Strategies for building an apps team in your newsroom

by Margaret Looney
Oct 30, 2018 in Digital Journalism

Next time you see a fancy news application, don't just gawk in envy. With a little coding knowledge and collaboration, setting up a news apps team in your newsroom can be an easy task.

Lauren Rabaino, the first news applications editor for The Seattle Times, explained the basics of forming a news apps team in a recent Poynter chat. Coming from a traditional journalism background, Rabaino understands what it's like to make the transition to the tech side of the newsroom. She's helped create apps such as The Seattle Times Election Guide.

Rather than relying on outside developers, building an internal apps team can give your newsroom more potential to take on exciting projects, she says. Here are a few tips for getting started:

Go "rogue." If your newsroom doesn’t have an apps team but you want to innovate, just start a project on your own. “I was doing ‘news apps’ type work long before that was ever in my job title,” Rabaino said. “And you probably have people in your newsroom who are doing the same thing.” These are the people you can seek out first when creating your team.

Learn the coding basics with a specific goal in mind. Rabaino says a basic knowledge of HTML, CSS and Javascript is vital to getting started, but having a pragmatic use for this knowledge is key. “I learned what I know from trying to solve an actual problem rather than following a step-by-step tutorial for an implementation that I wouldn't use,” she said. Rabaino points to Codecademy and Code With Me as good places to start learning.

Collaborate from the beginning. The Times’ news apps team doesn't only involve developers. They tapped into resources throughout the company, including data journalists, Web designers, editors, reporters and IT engineers. “The diversity of skills needed for news apps work almost guarantees the need for cross-departmental collaboration.” she said. “We don't do any projects without a traditional editor/reporter (or many of them) being looped in. We pitch it like anyone would pitch a big project or story idea.”

Switching out people from different departments only slows down the process, she said. “When starting a news apps team, involve people early. Develop some basic standards and expectations so they're not caught off guard. It'll slow things down at first, but it's how you get people in IT and other parts of the newsroom to trust you.”

Give hard deadlines. Journalists often work at a different pace than developers, so setting up realistic expectations for finishing a project can be tough. Defining content structure from the beginning is best for meeting deadlines, she said.

“Newsrooms are actually really good at working with deadlines, so we try to give them hard-publish dates to work with," she said. "Words like 'soft-launch' don't work well in my newsroom because reporters see that as meaning 'less-important deadline that we can push to a later date because it's on the Web.' "

Match the app to the content. Don’t try to change the story to fit the platform, but rather design with the content in mind. “It's not so much that story formats should change to fit the app, but that you should use the right platform/delivery mechanism/design to match the information you're trying to convey.”

Ben Turner, a developer at the Times, said it's key to examine a piece of content from all possible contexts. "At the beginning of any project, people should be asking questions about how something will work in print and how it should differ when presented in an online context," he said.

To read the full Poynter chat, click here.

Photo CC-licensed on Flickr by Matt Ephraim.