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On better project management for newsroom stories, at #SRCCON 2014

Build a storyteller something interactive, and you feed them for a day. Teach them digital or data skills, and you start to unlock your newsroom nerd potential.

Jaeah Lee

Jaeah Lee, interactive producer at Mother Jones

On day two of #SRCCONKnight-Mozilla Open News inaugural conference in Philadelphia last week — Mother Jones’ Tasneem Raja (editor) and Jaeah Lee (interactive producer) led a discussion where participants exchanged ideas about changing the newsroom training culture generally, I.E. strategies for skills-knowledge sharing.

Centering itself on management techniques that create a positive feedback loop between newsroom colleagues, the conversation encouraged participants to share successful efforts that helped learning, teaching and collaborating between the programmer journalists and the more traditional reporters and editors.

Recounting their own experience, a couple of years ago Raja and Lee first began organizing an internal event they call “Skillz Thursdays” at Mother Jones in order to have a physical location for bring people to gather and share their knowledge, regardless of whether it was technical or not.

Next, Lee says they began “saying yes to everything,” in which they would take on as many interactive requests as the newsroom would dish out, to further promote and encourage reporter and editor interest in developing interactive features.

They also looked for opportunities to take the mystery out of programming to help their newsroom understand possibilities in technology-driven storytelling. Borrowing an idea introduced by agile software development practices, their use of the pair programming technique worked to help the non-developers learn directly by watching a colleague work and collaborating on a project, and introduced important tech-development concepts: how to fail and how to troubleshoot. This simple management technique has the potential to set off a bit of a domino effect in that it can motivate more of the newsroom to work together on interactive projects.

Immediately following this was a discussion about the importance of “teaching the technology not the buttons.” Although the group reached no general consensus, as different-sized newsrooms may demand varying skill levels and understanding, everyone seemed to agree that it was ultimately about helping reporters and editors make better interactive or visual choices.

Finally, Raja pointed out that their might be a trade-off between producing something “cheap, fast or successful” explaining that each Mother Jones project focuses on achieving just two of these three. When training a newsroom, she advised that it’s important to let some things go and instead focus on improvement opportunities in a following iteration, producing consistently better results every time. She has had success in helping the newsroom develop “good data principles” and help let go of reaction perfection immediately.

Over time, Raja’s team became more substantially integrated into the newsroom, and thought less of a service desk. Through this process, they realized the importance in empowering people to train others in a cycle they called “learn it, teach it, do it.”

Suggestions for your newsroom:

  • Data ride alongs (think “police ride along” only with less stakeouts and more code-writinging)
  • Try to get the most out of documentation, whether it’s documenting someone’s own training or editing an existing document that all people in the newsroom have access to (suggestions include Github or MoPad)
  • Pair programming can help demystify the development process since it gives the opportunity learn how to be resourceful (and even watch someone “Google their way out of a question or problem”)
  • Share bylines between the entire story-reporting team, including the colleagues contributing a programming effort
  • Discussions with reporters about newsroom tools can find pain points to address and build empathy

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About the author

About Posted on July 28, 2014 Posted by

Nicole Zhu

Designer/Developer, Computer Science and English (2016)

Interested in visual storytelling and building products for news. Studying computer science and English at Northwestern.