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Job Descriptions for Changing Times

Posted on Monday, October 29, 2018 at 1:37 PM

With editorial jobs in a constant state of flux, editorial managers may need to rethink how they evaluate their staff.

By William Dunkerley

"No, I won't mess with video content. It's not in my job description, and besides, I don't know much about video." That's what senior editor Lisa told her editor-in-chief when asked to assume responsibility for overseeing video content in their online publication.

This hypothetical clash is just one of the many possible areas of conflict as editorial organizations adapt to the ever-evolving landscape in publishing today. It points out a new wrinkle in the writing of editorial job descriptions.

The Current State of Editorial Job Descriptions

A main function of a job description is to avoid misunderstandings, keep staff members focused on objectives, and provide a basis for periodic performance assessments. The idea is to keep everyone on the same page.

But what to do if the page keeps turning as a result of external market forces and evolving reading habits?

In my experience, the job descriptions in many editorial organizations have sometimes been inadequate. Often a job description is written as an aid in recruiting a new staff member.

Here is one such list of responsibilities that I found online for an open editorial position:

--Oversee editorial team, set deadlines, and host daily scrum meetings.
--Review trending news and assign features to writers.
--Manage production of daily newsletter, including liaising with sponsors and partners.
--Make sure all features and newsletters go out on time.
--Analyze all available data to create writer assignments.
--Set measurable goals for teams.
--Recruit new writers and video creators.
--Ensure all content has been promoted via all available tools.
--Create detailed editorial calendars based on all available data.
--Plan editorial strategically considering the long view.
--Grow the publication's presence on social media platforms.
--Conceptualize new and innovative ways to tell stories across our media platforms.
--Fact-check, proofread, and edit copy where needed.
--Liaise with team to boost sales and revenue.
--Monitor staff performance and give relevant feedback.
--Work with online advertising platforms to monetize our content.
--Work with our social media team to create viral content.
--Manage a team of interns.

That's a very comprehensive list and will likely serve well to give prospective candidates insight into the job they are about to apply for. But as a working job description for an on-the-job editor the list lacks some essential elements.

Writing Better Job Descriptions

Two elements that are missing: (1) defining the authorities the editor has to carry out those responsibilities, and (2) enumerating what circumstances will exist if the editor carries out the responsibilities successfully.

Those elements will tell the new editor exactly what latitude he or she has in carrying out the responsibilities and will provide explicit guidance on what must be achieved in order to receive a positive evaluation.

Overall this kind of job description will help keep the editor and his or her superior on the same page and avoid misunderstandings. It's a good formula to use when the publishing environment is relatively static.

Accounting for Frequent Change

But what about today, when our profession and industry is in a state of flux? Under current circumstances it has become necessary for job descriptions to account for an element of change.

Orchestrating change is tricky business. If not handled carefully, efforts to institute new changes can backfire. A significant obstacle is often staff resistance, a leading cause of failure when making changes in any area of business. People usually respond to imposed change with resistance.

Typically resistance comes when staffers fear loss -- things like job, income, status, future opportunities, perks, reputation, influence, responsibility, autonomy, relationships, familiar routines, and security.

That's why change imposed from above can be very problematic. It is far better to use leadership techniques to create a shared vision of what needs to be changed. That can be aided by adding something to the job description. Give the editor the responsibility of monitoring trends and making recommendations for adjusting strategies, capabilities, and work routines in response to emergent trends. Often people at the working level are in closer touch with how things are evolving than are executives at a higher level. Be sure that the job description promotes tapping into those insights. Be sure to reward positive contributions.

Be perceptive to these issues:

1. Are current capacity and resources adequate or can they be augmented?
2. Is there a satisfactory managerial or supervisory structure in place?
3. Are your strategies workable?
4. Are the objectives and strategies working in consonance, or are they at cross-purposes?
5. Is there sufficient expertise for carrying out the tactics?
6. Is there a need for training in new areas?
7. Are the financial resources available for effectuating the changes?
8. Is the amount of risk acceptable?
9. Is the timing appropriate?
10. Does the plan anticipate future conditions?

In the past I've tended to recommend an annual job appraisal plus a review and update of the job description. That's no longer adequate, in my view. In these times things should probably be done at least biannually and perhaps even quarterly if warranted by the pace of change.

Many editorial managers may groan over these recommendations, which may seem like a greater administrative or bureaucratic burden. But addressing issues on a shorter timeline can avert serious misunderstandings and maximize your ability to capitalize on changing circumstances.

You'll have a competitive advantage in being on the leading edge of change in your marketplace. That's far better than struggling to catch up if you've been left behind.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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