Calling All Platypuses
You’re at the intersection of editorial, code, design, and product, and we’re looking for you.
It started with a question I asked on Twitter in February: “Who do you know who is editorially minded, works well with CMSes, likes HTML/CSS, enthusiastically corrects people’s grammar, and is great at managing details, big projects or both?”
The tweet was an open call for what I call platypuses: people with a mix of skills that’s unique in newsrooms, different from traditional reporters or even roles like data reporters or newsroom developers. I wanted to find more people with jobs like mine, at the intersection of journalism, technology, design, audience development, business goals, and product work (or some combination thereof).
I first heard the term “platypus” used in this way in conversations I had with David Sleight in 2014. He and I had just been hired as ProPublica’s first design director and web producer, respectively, and we talked about the idea of platypuses: people like us, with proficiency in several areas versus specialization in just one.
We’ve since built a team of platypuses, and the work ProPublica’s design and production team is responsible for reflects our breadth of expertise: We oversee day-to-day publishing and story production, we find art for stories and hire freelance photographers and illustrators, we help manage projects and launch editorial packages, we design and write code for custom story layouts and we’re responsible for the platform-level work that happens on the site itself. It’s like an art department, a design department, a production department, a copy desk, a photo desk, and a product team, all in one. This would be impossible without platypuses.
Occupying these roles can be challenging. I’ve worked in a few of these jobs in journalism, with titles like “web producer,” “lead producer,” or the one I have now, “deputy editor, production.” The jobs are prone to a funny paradox, where they can feel menial but are also hugely important to the operation of the organization. Take web production, for example. It’s the final crucial step in presenting our collective work to our readers, literally putting it on the internet. But that work can feel repetitive and mindless. Can we broaden traditional production roles to keep them from becoming boring after 18 months? How do we forge a way forward for people in those roles?
I was talking with fellow platypus Rebecca Searles about this and she pointed out that a similar conundrum emerges around the role of innovating in a newsroom. Journalism pays a lot of lip service to finding “unicorns” who can lead newsrooms to different ways of telling stories, engaging with audiences and generating revenue, she said. But newsrooms often aren’t sure about where these should fit into the organization, how to recruit them, or what their career paths look like.
Rebecca observed that these unicorns/platypuses are often thinking creatively about how we report on, package, present, and deliver the news. At a time when the industry is rife with competition, downsizing, broken business models, and shifting audience engagement strategies, that is crucial. The future of journalism depends on the sort of out-of-the-box thinking platypuses are already doing. Now we need to figure out how these jobs fit into newsrooms, how to keep people in these jobs moving forward and what the future looks like.
Some smart people are already asking these questions. Hannah Wise facilitated a fantastic session about these roles—she calls them bridge roles, which I think is very appropriate—at SRCCON this year. (You can see a transcript and notes from that.) And Soo Oh and Martin Stabe facilitated a different SRCCON session about reimagining news nerd career paths. (You can read the transcript and notes from that, too.) Both topics are highly relevant to the platypus community.
I want to continue finding platypuses. (You don’t have to work in a newsroom to qualify! I’ve already found platypuses in libraries, archives, and non-journalism editorial shops. All are welcome.) Many of us are facing the same problems and asking the same questions. Let’s share solutions and victories, too, as we figure things out together.
To that end, Rebecca and I have created a Facebook group called Platypuses in Journalism. Want to join? Let me know at email@example.com. If you’re not on Facebook but still want to keep in touch, email me or find me (and my Platypuses list) on Twitter @hannahsbirch. I would love to keep talking with platypuses one-on-one and face-to-face whenever possible. Don’t hesitate to reach out!
(P.S. According to Merriam-Webster, the plural of “platypus” can be either “platypuses” or “platypi.” I went with the former because I think it’s more fun to say.)
Hannah Birch is ProPublica’s deputy editor, production. She oversees story production, copy editing, major project launches, documentation and other editorial initiatives across the newsroom. Before ProPublica, Hannah was an associate news producer at The Seattle Times, where she was part of the team that won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage of the 2014 Oso mudslide.