Setting up a team for online journalism

Yesterday I had a conversation with a reporter whose news organization has committed to forming a new Web/digital team. His questions made me think about how undefined this work still is, on the whole.

He asked whether there is any book or Web site that explains the differences among all the job titles he’s encountered — information designer, information architect, coder, programmer, database developer, interaction designer. Who does what, and how many of these folks do you need?

Great question — and no, there is no book, to my knowledge. Some people might glean a bit from Becoming a Digital Designer: A Guide to Careers in Web, Video, Broadcast, Game and Animation Design (2007), or even from the six case studies in my own book, Flash Journalism: How to Create Multimedia News Packages (2005), but neither one provides a cookbook for creating digital journalism teams.

The Vietnamese journalists I trained last month wanted me to describe the online workflow in U.S. newsrooms for them. Every newsroom I have visited in the past year does it differently. Even The New York Times and The Washington Post are quite different from each other in how they handle the coordination of efforts for online and print.

One thing I was able to tell the reporter yesterday, with confidence: The key element to getting this work done is communication — clear, direct, and EARLY in the process. I see and hear many examples of failure in this, and the result is a poor online treatment of a story — or none at all. The reporter and/or the story editor must discuss the story with online and visual journalists and producers at the very beginning — even before the reporter goes out to gather information. The longer you wait, the more opportunities will be missed that could have enhanced the story online.

The reporter mentioned that when he sits down with “the Web people” currently working for his organization, he often has no idea what they are talking about. This is another common problem, present in many newsrooms today. It is likely that some of your programmers, etc., might not be adept at communicating clearly with journalists. That’s not a deal-breaker. What you need is at least one person on the online side who is a very good go-between — someone who can translate journalism ideas to interactive digital media, and also translate programmer, database, server and interaction ideas into journalism.

Sure, it would be great if you could hire one single person who could do everything. We call that “computer jesus” — and you need to accept the fact that there really are not many people in the world who can walk on water.

One example I like to use in presentations is a segment in a package called “The Ancient Way.” To find the example, first load the package, choose a language, and then open the Stories list on the left-hand side, and click “Wild Horses and Celebrations.” (It might take a very long time to load, but it’s worth the wait.) After you’ve watched it, then examine the Credits (link in the upper right corner). Under “Story Teams” you’ll see that nine people worked to produce this segment. Nine! One each for audio, design, photography and videography, and five (five people!) for animation and graphics.

This example helps us understand a few things:

  1. Each one of these jobs might well be handled by a different person.
  2. You’re not going to get a package of this quality from one person alone. That doesn’t mean you have to hire nine people for your team (and please note, in this case, no programmer is listed, and no database developer). Sometimes one person will be capable of doing two or three of these jobs — but please do not think one person can do this single-handedly.
  3. Design is not the same as information graphics; every package must have a designer, even if it has no explanatory graphics.
  4. The creation of graphics and animation requires specialized, skilled people.

Another idea I discussed with the reporter: If you hire the right kind of people for the team, then you’ll need to trust their judgment. Give them creative leeway, and they’ll lead your organization in the right direction. But if you fill up all their working hours making them churn out slideshows and timelines, then you are wasting their talent.

There’s a huge difference between running up to the digital folks and saying, “I want you to make an online thing for my story!” (and then leaving it up to them) and actually, honestly working with them and getting their input on the story — in advance. The first case is all too common in today’s newsrooms, and it’s not resulting in good online work. The second case takes advantage of the deep knowledge of online that the digital folks have — and that most of your newsroom totally lacks.

6 Comments on “Setting up a team for online journalism

  1. “‘I want you to make an online thing for my story!’ (and then leaving it up to them) and actually, honestly working with them and getting their input on the story — in advance.”

    I ran into this all the time. Or, better yet, I’d find out about a big package the day it was running in print, and we had to figure out a way to “Webify” it.

    The problem is far too many newsrooms are print AND online, instead of just being a newsroom that has content in print and online. It’s really a matter of approaching what you are an organization. Most companies still see themselves as newspapers, TV stations, cable news channels, magazines, etc, instead of seeing themselves as news organizations.

    I still think we are years away from really see a news organization that has strong synergy between print and online (or broadcast and online). Several years.

    The future is when a team of journalists get together and say, “We’re going to cover this and report about that. So, how do we do it?” Then the discussion will be about what are the appropriate tools to use to report on this (text, photos, slideshows, video, databases, etc?), and what are the appropriate mediums (print, Web, mobile, broadcast, etc?)?

    The future will not be about filling news holes, but rather will be about finding the best ways to tell each story.

  2. I agree with Pat 100 percent. But, if we have to wait several years for established media outlets to figure it out, we’re in some serious trouble.
    That’s why it’s time for more news start-ups. Starting without that mental baggage and institutional inertia is a huge advantage.

  3. Pingback: Dadblog » Mindy on teams for online journalism

  4. On the topic of hiring us web folks, I think 37signals’ book Getting Real is pithy:

    We’ll never hire someone who’s an information architect. It’s just too overly specific. With a small team like ours, it doesn’t make sense to hire people with such a narrowly defined skill-set.

    Small teams need people who can wear different hats. You need designers who can write. You need programmers who understand design. Everyone should have an idea about how to architect information (whatever that may mean). Everyone needs to have an organized mind. Everyone needs to be able to communicate with customers.

    Getting Real: Get well-rounded individuals

  5. Pingback: Journalism job trends | SOJo: Student of Online Journalism

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