The Verge posted some offbeat stuff during its anything-goes Hack Week last week: a timeline of Gordon Ramsay’s epicurean empire, a history of metaphors for the internet, a list of the top 10 videos featuring Nilay Patel, editor-in-chief.
“I was expecting traffic to crater,” Patel said. But pageviews actually jumped 11 percent from the previous week. More telling: Facebook engagement was up 52 percent.
Given the BuzzFeed-like content that the site ran as it experimented with tools like timelines, photo sliders and quizzes, that’s not a huge surprise. While articles like “Name this Samsung rectangle” clearly resonated with readers by offering something new, some commenters were a little fed up with all the quizzes and lists.
- Which sci-fi robot is right for you?
- Who said it: Elon Musk, or a random YouTube commenter?
- Can you name the product with only a quote from its commercial?
“Maybe we shouldn’t have a site full of quizzes,” Patel told me during a visit to Vox Media’s Manhattan offices. “I will happily accept that criticism. But now we have a staff that is much better at deciding what a quiz is good for.”
That was the point of the Verge’s first annual Hack Week: to give reporters an opportunity to experiment with Vox Media’s expanding toolbox of digital storytelling techniques, and to have people on the product side become more than just faces the editorial side sees in the elevator. The point wasn’t to reinvent the site — although a responsive redesign is on the way — but to change how everyone on staff collaborates.
Hack Week ‘like a middle school dance’
Throughout the week, Patel and executive editor Dieter Bohn kept an eye out for breaking news, freeing the staff to focus on trying new techniques during what is typically a slow week for tech news in August. Members of the Washington-based Vox Media product team visited New York, and product people mingled with editorial people in the same room — after a little prodding.
On day one, it wasn’t clear where the product people were going to sit in the newsroom, said Lauren Rabaino, The Verge product manager who is also leading Vox Media’s new editorial apps team. So they ended up in a conference room adjacent to the newsroom. That gave them chairs and easy access to power outlets, but it defeated the purpose of the two teams coming together. So Rabaino’s team ended up sitting on the floor, on couches and in-between reporters.
On Tuesday, it still felt “like a middle school dance,” Patel said, so he had to tell the staff, “I’m forcing you to mingle.” The idea, said Rabaino, is that going forward “a reporter won’t feel weird pinging an engineer in a side channel on Slack.”
Thomas Ricker, The Verge’s deputy managing editor, international, flew to the “mothership” from his home in Amsterdam for Hack Week. “When you work with a big team that’s virtual, the persona you have is only on the screen,” he said. “Sometimes you just want to say, ‘dude, are we ever going to get this fixed?’”
Those are easier conversations to have when you’ve worked with people face-to-face and understand what they do, Ricker said. Or, as he put it in a post on the product team’s blog: “Who knew that Product, like Soylent Green, is made of real people?”
New tools, new story ideas
To avoid paralysis from infinite choice, Patel said, The Verge did some planning before the chaos of Hack Week began. Editors brainstormed a list of story ideas to give reporters a place to start, and Rabaino provided a dashboard of tools that included Knight Lab’s TimelineJS and tools like this quiz generator and this meme generator previously developed for Vox Media.
Among Patel’s favorite things from last week: a list of Kanye West samples, a look at how the NASA’s Curiosity rover has changed after two years on Mars using a photo slide tool, and a new reader submission tool from Vox Media’s editorial apps team allowing readers to participate in a popular Verge feature: “What’s in Your Bag?”
When I visited The Verge newsroom, news editor T.C. Sottek was putting on a live stream of himself using Photoshop. “I couldn’t tell you whether that’s what our readers want,” Patel said. “But it’s what our readers might want, and this is the week to find out.”
Hacking mentality not just about tech
Rabaino credited Vox.com’s launch with spurring the entire company to more closely integrate product teams and editorial teams. She said Vox.com co-founders Melissa Bell and Ezra Klein and senior UX developer Yuri Victor provided an example of collaboration for the entire company by launching their site in literally nine weeks and then iterating and introducing new features out in the open.
Many of the tools The Verge used during Hack Week came from what Victor and Vox.com are doing, Rabaino said. Patel, a Verge co-founder, spent some time at Vox.com himself before returning to The Verge when Josh Topolsky left for Bloomberg. He also credited Vox.com for inspiring The Verge team — which also uses the widely praised Chorus content management system — to bring its tech and reporting teams closer together.
Rabaino says Hack Week wasn’t all about using digital tools better; it was about changing the culture, too. With social media manager Sam Sheffer out on vacation, every reporter got the keys to Facebook so they could promote their own work. The Verge is a tech site, so understanding how Vox’s developers and designers work can only make reporters better at reporting, too, Patel said.
Even having Klein write a piece for The Verge was a form of hacking: “It’s text on a page, but text from a different person with a different perspective,” Rabaino said. (Arranging for contributor posts from people like Klein and Vox Media editorial director Lockhart Steele also ensured the site would have some solid content even if other Hack Week posts bombed.)
Rabaino said even newsrooms without the technical expertise of Vox Media can get better at telling stories online by not being afraid to iterate quickly and listen to feedback. Too often, she said, hackathons at more traditional news organizations involve lots of planning — from ordering pizza to requirements that participants have demos ready at the end. That can be constraining.
The Verge didn’t decide to have its Hack Week until the week before, Rabaino said. There wasn’t time for a lot of structure, and that allowed for creativity at the expense of a little chaos.