paul smalera
Every week we ask a leading figure in digital news about their work, their career and what it takes to be a journalist in the 21st century.     

This week we hear from Paul Smalera, ideas editor at Quartz, about what his job means, what he's learned from being in the industry and the skills he thinks aspiring journalists should focus on.

What is your job title and what does that mean?

I am the Ideas Editor at Quartz, which I am told is the coolest job title ever, by practically everyone I meet. Ideas is a big bucket at Quartz – we handle opinion essays, freelance commissions, humour, many of our photo essays, and try to serve as a laboratory for new ways to engage with the news.

It’s challenging to be a lab at a place like Quartz, which already has a mandate to innovate on the way journalism is done in the digital age! Additionally, since every news story at Quartz is reported with analysis baked in, Ideas really has to try hard to differentiate ourselves when it comes to why we call something an “Idea” story.

My current thinking is that while the news has to be about events, institutions, companies, markets, and other mechanisms of our world, only people can have an idea. So whatever story we are telling, we try to focus on the people involved, as the way into the article.

How did you get started in the industry?

I came in through the side door. After a short career during and after college as a web designer, (even though I was a philosophy major) I decided I really wanted to give this “writing” thing a try. I moved to New York from Washington, DC to figure out what that meant and to try to start freelancing. After many rejections and burning through a lot of my savings, I managed to start getting some personal essays accepted online and in print.

A mutual friend got me a job fact-checking databases of hotels and cruise ships for a travel magazine. Eventually I found myself in the company of some extremely talented business journalists at Condé Nast Portfolio, first as a fact checker, and then as a staff writer. I learned at their feet and found I had a knack and interest in stories centered on this world, leading to a string of great opportunities writing, editing and even product managing at Fortune, Reuters, and The New York Times. What’s been really fun for me lately has been to expand my interests in that core business journalism into a much broader ambit as Ideas editor here at Quartz.
What do you most look forward to at the start of your day?

What’s unique about Quartz is we really are a 24/7 global operation. I never have to wake up with the feeling of having to restart the whole machine – my colleagues in Asia, Africa, Europe and India are keeping us on top of the news and catching really fascinating stories from all over the world for our readers, all day long. And I experience that just like any other Quartz reader does, by reading our Daily Brief in my email inbox every morning.

So I have a job at a place that actually helps me do my job by setting the agenda for me every morning. So, seeing what my colleagues have been up to all “night” and using that work to set up my own day is what I really enjoy.

What does a normal day look like for you? In emoji.

paul quartz emoji
What three tools or apps do you use the most for work?

1. Slack. It’s great for interoffice communication. It can be a time suck if you’re not careful, but I’m seeing a shift in the office, where people realize that they have to sign off or move out of the application in order to go back to getting their jobs done. So, I have hope.

2. Email. Because the Ideas team deals primarily with freelance writers, it’s unavoidable, so Slack hasn’t killed email for me the same way it has for many of my colleagues. But that’s OK, I am getting better at it every day. The latest simple thing: I never used to flag emails for follow up – instead I tried all sorts complex systems and email clients. But a simple “flag” is all I need to remember to go back and follow up when appropriate. Duh!

3. Wordpress and Google Docs. I’m going to cheat and name two apps as my #3 because they are hand in hand. The Ideas team is five people, so I wanted something very lightweight to manage our workflow and production queue. The team lives in two Google Docs all day long so that we can all see what’s coming and check the status of various items without having to ask each other via Slack all day long. And we try to keep all of our editing and sharing of revisions internally in Wordpress. When I interact with a freelance writer, even if they sent me a Word doc, I simply paste the latest Wordpress version into the body of an email for playback or further edits. Only the most complex edits really require Word's 'track changes' function.
What would you focus on if you were training as a journalist now?

Storytelling and narrative. Look, code is great, and it is truly eating the world. But it’s a tool. You have to know what to do with it. The craft of narrative journalism is under siege from the cruft that content shops are shovelling into the gaping maw of the Internet every day. Knowing how to craft stories that aren’t that is a huge asset to anyone starting out today.

Back to code: I love our data visualizations and incredible tools, like Atlas, and story interactives that our Quartz Things team builds. But underneath the code, that team are all great journalists who know how to tell a story, first and foremost. And that’s what this business has to be about, no matter the tooling.

What skills do you think are important to your role?

I think one of the most important skills that any editor who works with freelancers has to develop is casting properly. What I mean is, it’s easy to chew on the headlines and our personal obsessions and think of a ton of great story pitches. But finding or knowing the right writer – casting them for a piece – is much harder. It really requires being a voracious, unconventional reader and observer of culture.

These days casting properly is as much about connecting with Bill Gates for a three-part series on child mortality rates as it is finding a great Medium or blog post by an unknown writer and encouraging them to expand and revise an already-good piece to make it a great one, for Quartz.

What has your current job taught you about the industry?

Simply put, it’s not the industry I thought I was joining ten years ago, of print magazines, long-lead deadlines and unhurried story meetings. Those things still exist, but the need for speed has really shifted how everything works. Things have dramatically changed, and in some ways, no matter what your beat, we are all internet reporters now.

We all have to be aware of the conversation online in conjunction with our actual areas of coverage. But – and this is a big but – if all we do is report on and contribute to the chatter, but never get down to the source, we are just recreating the commoditised, generic news stories that used to go unread in newspapers fattened by classifieds and endless advertisements.

So even though the industry has changed dramatically, readers have never stopped valuing originality in reporting. Which means that even though there’s more noise than ever out there, focusing on finding original stories is still, I believe, the path to success.

What would you say to someone applying to work at your organisation?
Be hungry and be communicative. I barely caught the dying breaths of the apprenticeship era of journalism. Most news organizations no longer have the budgets to stash entry level reporters and news assistants in learning roles for a year or two before needing them to produce.

So, chase after the stories you think are important, but the caveat is, work with your more experienced colleagues and editors as you do it. It’s easy to piss off people for the wrong reasons (as opposed to very good ones, depending on the story you are writing!) by not knowing the right way to interact with people inside and outside your organization.

Go after the story, don’t wait for permission, but check in all the time so that your editor can do their job by making your story better, and having your back without being caught off guard by anything you do.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given? 

I’ve gotten some great work advice over the years – One: Ask for a raise every six months, so that even if you don’t get one the first time you ask, you’re in a better position in a year.

Two: You can be doing great work, but if you don’t communicate well, no one will know.

Three: Don’t wait around looking for something to do – find something that proves your value to your employer, and go get it done.

But I have my own advice to offer, which is that the three most important words to understand in life are love, gratitude, and forgiveness. Yet they are the most misunderstood and misused, because they are a lot tougher to put into daily practice than it might seem. Try to live and work by the principles those words stand for, and everything else will be OK.

Next week Sarah Marshall, social media editor EMEA for The Wall Street Journal, will share her advice and experience.

Check out previous interviews including experts from the BBC, Mashable, Washington Post, LA Times and more.

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