June 3, 2015
Photo credit: Small World, Flickr

Photo credit: Small World, Flickr

At media companies I’ve worked with and visited, developers and reporters were often on different floors, if they were in the same building. If it was a smaller operation, just reporting website issues involved a long back-and-forth email with the third-party vendor that employed part-time developers. There was often utter confusion around how to communicate the issues we were having and how we could get programmers of some kind to fix them.

How does that workflow affect the journalism of these places? It doesn’t, necessarily. There are many news outlets publishing important work that are run with minimal or no product assistance. But it doesn’t help us elevate or change our ways of storytelling, and it doesn’t help us hear the different voices that could inform the basics and the final product of what we do.

At Vox Media, where I work now, the product team that built the publishing platform our reporters and editors use are part of the company. We all often work on the same floor. Product team members’ roles largely involve building or designing new things and maintaining different parts of our platform, Chorus. Though proximity ended up mattering; what could happen if developers, designers, product managers and reporters shared the same newsroom? What could happen if we dedicated time to work together outside of a regular workday?

A few weeks ago, we sought to find out. Product team members and Eater.com’s editorial team hosted a hack week during the last week of April. As a former intern who sought to connect third-party developers, I empathized with the divide and confusion that exists between editorial and product. Now, on the other side, I wanted to reach out to bridge the gap between the two. With lots of small teams that included platform engineers, data visualization reporters, motion graphics designers, illustrators, reporters, photographers, restaurant critics and editorial project managers, we created fun projects that aimed to get us talking to each other and put us on the same team. Here’s what we learned:

Jobs are complicated on both teams. There are many writer/editors as well as designer/developers. It’s worth getting to know what people do at their jobs, since there’s interesting work being done on either side. There’s a big difference between a national reports writer and local city news editor, just as there’s a difference between a full-stack engineer and front-end designer. If you’re part of a large media organization, all of your co-workers are likely to belong to different, smaller teams. Our product teams have dozens of projects going on at any given time, just as the editorial teams at Eater publish dozens of pieces and are developing larger features all the time across the local sites and have small groups dedicated to getting the work done.

You have to open the door to let someone in. If you can find the right person (or someone friendly who can help you find the right person) to ask questions on either team, it’ll make all the difference in establishing a safe space to understand each other and demystify work. Opening the door isn’t just an opportunity at the senior editor or product manager level—if you see someone whose work you like, people on any team will appreciate hearing from someone who admired it and wants to know more about how it was made. On that note, if you’re not a “maker” whose professional work is easy to see…

Make your work known. Reporting is important for everyone, not just editorial team members. Write about your learning experience and team efforts, however short or long you want to make it. This is an important part of opening the door to let people in who don’t know what you do and what you might be interested in working on in the future. Vox Media has a product blog where we cover everything from the importance of design accessibility to what comes after declaring performance bankruptcy. Other than internal blogs, Medium is a platform that allows everyone to write about whatever it is and easily share their stories, which might have a larger audience than just co-workers. If your job doesn’t involve writing, it’s important to learn that it’s not easy to communicate clearly through writing, and there are a lot of very talented and hard-working people who do this every day.

The workflows are not that different. How do editors on different teams assign work and publish stories? How do developers and designers organize and do their work? The tools may vary, but we discovered it wasn’t too different. Where some product teams may use Trello, Fogbugz or Github Issues to prioritize issues and feature requests, some editorial teams prioritize and assign work using Trello and Slack. Daily agile stand ups aren’t dissimilar to daily check-ins or weekly editorial calls, where different tasks are run through and the team at-large gets an idea of other work going on. When there are similarities, we can look at how other teams organize tricky work (how do you keep track of freelance work? Where can you store editorial tools documentation or a style guide? How do you QA a bug fix or copy edit an article?), you can identify ways that have worked for other teams and incorporate that into your own workflow.

There are programming hacks that can benefit non-technical teams, and it isn’t limited to just code. At Vox Media, we use Slack to talk to anyone in our company. With 400+ rooms (#vox-media-diversity and #cat-owners included) and counting, there are a lot of opportunities to connect and work. As a product team member whose role doesn’t involve code or design, I like thinking of ways we can organize work and bring ideas to the table. Webhooks are my favorite project to bring to hack weeks that change the way people work afterwards. Slack, HipChat, Flowdock, Convo and other workplace chat applications all have integrations that admin-level users can set up to display daily reminders when team managers are on vacation, port new comments for moderation teams, link to published stories for editorial reading rooms, and so much more.

It is so worth it for journalists to hang out together. At Vox, there are several developers and designers who have a media background, either having gone to J-school or having worked in news, magazines or media sites. If your intention is to tell stories that inform the public and you do that by improving storytelling tools or designing user interactions, you are a journalist. You’re all on the same team, and combining these perspectives will push everyone’s stories forward.

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Elite Truong is on the Vox Products team. She writes monthly about innovation for Poynter.
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