How to build a news apps team (Hint: if you don't have a lot of money, settle for scrappy)

It isn’t really a question of whether you need a news apps team or not. The question for most newsrooms is what kind of news apps team can you afford? And then, how can you keep them as long as possible, given your scarce resources?

Programmers and developers with journalistic inclinations are in high demand. They command good salaries and they tend to want to live in places where there is a vibrant tech industry.

That means big newsrooms with big budgets in big cities have a distinct advantage. So smaller newsrooms with smaller budgets must be realistic and strategic.

Emily Ramshaw, editor of the Texas Tribune, and Jonathan Keegan, director of interactive graphics at the Wall Street Journal, offered up tips and strategies this past weekend at ONA14 for building the best news apps team possible. (Concession: The WSJ is hardly a small newsroom, but Keegan argues he has a tiny apps team compared to the more than 350 developers working across all departments at the New York Times.)

Ramshaw will have four developers on her team at the Texas Tribune as soon as she makes a couple hires, up from two. Two people work on the front end, two on the back end and they get support from a four-person tech department. Keegan works on a different scale. His team has 16 people, 10 programmers, two designers, two tools developers, and two data developers.

Keegan and Ramshaw both argued for strategy and precision in finding the right mix skills and personalities.

  • Hire for skills: A news apps team member needs to be good at two of three skills: Coding, journalism and design. No one is good at all three, so stop looking for that unicorn. Instead look at the hole you need to fill and find that skill.
  • Look for a background or understanding in journalism: Programmers with no interest in journalism usually don’t get along in the newsroom.
  • Look for reporting skills: “We don’t hire anyone who can’t pick up the phone and ask a source for information. The temptation is to ask the reporter to do that,” Ramshaw said, adding that in her shop, developers are reporters.
  • Hire for chemistry and cultural fit: People who get along get more done. Skills will grow.
  • Once hired, match projects to personalities: Don’t put the guy who hates sports on a football project.
  • Vary projects to combat burnout: That way, team members don’t get stuck with the same kind of work over and over.
  • Be realistic: If you are a small newsroom, paying small salaries, take what you can get in terms of skills and knowledge and give them opportunities to grow.
  • Sell what you can about your newsroom: Ramshaw touts Austin’s culture, microbrews, great food and the fact that young developers will work on big stories and get bylines right away. Keegan talks about the WSJ’s global audience and offices all over the world.
  • Designate a team leader and project leaders to act as point people with the rest of the newsroom: That will facilitate good relationships.
  • Help them grow: Nurture young talent and interns by making them feel like family.
  • Hire your interns: “If someone is doing great work for you, don’t let them go,” Ramshaw said.
  • Scour area startups: Look for burned-out programmers and lure them away with the promise of making a difference in the world and having some fun.
  • Train: If you really don’t have a budget to hire someone new, train home page producers to learn programming skills.
  • Keep the walls up: Don’t let news apps team members get sucked into the product team. News apps should be strictly editorial.
  • Shop in house: When you don’t have enough resources, one strategy is to borrow a promising designer from the graphics team for a month for a special project. Many designers are eager to grow their programming knowledge.

You can find the slides for Ramshaw and Keegan’s session here. The hashtag was #appsteam.

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    Kelly McBride

    Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty of The Poynter Institute since 2002 and is now its vice president.

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