July 28, 2015

When you work in a small newsroom and have to keep up with a daily news cycle, it’s tough — if not impossible — to hold week-long internal coding hackathons with your product team. Heck, you might not even have a product team.

But that doesn’t mean there’s not time or room to innovate or think about new ideas. Below are six ideas that any newsroom, of any size, could use to ideate, share and learn. And they don’t break the budget or interrupt the daily routine for too long.

Photo by Beverley Goodwin/Flickr

Photo by Beverley Goodwin/Flickr


  1. Make it really easy for people in different departments to mingle in person

In many of the newsrooms where I’ve worked, the radio people sit in one place, the digital people sit in a different place, and the business people sit in a third place — and sometimes on a completely different floor. That means that people don’t often talk to one another, which means good ideas don’t benefit from people who think in different ways.

I learned about one way The New York Times tackled this problem from Jeremy Zilar, who used to work there in editorial and content strategy. The Times put a fishbowl in its cafeteria and anyone across the entire organization could drop in a business card. Every month, someone fished two names out of the fishbowl and the paper paid for those two people to have lunch together.

This idea costs as much as a lunch, and is an easy, no-tech way for departments to interact and mingle.

  1. Make it really easy for people in different departments to mingle online.

I’ve worked in newsrooms that have used chat programs like Slack or HipChat and I’ve I’ve also worked in newsrooms where some departments within the organization used Slack or HipChat — but others didn’t.

Chat programs are great and help people across departments virtually mingle and share ideas. But in order to work the best, chat programs must be used correctly.

That means everyone across an entire organization switches over to the chat program for all internal communication. The chat programs save time — it’s easier to follow a thread than to open emails in a chain — and help prevent unnecessary meetings. (It’s much easier to approve things, and see what’s going on when you can follow an ongoing dialogue.) They make it easier to search archival conversations, which help onboard new employees, and make remote employees feel like part of a team, because of the daily banter and information-sharing that goes on. It’s much easier to catch up via chat than on email after a vacation, and it’s much easier to share quick bits of information — things like articles or links or other ideas that get creativity flowing.

But organizations that only use chat within certain departments force employees to check both the chat program and email. This can quickly become overwhelming and makes it more likely that employees will mainly interact with the other employees who use the same communication platform they use. This actually isolates good ideas because it forces people to maintain two different streams of communication simultaneously.

I really like chat programs and think they help spread ideas and get people to share ideas quickly — but I see too many newsrooms that think “digital belongs on chat” and “print/radio belongs on email.” This ends up creating silos and isolating employees in different departments.

To help people acclimate, I recommend creating rooms within a chat program for each department and location, and also having rooms where everyone can come together and chat. At my workplace, we also have a chat room for new employees to have questions answered, one for parents, one for people in our book club, and one for people who stay up late at night. These help create connections between people in different departments, because they share common experiences.

  1. Force the in-person mingling with a thematic—but not forced — afternoon event.

When I worked at NPR, the Visuals Team  — the people who code Web-based applications and make graphics — once held an afternoon “science fair” in their area. The “science fair” was heavily promoted with posters in the stairwell and featured a plastic volcano, a photography station and a way to learn more about what the team was up to.

At the fair, each member of the Visuals Team manned a station, which highlighted a project the team had designed. They answered questions about the projects and stamped raffle tickets, which were created to entice people to visit more than one station and talk with coworkers they might not interact with.

The fair worked: about 50 people from across NPR attended, including people from outside the newsroom. And it didn’t feel like interactions were forced, because a) it was voluntary to attend and b) the science fair conceit provided a natural structure for the event; there was plenty of time to meet people but also to study different stations on your own.

The approximate cost was almost nothing, the concept was fun, it took place on a Friday afternoon, and — most importantly — the idea could easily be replicated across different departments in any sized newsroom.

  1. Hold a paper hackathon.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, than I’m pretty sure a prototype is worth a thousand pictures. But you don’t need code or a Web developer to make a prototype that gets people’s creative juices flowing: you can hack something meaningful together with just paper.

Paper also allows input from everyone — not just people who can code. Here’s what you can do: put out a call for ideas, and then have everyone work for an afternoon — with people outside their department — on a new tool or idea, putting everything down on paper: what user needs are being met, how the tool will be designed, and how the tool will be used. Things that can be sketched on paper include workflows, personas, user research or interviews, or how the product might work in the wild. Entire products can be sketched and refined. I’ve turned paper prototypes into testable prototypes using free programs like Google Forms and/or a Tinyletter — an easy way to try out new ideas for very little upfront cost.

  1. Find ways for your team to have fun and bring out-of-work ideas into the office.

The Data News team at WNYC occasionally holds “play days” on a Friday.

“We tell the rest of the station we’re busy (which we are) and follow just two rules: 1) You can’t do anything on your work to-do list and 2) at the end of the day, you have to share what you did with everyone else,” says John Keefe, who is on the team.

“Our interaction designer, Louise Ma, once made beautiful paper sculptures, developer Noah Veltman has tallied up the costs of everything mentioned in the editorial pages of a pile of magazines, producer Jenny Ye dove deep into basketball stats and I figured out how to build something to count horn honks on the street outside WNYC,” he says. “Few of these things have direct bearing on what we’re working on (see rule No. 1). But all of them stretch our brains in new ways, which definitely helps our creative processes down the road. Plus, it’s a whole lot of fun.”

The idea of working on something outside of normal work might seem foreign, but it’s an easy way to rejuvenate staff and get new ideas flowing. Plus, you can do it in a morning — or in an hour or two.

6. Hold a listening session.

Celeste Headlee, a host and producer at Georgia Public Broadcasting, tells me about weekly listening sessions the station has.

“People can bring in anything to listen to: their own work, something from another station, something from talk radio, or something from a movie,” she says. “Then we talk about whether it can be incorporated into what we do, and how that might sound.”

This is an easy way to share with colleagues across departments. And I love the idea of setting aside from time and doing this in person with your colleagues — it’s a way to get new ideas spinning and helps broaden the way people think.

What ideas work in your newsroom? Leave them in the comments or tag them with #newsroomhack on Twitter.

Related: Poynter’s News University has a week full of creative and inexpensive ways to have some fun at work with next week’s Fun Week. Webinars include Making Fun and Innovation Happen on a Shoestring.

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Mel leads audience growth and development for the Wikimedia Foundation and frequently works with journalism organizations on projects related to audience development, engagement, and analytics.…
Melody Kramer

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