Why Your Newsroom Should Hold a Hackathon — And How To Pull It Off

Seattle Times producers and engineers collaborate at a recent hack day. This team built in the ability to turn on Google's standout tag through the web CMS. (Photo by Eric Ulken)

Hackathon (n.): “an event when programmers meet to do collaborative computer programming.” In a newsroom, the definition is a little different: an event where engineers, designers, editors, reporters and producers combine their various backgrounds to quickly create much-needed story-telling tools.

I would know. I just participated in a hackathon this week at my news organization and it was wildly successful — a quick change of pace for the normally process-heavy development workflow of a newspaper.

Why a hackathon

Newsrooms (most of them, by my count) aren’t agile. They aren’t iterative. They don’t quickly pull things off. They have meetings. And meetings about meetings. They get a lot of people involved and take a long time to make decisions. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but when you’re trying to build cool tools on the fly, it’s a bottleneck.

You don’t have to do a day-long event

Hackathons are typically held as day-long or multiple-day-long events, sometimes spanning over a weekend. But in an environment with constrained resources and time, you’d be surprised at how much can be accomplished in just four hours. Scheduling a half-day event of uninterrupted hack time will force people to focus on the goal and the deadline. Also, getting approval for management will be easier if they’re only losing their core teams for half a day.

Solicit ideas beforehand

Part of the struggle of an abridged hackathon is that you can’t waste much time planning and brainstorming. Get this out of the way beforehand  by holding a brainstorming session, collecting ideas, and choosing which to pursue. Pre-assigning teams can also save time for more productivity during the four hours of hacking. It also gives teams some time to pre-plan (research APIs, get necessary servers ready, think about design and editorial strategy, etc).

  • Choose ideas that are quick and easy to implement and provide a high ROI
  • Projects that use third-party APIs and require little integration with your CMS work well
  • Pair up teams with diverse skillsets; let editors give editorial implementation ideas
  • Choose ideas based around coverage — election, for example.

Choose a venue with wifi

Because time is limited, your participants can’t be distracted by technical issues. Make sure you hold your hackathon in a place where there’s plenty of access to power outlets and reliable internet.

Be sure to follow-up

Thing about hackathons is this: Once you build (or half-build) something awesome, the teams disperse and the product is never executed, finished or launched. Be sure to have a plan for launching project. This also ties into the item above about choosing ideas based on coverage; if there’s a deadline tied to your hackathon projects, there’s a higher change of implementation after the hackathon is over.

Also, as is good practice in the digital journalism era, document your findings and projects to share with the world. If you’re super ambitious, open source it all! (Although, I have to bite my tongue here, since none of our projects have been documented yet).

Give them food and they will come

You can do a hackathon for free, but if you provide food, people will be involved and stay attentive. If you don’t have a budget for food, make cookies or finger sandwiches. Also, plan an after-party at a bar or restaurant to celebrate everyone’s accomplishments and debrief in a casual setting.