Over the past year, the Hindustan Times, one of India’s most venerated print media outlets, has transformed itself into a model for innovative digital storytelling in the country by bringing together journalists, technologists and product strategists in its newsroom.
HT has shifted its culture away from “an environment that’s mostly concerned with getting tomorrow’s newspaper out,” said Chief Content Officer Nic Dawes. “[We’re] starting to think about our journalism differently, not just at the level of ‘should we file some stuff in the morning,’ but ‘should we fundamentally rethink how we tell this story or fundamentally rethink how we engage with our audience?’”
By bringing digital to the forefront of its news operations, HT has been able to produce in-depth multimedia stories, often unlike anything else being created by Indian news organizations.
“Complex data visualization, rich story formats — these are things that our team has built, which are not being done elsewhere, and which contribute to the perception that this is a place where innovation is happening,” Dawes said.
Solving journalism problems with code
In 2015, HT hired its first team of "editorial engineers" — developers working on journalism, and not on website or app maintenance — to produce groundbreaking new digital content. ICFJ Knight Fellow Nasr ul Hadi played a key role in this process by advising HT on the skills they should look for in candidates and scouting for the right talent within his Hacks/Hackers network and the larger Delhi tech community.
“Over the course of my fellowship, Nic, I and others came up with many new ideas that we wanted to work on, but without the right kind of engineering support dedicated to these projects, they weren’t going to be built,” said Hadi, who was embedded at the newspaper in 2015. “HT had good storytellers, but they didn’t have the manpower to be able to execute any new, complex digital projects or to supplement stories with interactive data, graphics or other multimedia.”
With Hadi’s help, HT hired its first news apps developer, a move followed by a series of hires that eventually grew into the HT news apps team. The team has integrated more data and multimedia into the newspaper’s coverage and has also built reusable tech tools that can help HT provide its readers with more context in its reporting.
“[India] is such a large country, such a complex country that very often context, explanation and giving people a clear point of traction in the story are sacrificed,” Dawes said. “We’ve tried in a few of these cases to use the tools that the news apps team has built or use a more data-intensive approach with them writing a bit of the code to address that Wikipedia-style gap in the news.”
The news apps team has developed storytelling templates that try to address this gap. The team’s longform template, used for articles published under the new “HT in depth” website section, allows journalists to seamlessly integrate multimedia content with detailed written explanations. HT used this format to include videos, photos and illustrations in a story on female genital mutilation in Mumbai. The news apps team also recently created a “Vox-style” explainer about the Ishrat Jahan encounter case, a long-running story about a controversial homicide case that involved four people police had identified as suspected terrorists.
Transforming daily workflows
HT’s effort to bridge the print-to-digital gap extends far beyond its news apps team and touches almost every aspect of its news operations, which involves a team of more than 800 people.
“When you start to do this stuff in a legacy news environment, the challenges that you face are not only in relation to culture or understanding or the idea of having engineers in a newsroom — they go all the way down to your basic IT policies and your infrastructure,” Dawes said. “But you just have to start and you have to be a little bit messy and be happy to roll with imperfection while you’re making progress.”
In order to expose large numbers of staff to new online tools, including Dataminr, Parse.ly, Slack and Sprout Social, Hadi and Dawes started weekly “Digital Fridays” — two hours of voluntary, peer-to-peer training that cut across newsroom hierarchies and departments. The program identified and developed the most prolific participants into in-house trainers, and they became an unofficial “innovations workgroup” that later started to lead the trainings.
“We wanted to introduce HT’s journalists to new tools and more innovative forms of storytelling. To be able to produce more complex articles, they needed to either upgrade their skills or understand these tools and techniques enough to be able to collaborate with technology specialists,” Hadi said.
These tools have now become “fundamental” to HT’s daily workflows, Dawes added. Parse.ly, for example, has been integrated into team meetings and the top editors’ morning news meeting, where they now use the tool to review traffic numbers and sources. HT previously had no process for formally discussing and evaluating analytics in meetings, Dawes said.
Sprout Social has become HT’s primary social media management platform. It allows individual reporters and editors to write and publish posts for their stories on HT’s various social media accounts. This workflow will enable “the social conversation to really become part of the wider editorial process rather than being siloed off into the social team,” Dawes said.
This focus on experimentation and interdisciplinary collaboration has transformed the HT newsroom and created a new model for digital-first news coverage in India.
“For the first time ever, HT.com has a team that’s not subject to daily deadlines. They’re able to contemplate more freely the stories they want to produce and be more deliberate about how they want to present them. They’re able to do much deeper dives than most traditional journalists. They’re able to explore ideas that HT never did before,” Hadi said.
Here’s a sample of stories produced by HT using the new tools and techniques introduced over the past year:
- “Kashmir’s disturbing new reality”
- “Indians spent INR2.4 crore on Ashley Madison since 2008”
- Air quality sensor map
- “Tracking attacks on Kashmiri students outside the valley”
- “Every state assembly election in one map”
- “Can you make the perfect budget?”
- “At death’s door”
Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Graham Holliday.