Credit: Photo by kyler trautner on Unsplash

As newsrooms accelerate their digital transformation, they will require new skills unheard of in the days of print. More and more unusual job titles are cropping up in newsrooms now, collectively known as bridge roles.

Bridge roles are not a new phenomenon. They have been around for a while, but have matured a lot in the last five years. At their core, bridge roles are multi-discipline specialists with outstanding people, project and resource management skills.

They create a connection between large departments which must work together on strategic priorities, such as editorial, marketing, sales, engineering, HR, audience etc.

Historically, bridge roles have been assumed by the most well-connected and well-respected individuals. They have also been largely informal positions, lacking dedicated systems and resources, even to the point of being self-initiated.

From problem-solvers to innovators

Robin Kwong pitched internally for the role of special projects editor in 2016 while working at The Financial Times. He foresaw that a new era of digital journalism would take the FT into uncharted waters it was not ready for. A lack of management and expertise was causing friction, delays, miscommunication and mistakes. He wanted to fix that and ended up leading multi-discipline digital projects.

These days, Kwong is with the Wall Street Journal as the new formats editor. This role puts him in charge of deepening relationships, increasing return visits and building loyalty with readers. To that end, he leads three teams across newsletters, audience and data (specifically the rankings team).

Roles like these have evolved from once being reliant on self-motivated people and ad hoc tasks, to an organisational response to business needs. In other words, bridge roles have shifted from problem solvers to opportunity initiators.

Take newsletters for example. Kwong works with a product manager for newsletters and alerts, setting broader goals for the newsletter portfolio.

On a day-to-day level, Kwong cannot alone start special editions or ‘sunset’ (close) newsletters. But he can work with audience and data teams to inform certain decisions - like recently rebranding the Markets AM and PM newsletters - or bringing back the Health newsletter after its hiatus.

"The way to be successful in a bridge role previously came down to your personal relationships, your social capital and your network within the organisation," says Kwong on the podcast.

"Now that it’s more mature, it really comes down to having common goals and documentation, and set processes for how you communicate with each other."

Responding, not reacting

Coleen O'Lear, one of the very first bridge roles at The Washington Post, trod a similar path.

"You did it because you were curious about other people’s goals and objectives. But it’s now become a lot more formalised," she says.

Nine years ago, O'Lear was part of a prototype bridging team called the 'mobile innovations team'. It would later become the 'emerging news products' department. She initially worked with a product manager and a developer to improve the user experience of mobile visitors coming to the homepage. That then expanded into apps and social media.

Last year, she became the head of curation and platforms, which means she is responsible for visitors having a clean front-end experience with The Post. To that extent, she works with teams across the app, homepage, social, breaking news desk, SEO team, briefings and copy desk. 

One of O'Lear’s biggest feats so far is orchestrating The Post's flagship briefing product, The 7. It was rolled out in September 2021 as a homepage, app and newsletter product giving readers a must-read rundown to start their day. It was the fastest-growing newsletter ever at The Post.

Off the back of that success, The Post has rolled out a local equivalent for the Washington, Virginia and Maryland area.

A podcast version of The 7 recently followed out of demand from audiences emailing in to request an audible version to play on their morning commutes. The briefing always had a text-to-speech AI component to improve key metrics around daily habits and completion rate. The podcast demand was too great to ignore.

To deliver this, she needed to enlist the help of the director of audio and one other newsroom department: the next generation department. This was seen as an opportunity to grow younger audiences.

"We put a wishlist together, went to engineering, product and then our bosses and pitched it: 'Here's what we want to do and here’s how we are going to do it'."

Combined, bridge roles are fundamentally charismatic. They are good at summarising a project, its execution and its intended outcomes. They respond to the opportunities and needs of the audience. They leverage their connections to foster the necessary collaboration. Finally, they are empathetic and can manage the needs (and jargon) of different specialists.

O'Lear adds: "You need to thread together the needs of the business, the journalists and the audience. You need to articulate a vision, understand how we're going to achieve it and then operationalise it. That's everything from executing in the day-to-day to a broader strategy."

Other possibilities

"You need somebody who is good at listening and taking people with them on a journey," says Dmitry Shishkin, an independent digital consultant, renowned for introducing the recently updated user needs model while at BBC World Service.

The user needs model is a ground-breaking method of understanding how different types of content lead to different outcomes and engagement. This improves the efficiency of content creation and relevance to audiences. 

Implementing a user needs strategy often falls to already busy editors, digital editors or audience engagement editors. But having a bridge role dedicated to user needs makes a lot of sense because the strategy cuts right through the organisation: editorial, sales, marketing, data, product and so on.

Having someone skilled at project and change management, Shishkin says, is a must if you want to create a 'head of user needs' position. But the possibilities for bridge roles are there for many other key business imperatives, such as diversity, mental health or artificial intelligence.

And just in case you were starting to think bridge roles are only relevant to large organisations, you are wrong. A small financial content agency Rhotic Media only recently created a new position dedicated to delivering effective training, mentoring and development of staff.

Jon Yarker spent three years as a financial journalist and then editorial lead of Rhotic. During that time he had undertaken a lot of self-initiated (but useful) mentoring and training work. At the start of the year, the company carved out a new title for him: head of editorial development.

By turning this into an established bridge role, he will work alongside HR and senior management to come up with strategic efforts to improve the training and development of staff, and also make sure the company is upping its efforts on diversity and inclusion.

He now has clear boundaries of time, allowing him to become more intentional about designing internship programmes and managing degree apprenticeships.

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