The value of our work

I’ve been thinking a lot of late about the value we provide as technical communicators. What do our users value? What do our clients value? What do we value? Ideally, all three interests align, but in the real world, we all know they conflict. For example, we might want to deliver the most delightful user experience we’re capable of, but our clients (the ones who pay our bills) want us to hit a deadline, whether we’ve had enough time to polish or not.

That’s why I sympathize with the staff reporters at the Wall Street Journal. After the WSJ was acquired by Rupert Murdoch, they had to know big changes were afoot, but apparently they weren’t expecting to be informed, in a memo by managing editor Robert Thomson, that what they valued wasn’t what their readers valued, at least as he viewed it. This account is from Condé Nast’s

Pre-Murdoch, Journal reporters had a mandate to pursue the sort of in-depth, counter-intuitive and/or quirky stories that would result in the lengthy page-one articles known as “leders.” Publishing leders was widely seen as the highest aim of the Journal writer.

But Thomson’s memo outlined a newsroom whose occupants are constantly on the lookout not for leder-worthy ideas but for tiny news bites that can be pushed out over the wire immediately, there to bestow a momentary competitive advantage on subscribers.

“Even a headstart of a few seconds is priceless for a commodities trader or a bond dealer — that same story can be repurposed for a range of different audiences, but its value diminishes with the passing of time,” wrote Thomson. “Given that revenue reality, henceforth all Journal reporters will be judged, in significant part, by whether they break news for the Newswires.”

How did the staff take the news? Not well (note the pejorative use of the word “scriveners”):

“… [T]here’s nobody on the Journal’s staff who wants to write that stuff. You didn’t sign up to write 130-word squibs. You signed up to file 3,000-word mini-New Yorker stories for the front page … You’re turning us all into wire reporters. It’s all going to be nuggets written by scriveners who get 700 words to spread their wings.”

One passage that caused particular alarm was his assertion that the value of news “is sometimes better recognised by our readers than our journalists.”

“That’s a pretty nasty little slap, when you think about it,” says the ex-staffer, “because when you flip it, it means reporters know nothing.”

No, it doesn’t. Assuming Thomson is correct, it means there’s a mismatch between what the reporters value (leders) and what subscribers value (timely news). To put it bluntly, the Journal has a right to get value from its employees. If it wants squibs, it should get squibs; if the reporters aspire to write New Yorker pieces, they should work for the New Yorker.

The cover story in the March 2009 issue of Intercom, “Adapt or Die”, by Elissa Matulis Myers, is an important article on the value we provide as technical communicators, and the pressure we face to change with the times. (Full disclosure: I contributed some background material for this article.) What do we do that our clients value? Not all that much, it seems, given how readily employers shed tech writers when times are tough — and we know how tough the times are! But Myers probes beneath the surface and tells us what employers really value. It may not be what you expect.

For example, according to a 2000 study by Accenture, a stunning 20% of consumer electronics purchases are returned, but two thirds of the items test out as working correctly. In 2007, the total cost of receiving, retesting, and restocking these items was nearly $14 billion! If consumers only understood how to use these products, most of that cost could have been avoided. So… If you tell the CFO that you provide an excellent user experience with well-crafted prose, you might not get the respect you feel you deserve, and your job might not be as secure as you feel it ought to be. But if you say that you make the customer understand how to work the product so it won’t be returned, you’re speaking the magic words that make you a valuable corporate asset.

One type of document I admit I don’t enjoy writing is an installation guide. An engineer I worked with once referred to the installation guide as “the monkey-doc,” as in “so simple even a monkey could do it.” Clearly he didn’t value installation guides! And he’ll never put much effort into one. But hardware products sold in the European Union are required by law to include printed installation instructions. Guess what? Without the “monkey-docs,” you can’t legally sell your product in one of your biggest markets! It’s not exciting writing, but it’s valuable.

Published by Steven Jong

I am a retired technical communicator, a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication (STC), a former STC board member, and chair of the first STC Certification Commission. I occasionally blog about these and other topics.

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