Not too long ago, a small group of University of Alberta students launched The Wanderer Online. At the time, we wanted to bring a new voice to University of Alberta media, since only one large-scale student-driven media source existed on campus. In the 365 days since our launch, we have accomplished this – and much more. I’m always impressed and inspired by our team’s work, with year one bringing more learning experiences and successes than I could have imagined. Indeed, I have trouble keeping up with the diversity of articles published on our website, which is a good problem to have. As a one-year recap, I am sharing with you ten lessons that highlight my first year with The Wanderer. If all goes well, the second year will lead to a whole new list of ideas and lessons.
1. Talented people are the foundation of a great organization
When The Wanderer launched on July 5 2012, we stressed the importance of recruiting good people. Sure, we looked for excellent writers, photographers and designers; however, bringing solid people on board was a priority. By assembling a team of intelligent, open-minded, creative, caring and fun people, it is easy to coordinate a wide variety of projects and actually enjoy oneself while doing so. This sentiment has been echoed by other Edmontonians, as well. Several months ago, I attended a Faculty of Arts panel made up of several prominent Edmontonians, with the topic being something along the lines of “the qualities all outstanding university graduates should possess.” One of the key qualities was likeability – and I entirely agree.
2. Good leaders are composed, yet they live with a sense of urgency
Throughout the year, many Wanderers have made tremendous contributions to our marquee projects, like the inaugural Top 100 Most Influential U of A Undergraduates list. In situations like this, I enjoy seeing people that are composed – who step back and think – but who nevertheless work with a healthy sense of urgency. I find that it is usually better to create arbitrary and tight deadlines while completing a project, than it is to sit back and engage in endless project planning. At some point, planning is useless; you need to act swiftly and repeatedly, making mistakes in the process.
3. Say yes to everything (well, most things)
If you have yet to see Rapid Fire Theatre perform on Fridays and Saturdays, you need to go. Not only are they hilarious, but they also say yes – to everything. I’ve found that one of the most important ingredients of the creative process is listening to others’ ideas and then expanding on them. A lot of creativity is simply idea-borrowing. Someone might see that The Wanderer has launched a Top 100 Women in Business contest, and then think that this concept should be expanded to a national level. Rather than shoot down ideas and assume that they are unfeasible, good leaders listen, offer suggestions and encourage peers to take their ideas to the next level. This “say yes to everything” attitude is why The Wanderer successfully completed so many projects in its first year.
4. Maintaining enthusiasm throughout an entire year is difficult
When The Wanderer launched last July, I went to bed each night looking forward to publishing new articles in the morning. At that time, part of my morning routine involved posting articles both before and after a nice jog outside. With a nagging injury, my enthusiasm is slightly dampened. However, injury or no injury, I have found that there are swings in my enthusiasm for The Wanderer. Though I always love the publishing process and the creature that is The Wanderer, there are days (or even weeks) where tiredness sets in. In these cases, publishing is something that one must do rather than something that one gets to do. My guess is that everyone deals with these feelings, whether it is with a local online magazine or something as big as Vanity Fair. In these situations, it is important to have go-to cues: the things that inspire you and inject energy into your routine. If you know what really drives you, then it is easy to get back on track and return to normal form.
5. The down periods are crucial
Taking breaks is rarely easy, particularly for people that enjoy pressure and high-tempo lifestyles. However, time off is absolutely necessary. It is during these times that one restores energy and learns. Between July and November, The Wanderer’s publishing pace was incredible, with the magazine sometimes posting ten new articles per day. (Looking back, I wonder how we actually managed this!) When December arrived, however, we paused. For several days, we only published one article. Some people wondered whether The Wanderer was nearing its end. Though I knew that we were in no way drawing to a close as a magazine, this rest period was fairly agonizing. Yet, in hindsight, it was one of the most formative periods for The Wanderer. It allowed us to take a break and reassess our plans. Following the December break, we made a deliberate effort of reducing our daily output, with an emphasis on longer and more thought-out articles. This change in focus, along with a greater emphasis on Edmonton-focused content, raised the magazine’s overall quality.
