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Amy Vernon graduated from journalism school at Northwestern "two recessions ago," in the misty, midriffed days of 1991. She snagged an entry-level job at The Miami Herald, and worked her way up over the years to become the assistant metro editor at a Gannett paper covering the suburbs just north of New York City. Then came, as she put it, the "Great Newspaper Culling of 2008." Vernon found herself unemployed with two children, the oldest one in pre-K, and a husband who was a stay-at-home dad and part-time freelancer. It wasn't a good time to be an out-of-work print journalist. Before that point, personnel shortages meant Vernon was working as both metro and education editor, as well as running four blogs: on TV, schools, local news and parenting ("ice cream is not for breakfast") -- and that was before "mommy blogging" was a genre of the Internet, let alone a "For Dummies" guide.
n her role as extremely-overextended-blog-tsar, Vernon discovered the wonders of Digg, the social news site, WordPress, the open source blog platform, StumbleUpon, the discovery engine, and HTML, the language of web wizardry. She was doing what most journalistic organizations now designate as a full-time position: social media editor, community manager -- that person who can get your article to 100,000 strangers' screens by "leveraging networks." From Doom To Digg Doom hung over the office even as Vernon was getting at least five digits of page views a day, an impressive feat for a handful of local blogs in Rockland County. She pitched the idea of a blog editor to her boss, but "no one could wrap their brain around it," she says. "They were like 'that sounds interesting.' " "It was early days then, 2008," Vernon points out. "Facebook had only just opened to non-college students. Digg hadn't reached its height. People were still like 'what is Twitter?' Foursquare didn't even exist." Digg was Vernon's true baby. Anyone can submit posts to Digg -- stories they've written or just found on the Web -- and other Digg users vote the story down into oblivion or up into the front page, channeling unimaginable masses of readers back to the original post. Like most social sites, mastering Digg can create a not necessarily healthy, but wildly addictive, rush. You can get it on Twitter, when you start a hashtag that trends, on Youtube when your video goes viral, on Facebook, when a hundred people "like" your status, and on Digg, when you get a front page. Vernon's first front page was a post she wrote on the TV show "24." It crashed the blog. "Most people beef up their servers in the hope of getting a front page on Digg," explained Vernon. But again, it was early days. Both for Digg, and for Vernon's eventual domination of it. She's now the top female contributor to Digg of all time. Also like most social sites, Digg can seem anarchic to the casual eye. But beneath this surface lies a dynamic and passionate community of friends and enemies, and rules, tricks and slang. Vernon uses "Digg" as a verb.
Making Bacon History Vernon noticed that bacon was a big hit on Digg, just like in life. One day in 2007 she thought to herself: Can I get a photo of bacon to the front page of Digg? She did. Three quarters of the comments were positive. "I hate you Amy now I have to put on some pants and go to the grocery store." "Uuugh now I have to put on some pants and cook some bacon." "There are apparently a lot of people who are pantless," says Vernon. Some of the comments were not positive. "What the f*** is a photo of bacon doing on the front page of Digg?" "They were right," admits Vernon. "Totally right." This community came in handy when Vernon was eventually laid off by the paper that she and her co-workers had been keeping just barely alive for years. Vernon called up a friend. "I'm not going to be around for the next few days," Vernon told her, anticipating a plunge into depression or panic. The next day, an editor who had seen Vernon's stellar moves on Digg looked her up on LinkedIn and saw that she'd been laid off. Vernon had the skills that the editor needed, so she sent Vernon a message offering her work. Then other people called. The news of Vernon's unemployed status circulated through the virtual grapevine, with friends leveraging their contacts to get Vernon jobs. She'd met none of them in person. "There are some really good people out there," she said. "And some really not good people. Whenever people complain about people being mean online, I'm like, 'It's the Internet.' "
Social Media Maven It's been 2½ years now, and Vernon hasn't had to apply for a single job. All the clients came to her, hoping to snatch a little bit of that social media magic. Within a year, Vernon was making her old salary writing and social-media consulting, without the commute. Then Vernon and some Digg friends started the social media strategy company, Hasai. Vernon isn't shedding too many tears over print journalism, the industry she'd aspired to work in since her childhood days in Long Island. While online news is all about the next big thing, newspapers are very resistant to change, she says. "They're not hyphenating 'teenager' anymore. Oh no!" Vernon teases. "I remember seeing the word 'bling' in a story, and thinking 'Oh, we're completely over.' No one was using that word anymore." "But is there something to be missed?" AOL Jobs asks. Print loyalists often complain that online news lacks the investigative rigor and claim to objectivity of ink and paper journalism. Vernon disagrees. "No one before read the important, with-a-capital-I stories. We just didn't know to what degree. There were no analytics on it," she explains. These days we know that "Tom Cruise Looks At Sarah Palin's Boobs, Makes Weird Face" is the most-read article, when before we could pretend that wasn't true. Vernon has managed to channel her knowledge of social media into something more fulfilling, more spontaneous, and more cutting-edge, and doing it all while at home with her husband and two young children. Vernon has even been anointed. After her first bacon front page, Vernon began to surf through Flickr for particularly unusual or compelling images of cured pig meat. People started calling her the Bacon Queen. "I don't have a psychic connection with bacon!" she insists. But she started the world's first, and only, bacon aggregation site anyway. 2010 was called the "Year of Social Media," capped in December when Time crowned Mark Zuckerberg its Person of the Year. Vernon just happened to beat that trend, as she struggled to keep traffic flowing to a print paper in its final throes. If Vernon had never been fired, she would never have had the freedom to become one of the most successful social media strategists in the world, always riding with the times. "The perfect front page on Digg would be a story about Obama and Megan Fox talking about how there is no God, while eating bacon," explains Vernon. "Well, things have changed. Megan Fox is kind of out. Bacon's still in."