What newsrooms can learn from tech startups

NYU journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen recently led a Web Journalists Chat on Twitter around the topic of “radical change in the newsroom” (see the highlights here). One of the reoccurring themes of the chat was that newsrooms need to radically revamp their culture. Tech startups are seeing their heyday right now, while the news industry, well, it’s seen better days. Newspapers could take a hint from some of the forward-thinking cultural environments of tech startups if they want to take a stab at reinventing newsroom culture.

Transparency of team

How often can you click on an author’s name on a news site and actually learn about the person who provided that information? At most, you might get a list of other articles written by that author, like The New York Times does. In the very least (and most often, especially for smaller newspaper sites), you’ll see a static page with a list of editors’ names and links to their email addresses:

In an era when we’re pushing for news transparency more than ever, creating a team page and individual biography pages should be easy to accomplish within any CMS.For inspiration, take a look at some of these team pages from the awesome tech startups and compaies: Viget, Get Satisfaction, Technology With Passion, and Arc 90. (Take the time to click through to the links to those team pages. You’ll be distracted by their awesomess for at least give minutes, guaranteed).

After clicking on an individual person’s team page, you get useful biographical information, links to latest posts and social media accounts. For a newspaper or other news site, the page could contain background information, areas of interest, disclosures, and ways to contact that author if you have a tip.

News as software

Andrew Spittle, a former colleague and current happiness engineer at Automattic (the company behind WordPress) wrote an interesting blog post about treating news as software. What he meant by this:

  • Use, not consumption. Traditional news worked as a unit of consumption, but today, it needs to serve a sense of utility to users.
  • Experimentation and play. Give readers (or “users” when taken from the software perspective), a way to play with your content. Give then an API. Or, take a hint from the Boston Globe and do something like Beta Boston, an experimental site that lets users test drive products and give feedback before they’re released.
  • Help your users. As Spittle notes, The New York Times has a “help” page, but it’s mostly information about subscribing to the paper or using the archives. What it fails at is guiding users toward fostering community and adding value back into The Times, like so many tech companies and web apps do.

Product management

Most big news organizations have a product management team for the business and marketing end of things, but the same way of thinking can be applied to the editorial side too. Product managers at tech/software startups (from my experience) are in control of speccing out product functionality, determining user clickpaths, and providing the basic framework that a UI designer will eventually materialize.

This closely ties in with the previous point about treating news as software. Your consumer are users and more than just thinking about what you’re writing for them, there needs to be thought about how they will approach your content and interact with it.  As an example, when The Atlantic released its project Cablegate Roulette in December, they designed it without thinking about usability. On Twitter, I made the suggestion to Alexis Madrigal that a simple fix for the confusion behind how the “refresh” button was implemented (see below) would be to make it more like a web app.

The key: even for editorial projects that are seemingly not “product”-related, think again. Everything you product is a product, and the actions that users could take need to be thought about.

Behind the scenes blogging

Of course, this isn’t something new, but it’s always worth nothing. There’s so much we can learn from trials and tribulations in our newsrooms that we can share with other newspaper staffs or our readers. Another idea that I’ve always advocated for is having an open editorial calendar that displays upcoming stories to allow the community to give input, tips, sources, etc.

Startup 37 Signals has a blog called Signal vs. Noise that is about design, business, experience, simplicity, the web, and culture, which is maintained by their team. Awesome examples of newsrooms already doing this are Times Open and the Chicago Tribune news apps blog. Over at Tatango, a tech startup that specializes in group text messaging, they took it a step further by installing webcams throughout their office and creating Tatango.tv:

“Investors in this economy are not only looking for a company with a great idea, they also want transparency. We are launching Tatango.TV to allow investors the ability to tune in and watch their investment anytime via the web” said Derek Johnson, CEO and founder of Tatango. “People keep a close eye on their investments, such as their house, children and pets, why not the startup company theyʼve invested in?”

Although that might be a little too over the top for a newsroom, the idea that editors shouldn’t be walled up behind cubicles without interacting with the community is the takeaway.

General startup culture

In general, startups are awesome. At Jason Calacanis’s startup Mahalo, employees get free car washes, tae kwon do lessons, and healthy breakfasts. But beyond fun the fun, trendy perks, startups are unique in that they offer a kind of freedom for experimentation that most news organizations don’t have.

  • Google’s “20 percent time.” I know Google isn’t really a startup any more, but their culture is still very entrepreneurial in nature. According to The New York Times, “Google engineers are encouraged to take 20 percent of their time to work on something company-related that interests them personally. This means that if you have a great idea, you always have time to run with it.” The same concept would be awesome for reporters, editors, designers and developers in a newsroom.
  • Facebook hackathons. At Facebook, engineers lock themselves in a room for a few days at a time to work on awesome ideas they have. According to the blog, “Hackathon is a chance to work on the ideas we have been thinking about for last couple of months, to change the ‘That would be hot!’sentiment to something real and live on the site. The objective is to create something interesting by the end of the night that you can get feedback on from your peers and coworkers.” Not only is it a productive way to quickly iterate through a project, but with 2 am IHOP runs and being locked in a room with a team, it’s great bonding time.