see where this dimly lit path (that may not be a path at all) goes, shall we?

Goodbye and thank you, Automattic

After more than 5.5 years at Automattic, I recently decided that I am ready for something different, and today is my last day at the company.

The things about Automattic that excited and impressed me when I first joined in 2014 still excite and impress me today. The mission to democratize publishing and help people to better tell their stories. The pioneering of a distributed model for hundreds of people to work well together. The way even small improvements in a few lines of code could affect millions of websites. The focus on transparency and excellence in communication. Working with kind people from all over the world in a constant flurry of collaboration and creativity.

YOLO

I'm proud of the contributions I made in that time, and I know that I got to work on some of the most interesting projects of my professional life so far.

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Podcast interview with me

I recently joined podcaster Dave Albert to talk about my adventures with entrepreneurship, what it was like to start, run and eventually wind down a technology business, what it's like to work for someone else, the joys and challenges of distributed work, and some of the cool stuff we're doing at Automattic. We covered a lot and it was fun to look back on all of those different parts of my professional life.

You can listen to the conversation on Dave's site, find it in your favorite podcast directory, or download a mirrored copy. Thanks, Dave, for the opportunity!

What can I contribute to journalism?

What can I contribute to journalism?

It's a question I’ve been asking for years now.

My questioning has taken a variety of forms, including:

  • writing and editing for my high school and college newspapers,
  • hosting a weekly podcast with analysis of the local news,
  • blogging as a media critic,
  • serving on the local daily paper’s editorial board,
  • having letters to the editor accepted in local and national publications,
  • working professionally to advise and support some of the biggest news publishers on the web,
  • helping to organize a three-day national conference for publishers, and
  • researching business models for local journalism.

I’ve been rewarded and challenged in all of those things, and in most cases I’ve been told that I’ve made a positive difference. And yet...I feel more concerned than ever about the waning appreciation for journalism and pursuit of the truth in modern society. I also feel more drawn than ever to trying to do something (else) about it.

Continue reading "What can I contribute to journalism?"