It's been quite a year for Newsweek.
As the magazine plans for its transition to a digital-only future, you can count the remaining print editions of the storied publication on one hand. It's without question that this fall has been a tough one for the 80-year-old magazine, capped by the announcement of a round of layoffs last week. While the coming weeks will no doubt be rife with equal parts reflection on the magazine's print past and speculation as to its pixel-bound future, Newsweek's digital core has been working deftly and somewhat under the radar to fortify the foundations for the magazine's next chapter.
When Newsweek merged with the IAC's Daily Beast two years ago, the publication inherited some of Beast's digital savvy and the NewsBeast enterprise has done an admirable job drawing Web traffic, attracting 19.8 million unique visitors in October, according to editor in chief Tina Brown. Across social media, the brand has a robust following as well, boasting nearly 2 million Twitter followers to the Newsweek account and over a quarter million Facebook likes. Newsweek's Tumblr is a leader among news sites on the platform, with a following of over 180,000 and growth of 177 percent since February of this year, according to Newsweek's own data.
Yet, more important than any one social brand, over the past year a small editorial/development team has formed inside the walls of the IAC newsroom, which may very well play a defining role in Newsweek's digital transition. Going under the name of "NewsBeast Labs," the group is comprised of senior data reporter Michael Keller, social media editors Brian Ries and Sam Schlinkert and lead developer Andrew Sprouse. The team's goal? Helping to produce and document digital journalism at the publication.
Though NewsBeast Labs is not an actual lab per se, the group's work has had a very real impact on Newsweek and Daily Beast digital content. Working with reporters and editors, the group has helped produce various visual storytelling modules and data journalism projects such as an interactive SuperPAC winners and losers graphic, and HavingTroubleVoting.com, a crowdsourced interactive map to document voting issues on election day this year. Going one step further, the NewsBeast Labs team has constructed a standalone Tumblr site dedicated to the Labs' exploits, documenting the team's successes and failures and educating any and all interested parties as to how they're producing their digital work. The blog is wonky, honest, and has seen a suprising amount of positive feedback.
"We weren't expecting people to be as into some of this stuff as we are," Keller told Adweek. "But we think it's important to have a high level of transparency about how we tell stories and the decisions we make to tell them if we're going to be thought of as an objective source for readers." Indeed, the blog is very transparent and candid allowing curious parties to go "under the hood" of the programming work behind these visualizations and programs. Oftentimes, the team will showcase the iterations that led to the final product, including screenshots of failed designs.
NewsBeast Labs' work is indicative of a growing trend in journalism where, as publications evolve digitally, the best are opening up their processes for all to see. Sites like BuzzFeed, Digg, and The Guardian are providing more and more back-end analytics and insights from their harvested data to clue readers in on how content is performing and how a particular story is traveling around the increasingly social Web. This openness trend is something that the labs team at the NewsBeast is keenly aware of, and they're working hard to indoctrinate an open mindset into the publication's editorial ethos.
"Journalism across the board is moving away from the 'ta-da!' moment of publishing," Keller said. Social media editor Brian Ries added, "it's a result of the nerds taking over in a way. Print and magazines are very closed by nature and developers are coming in from an open sourced world where everything that you learn is shared," he said, noting that one of NewsBeast Labs' primary efforts is to help educate the newsroom.
"Sharing and educating is an obvious thing if you come from a software background," lead developer Andrew Sprouse noted. "The reason digital journalism has some of these beautiful user interfaces is because you are standing on the shoulders of programming giants before you. And everyone here in our newsroom is intelligent and capable of learning this stuff to some degree," he said.
Taking this to heart, the labs team, led by Sprouse and Keller lead Friday meetings for reporters and editors in a conference room at the IAC building to teach basic HTML as well as explain social trends and recent data visualization projects to the editorial staff. It's as much about teaching actual programming as it is about helping the less technically inclined understand what's happening under the hood. "If you understand even just vaguely what can be done and how programming works, you can make sure if you're a reporter or editor that your story gets the presentation it deserves," Keller said. The information sessions and classes also go a long way toward setting realistic expecations for less technical editorial staffers, hopefully eliminating confusions and tensions caused by skill gaps.
While the data visualization projects are an important step forward for Newsweek as it transitions to digital-only, far more consequential is the foundation the lab is laying down during a turbulent time for the newsroom. At a time when some newsrooms are still struggling to define their own brands of digital journalism, it is not so much the individual projects (though, NewsBeast Labs' has amassed an admirable portfolio) but the experimentation and earnest effort to evolve that will help legacy media weather the move to digital. "There are plenty of organizations that look at elements like social media as a layer on top of the journalism, but real success comes from threading it throughout your reporting and work," Ries said. "The next logic step is to take this work we're doing and the knowledge we have and thread it throughout the newsroom."
Newsweek has a great deal to prove as it leaves the dead-tree era for digital, and small team inside a large media company can only do so much to usher in a digital future. But for those interested in the newsroom of the future, NewsBeast Labs is an exciting endeavor. Many will speculate as to the future of Newsweek in 2013 as it exits newsstands, but the reality is, Newsweek 2.0 is already very much alive.
The question is, will it be enough to bring the once-stalwart publication back to glory?