[image of life hacks by Phil Gyford]
Last Sunday, as I was hitting publish on my post about collaborative journalism, Gina Trapani was talking to Lifehacker's audience about her decision to step away from the site's editor job to go back to "making things, noodling with software, and writing about it." I've read her open letter a couple of times because it says so much about how publishing has evolved into a conversation among content creators - readers and writers mixed in different doses.
We discussed the combination in a conversation published here. "My definition of success is handing a reader a useful tidbit that saves time or makes life easier in a small way," said Trapani. The other insight I had from the post - which, as she wrote, broke the two "keep it short and sweet" and "it's not about you" rules - was that publishing itself is a life hack. Her post generated 378 comments.
This to me seems to be the biggest difference between sites born as new media and those who have migrated online from print - that of educating and inspiring comments, building rapport through conversation. Contrast this with the tone of the exchanges that take place at Wired.com, for example, and you may see what I'm talking about.
The new in media seems to take publishing much more personally than the mainstream. Not just a job, a reason and a way to improve one's knowledge and life. Do you think that's because some of the native publishers in the new format were not born as journalists? In some discussions over this very point, I heard things like - journalists are authorities who publish, therefore they don't get involved in conversation.
Many in the comments to Trapani's post expressed appreciation, but also awe at what is possible to achieve. That is probably one of the best examples of crowd evaluation I have seen. After reading the post, I thought about some questions to ask media companies that have an online property. They are the same questions bloggers have been asking themselves and others for at least as long as I have been active.
1. Do you provide the best return on time invested on the Net? Is your site a must read? As Randy Smith puts so well in a comment - if it isn't original content, then what about high quality leads?
2. Do you create a community at your site? The answer to the question is in spirit more than literally. Many print publications succeeded in doing that, in becoming quite different and thus unique in their readers' minds.
3. Are you an original or a copy? Online, it's more tempting to copy, isn't it? Copy the URL, or buy something very similar - are among the forms of misdirected cleverness. Why? Can't you be yourself? Can't you develop your own personality? The worst thing you can do is be too clever for your own good, actually - you know who you are. If so much could be done from code (zeros and ones), imagine the life hacks you could put together if you were just more willing.
4. Do you show tireless devotion to your readers? Great journalists have that drive and belief. It comes across clearly from professionals like Christiane Amanpour - not just when you have the opportunity to be in the same room with her, but in her robust body of work.
5. Do you know when it's time to refocus your priorities? I know how easy it is to continually optimize one model, instead of seeking to break new ground in the evolution of a business.
6. Can you say that you've inspired someone to become a journalist? Educating and making it exciting is part of it. Being part of defining moments is a good way to know that you're on the right track. With so many more voices, there is still plenty of opportunity for signal.
7. Would your readers and customers give you an award? That is what matters. Prizes like the Pulitzer should be a nice outcome, and not a goal in and of itself. It's the same conversation we have in business, and even in the blogosphere.
The essence of life hacking, as Trapani writes in her post, is this - "for someone who loves making things on the web, spending 100% of the time blogging about what other people are making is simply untenable." Are you publishing as life hack, or is it time to consider what you'd rather make?