6. One must be comfortable with uncertainty and evolution
Looking back, The Wanderer has evolved quite a bit. When we launched, our website background was grey. We produced five to ten articles per day. We prided ourselves on producing University of Alberta-focused content. We had a core group of fifteen writers, and we had less than 200 Twitter followers. Today, our website background is white, the Wanderer logo has been tweaked here and there, we have added project-specific advertisement boxes to the right-hand side of the website, we have over 70 writers, 1010 Twitter followers and our content is Edmonton-wide. Though much of that initial core group still volunteers today, we are a much different magazine. In twelve months, we have evolved. When one is literally at the centre of this evolution process, assessing the evolution is a challenging process. This is probably why point #5 is so important: it allows you to step back and actually see what you have done, and what you should do in the future.
7. Long-term sustainability is daunting
When I served as a vice-president in the U of A Students’ Union, one of the key lessons I learned is that transition starts from day one of the job. During this time, one learns and learns and learns. At the same time, one must prepare for an eventual exit, and the inevitable transition to another executive/editor. The transition is just as important as the progress that one makes within the portfolio. In the Students’ Union, transition was challenging, and this was with a 100+ year tradition of executives successfully transitioning out of their portfolios. With The Gateway, this is probably much the same, since their editorial culture has been formed over a period of 100+ years.
For The Wanderer, we are starting from scratch. We have just one year behind us, so team culture is still in its embryonic stages. Because of this, our second year is much more important than the first. The opening year is easy: we launch, we ride the momentum of being the city’s fresh and young media source and we surprise ourselves with some successfully-completed projects. In year two, we must recruit an entirely new set of outstanding young contributors, bring them into The Wanderer team culture, prepare them for roles as editors, build a financially-sustainable magazine and so on. The recruitment and subsequent mentorship processes require time. Lots of time. (And these processes take place while one takes classes, maintains a social life and produces actual content for The Wanderer.) Indeed, The Wanderer editors have their work cut out for them in year two. But I know that we can do it.
8. Writing is a vulnerable process – and it is a display of leadership
I now have the utmost respect for our writers that take a risk by sharing their thoughts with the public. Honestly, when I started with The Wanderer, I never thought twice about the vulnerability that comes with writing. I just took this for granted. Yet, it is now clear to me that writing makes one vulnerable. If one is not used to publishing thoughts to a city-wide audience, then the prospect of doing so is daunting. I have immense respect for the Wanderers (and any writer, for that matter) that overcome their fears and publish with us. These Wanderers are leaders. They are positive role-models, because they show that one can move beyond the initial point of intimidation and clearly articulate one’s thoughts to a wider audience. In some cases, these thoughts move an audience, leading to small changes in the ways they see the world.
9. Edmonton’s media landscape is vast
When The Wanderer launched, one of our fundamental assumptions was that Edmonton lacked a diversity of media sources. As the year progressed, this assumption unraveled. Of course, Edmonton is home to well-known media sources like the Edmonton Journal, Edmonton Sun, Metro, Alberta Venture, Avenue, Unknown Studio, Mastermaq, OilersNation and The Gateway. But as one looks deeper, it is not hard to find countless gems: City and Dale, Georgie, Brad Ferguson’s EEDC blog, Make Something Edmonton, Edmonton Culture, Inglorious Hipsters, etc. Edmonton is Canada’s social media city. The Wanderer is simply another valuable edition to the city’s growing media landscape.
10. This is the best time to live in Edmonton
One of the benefits of writing with The Wanderer is that one has no choice but to pay closer attention to the city’s social and political scenes. Attending multiple evening events becomes a common occurrence, with these events ranging from patio parties to nights at the Winspear, sporting competitions or early-morning farmers’ markets. During the last year, my idea of Edmonton has shifted enormously. We have seen organizations like Make Something Edmonton come to fruition, and leaders like Brad Ferguson, Amy Shostak, Todd Babiak, Stephen Mandel, Kim Krushell, Mack Male, Omar Mouallem, and Don Iveson – among countless others – slowly alter the ways in which Edmontonians talk about themselves. Perhaps no-one captures this sentiment better than our new Poet Laureate, Mary Pinkoski in this mesmerizing piece. Please read it.
With this reflective article out of the way, I must say “thank you” to all Wanderer readers. The 80,000+ Edmontonians that dedicate even ten minutes of their days to The Wanderer are what keep our contributors going. Year one has been a blast, and we are eager to begin year two on even stronger footing.
Photograph courtersy of Zenlike.