Saturday, June 4, 2011

Up another rung reaching for the sun

It’s been a busy, busy week, and it’s been one that’s tiring as well – not because of sleepless nights wondering about the next job.

Mostly, it’s been because I’ve been working yet another job, albeit still on a part-time basis. But the busy-ness feels good.

In addition to working up to 15 hours a week as a digital journalist – a reporter, mainly – for Elgin’s hyperlocal website, BocaJump.com, this week I began copy editing again for 12 Patch.com sites in the northwest suburbs.

But this, of course, was Week 1 for Patch, and I wanted to make a good impression on the editors I was helping. I started the week with optimism and enthusiasm. I had to relearn one thing, however, that I apparently had forgotten in all those years working for the same company: First weeks seldom go as well as we hope.

The week was by no means a catastrophe – but there were plenty of reminders that Ted is a human being, and even human beings with the best intentions have been known to introduce operator error into even the most flawless of equations.

The system is simple: Once a story is ready to be edited, I receive an email that directs me to the story. I use Gmail, so I immediately set up filters to mark all emails from Patch’s automated alert system, as well as for those from the 13 editors with whom I get to work. The filter marks each of those messages with an easy-to-identify “Patch.com” label that not only stands out well in my inbox, but also lets me do a search for emails with that label so that I can better track how much work lies ahead.

And there were a lot of stories to wade through – many more than I could get to in the five hours I am assigned to work each day. So I waded in, working intently and as swiftly and as thoroughly as I could. And I believe I set a record pace, although I must credit the Patch editors themselves as well. I suspect most do not have my experience as a copy editor, but they’re good.

As I edited each story, I sent the appropriate editor a note that I’d finished, and then I would delete the original email alerting me to the story before moving on to the next. I set a grueling pace for myself, and by day’s end, I believe I cleared in the neighborhood of 30 stories.

Except that, somewhere at mid- or late afternoon on Tuesday, that first day, either Gmail played a really wicked trick on me or I entered a human error into the equation. Gmail’s main menu has a “Report Spam” button right next to the “Delete” button. I suspect that somewhere along the line I tried to delete a message but hit “Report Spam” instead.

So when I sat down with my laptop Wednesday morning, I was surprised to find only a few “Patch” labels in my inbox – a couple of the editors had sent me individual emails requesting expedited action on several stories. So I went to work.

But after nearly two hours, things slowed down, so I called my supervisor, who suggested I simply go into the individual sites and begin looking for stories that needed editing, which I did. All the while, something was gnawing at me, in the back of my head, trying to figure out if something was wrong.

I’ve always been fascinated with puzzles, particularly difficult ones. I turn them over and over in my mind, even as I work on other things, trying to find a solution. When I was a kid, it was first jigsaw, then crosswords puzzles. Then it was those metal wire/nail puzzles in which two twisted bits are tangled together, defying you to take them apart.

By college, I had moved on to Rubik’s Cube (my best time was under two minutes, and yes, while I never took a shining to pocket protectors, I am a closet nerd). I also have Rubik’s Revenge but have not fully mastered it – yet.

In recent years, I’ve worked on occasion with folks in the company IT department to help resolve problems – I’m no computer geek, but I recognized patterns that would occur leading up to system failures, and the IT folks seemed to respect and appreciate that while they picked my brain. We’d talk on the phone a fair amount.

So it was my natural inquisitiveness that kept turning this Patch puzzle over and over in my mind, until finally it occurred to me to check my spam folder.

And there they were.

More than 190 bright blue labels marked with “Patch.com.”

I think I heard a “clunk” as my jaw hit the floor in amazement (if any of my kids are reading this, that last sentence is an example of hyperbole, because, really, Dad may have a mouth, but my jaw could not drop that far).

So I had to “unspam” the whole batch, which is actually a fairly simple process not worth repeating here. But to say I was stunned would be an understatement.

On Tuesday, I felt as if I had kept up fairly well, but late Wednesday afternoon I learned that I did not yet have a clue what to expect in terms of the volume of stories I would face editing for Patch each day.

But it also was a relief finding out there were a lot more stories than I had begun to believe. I need to be busy to feel as if I am earning my pay, and for a portion of Wednesday afternoon, I felt a bit like a slacker.

Now, to be clear, I don’t think anybody expects me to edit 90 to 100 stories in five hours’ time. That said, it doesn’t mean I won’t try. To be brutally honest, it is probably best that I work from home for now because my daughters in particular are old enough to understand Daddy’s got to work, but they’re still young enough to voice their impatience from time to time. Unfortunately, their Dad is apt to be a workaholic and sometimes needs to hear that in their voices.

So when I started at it again on Thursday, I felt a little overwhelmed – there had been a lot of stories I missed because of the spam incident. I was told to get back to the present and move on, which I did.

Friday threw another wrench into the works – a doctor’s visit I had forgotten about, largely because of the excitement of gaining another part-time journalism job. The late-morning appointment went longer than I had anticipated, and it had both good and bad news:

My left eye, for which I had cataract surgery a month or so ago, seems to be healing well. The bad news is that the blurriness I’ve noticed the past two weeks in my right eye – the good one – is due to a recurrence of a condition I hoped had been dealt with via fairly expensive eye drops that I had been taking for about eight months.

So I’ll be seeing a specialist Wednesday, which will be another hectic, even busier week. And my daughter has a school concert Tuesday night.

This week I did virtually nothing for BocaJump.com, I am ashamed to say – I do enjoy being a reporter again and am working with some really good people there. But this coming week there is an Elgin City Council meeting, so I will have my hands full over the weekend preparing myself for that.

I think that between these two part-time jobs, my schedule will become more of an accordion than ever before – expanding on some days, contracting on others and squeezing me in the process. In some respects, it will almost be like working for a newspaper again, but without the paper proofs, a red marker in hand, or the need to design the way the text and photos will be laid out around advertisements.

In the online world, that is largely formatted for you.

Yet news is and will always be – at least it will be as long as there are sentient beings who long for knowledge about what is happening in the world around them. And I suspect that, despite the troubles the newspaper industry is drowning in today, there will always be journalists willing to gather and disseminate the information people really need about their communities.