Recently, Chip Cutter and Caroline Fairchild wondered what the 5 million Americans who make a living by driving vehicles — whether that’s Ubers, taxis, buses, or trucks — think about the prospect of self-driving cars and the threat such technology poses toward their livelihoods.
So they set off to places like San Francisco and New York to interview Uber, Lyft, and taxi drivers about whether they fear the imminent changes to their industry. “It’s kind of scary,” one driver told them. “It’s like, well, I thought we were supposed to be creating jobs for people.” Fairchild also interviewed Padmasree Warrior, the CEO of autonomous driving startup NIO, about what she thought of her role in potentially eliminating jobs. “In the particular example of cab drivers, yeah, those jobs will probably change,” she said. “So perhaps, instead of being a car mechanic today who works on an engine, in the future, you will be a sensor mechanic replacing sensors and cameras. You still need people to do those kind of things.”
I listened to these interviews via Work In Progress, the podcast Cutter and Fairchild host. Both are editors at LinkedIn — Cutter is a managing editor and Fairchild is a senior news editor — and the Work In Progress podcast is part of a larger LinkedIn-produced project that features original reporting through audio, video, and text, as well as user generated content culled from LinkedIn’s millions of users.
Work In Progress represents yet another step in LinkedIn’s expanding content efforts. In 2011, LinkedIn hired Daniel Roth, a longtime magazine writer who at the time was editing Fortune’s website, to spearhead its content initiative. At first, his small team merely acted as curators, choosing stories from outside news organizations to link to from LinkedIn Today, a product that sent millions of users clicking to business-related stories each day.
But in 2012, LinkedIn rolled out a native blog CMS that allowed users to upload longform articles directly to the site. While it was initially only made available to 150 “influencers,” in 2014 LinkedIn opened up publishing capabilities to its entire user base, and suddenly millions of users (including me) started publishing career-related blog content. In 2015, the social network announced it had hit 1 million individual users who had written at least one blog post for the site, and they were producing, at the time, 130,000 posts per week.
To help with the curating and soliciting of all this content, Roth hired a number of business journalists from mainstream publications like the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and Fortune. As a former AP business reporter, Cutter was one of his earliest hires, and he eventually took on the role of special projects editor, overseeing the launch of products like Top Voices and Top Companies.
Work In Progress falls under the banner of LinkedIn’s special projects, and Cutter told me he got the idea when reading about a Stanford study released last year that found Millennials are much less likely than previous generations to make more money than their parents did at the same age. “This has gone against everything we’ve been taught and told about how each generation does better than their parents,” he said. So he dreamed up a beat that would document how the very concept of work is changing as we encounter the rise of disruptive technologies like automation and AI. “And [Caroline and I] are at a place that could use all of the levers at LinkedIn’s disposal to have a conversation about this.”
The Work In Progress team is small, mainly consisting of Cutter, Fairchild, and a producer. Fairchild handles the podcast hosting and reaches out to experts on the topics they’re covering; meanwhile, Cutter tackles the on-the-ground interviews with the actual workers who are affected. “The goal is to get off the coasts to do reporting in all sorts of places,” he said. “For instance, I did a story earlier this year on cashiers, so I went out and talked to cashiers across the country about whether they’re worried about automation.” His reporting, which became both a text-based article and a podcast episode, found that most weren’t all that bothered by the thought of their coming obsolescence.
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While Cutter was proud of his own reporting, what really excited him about the piece was that he was able to get several of the cashiers he interviewed to then go on LinkedIn and write their own posts on the subject. One was by Barrett Goldflies, a Chicago-based cashier who graduated college with a degree in history thinking he would have good job prospects, only to end up applying for over a thousand jobs that yielded little interest from employers. “After months and months of false hopes from career sites and headhunters,” he wrote, “I gave up and took a job as a cashier, a hole for which it sometimes feels as though there is no escape.”
I asked Cutter how he chooses his topics and where to go to conduct his interviews. He replied that he lets the stories come to him, meaning he’s not always set on an angle when talking to people. “I start out by asking people to talk about their jobs, what they’re going through,” he explained. “I have some story ideas in my head. But what we found a lot of times is if you just start talking to people, you come out of there with a dozen other ideas of things that could be interesting.” This is how he ends up in places like East Liverpool, Ohio, standing outside of a gas station for two hours and just talking to people as they walk in. “We got some stuff for our piece on cashiers, but other topics came up as we were talking.” An interview with one of the citizens of East Liverpool, for instance, later ended up in an article about how the opioid crisis is impacting employers.
Sometimes, Cutter chooses a destination based on data LinkedIn collects from its users. “For instance, we found there are certain cities across the U.S. where there’s a gap between the skills of the available work force and the jobs that are available,” he said. Some of this data has been shared on CBS This Morning, which has partnered with LinkedIn for Work In Progress. On a recent episode, Roth appeared as a guest to talk about how employers in some cities are having trouble recruiting people to work in industries like oil and healthcare.
Cutter also closely follows major corporations that employ thousands of workers. He recently traveled out to Indiana to report on a major jobs fair in which Amazon was planning to hire thousands of employees in its local warehouse. He shot photos, interviewed job applicants, and even recorded some video of the sprawling structure and the thousands lined up hoping to secure jobs that paid “$12.50 an hour and up.” He’s also performed similar reporting on Walmart. “It’s the nation’s largest private employer,” he said. “I think a lot of people watch Walmart to see what they’re doing, so we interviewed their chief operating officer and we spent a couple days down there with their execs.”
Unlike most traditional media companies, LinkedIn isn’t looking to directly monetize its reporting. Instead, its editors are trying to make it a go-to destination, a daily stop for internet users to keep abreast of industry news rather than just logging into the site when they’re looking for a job. So Cutter and Fairchild don’t judge their success based on raw audience numbers, but rather they assess their reporting’s impact from a user engagement perspective. A meaningful piece of content is one that spurs LinkedIn users into writing a comment, posting a status update, composing a blog post, or even utilizing the site’s brand new native video platform. “I think we want to use all the tools at our disposal to do this,” said Cutter. “We’re definitely up for experimenting with different formats as it evolves.”
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