Hacking newsroom productivity

Note: The name of this blog has changed from Gaplogs to edmx. This is why.

There are lots of parallels between software teams and newsrooms, their respective ideal workflows and desirable work environments. However, journalism is decidedly more human – considering that’s the species whose stories the profession is engaged in retelling – and journalistic offices wouldn’t entirely benefit from modelling themselves on tech rooms that strive to minimise ‘distractions’ and, more generally, human contact. Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean everyone should be forced to work in an environment that the majority finds comfortable. I’m writing this now because I stumbled upon an ancient piece in GeekWire about how open floor plans are bad for developers because they “don’t want to overhear conversations”.

“Facebook’s campus in Silicon Valley is an 8-acre open room, and Facebook was very pleased with itself for building what it thought was this amazing place for developers,” [StackOverflow CEO Joel] Spolsky said in an interview with GeekWire co-founder Todd Bishop. “But developers don’t want to overhear conversations. That’s ideal for a trading floor, but developers need to concentrate, to go to a chatroom and ask questions and get the answers later. Facebook is paying 40-50 percent more than other places, which is usually a sign developers don’t want to work there.”


Spolsky, who in 2011 created project-management software Trello, said the “Joel Test” that he created 16 years ago is still a valid way for developers to evaluate prospective employers. It’s a list of 12 yes-no questions, with one point given for every “yes” answer. “The truth is that most software organizations are running with a score of 2 or 3, and they need serious help, because companies like Microsoft run at 12 full-time,” Spolsky said when he created the test. He said that remains true today.

This is true of writers – whether you’re hammering out a 1,000-word copy on medical ethics or writing the next Dune – as well as copy-editors. Both writing and editing are benefited when you’re able to concentrate, and neither loses out when you’re unable to talk about what you’re doing when you’re in the middle of it.

But at the same time, newsrooms also need to encourage collaborations, such as between writers, editors, multimedia producers, social media managers, marketing, tech, etc.

This is why I think an ideal newsroom would be an open floor where those who want to work together can do so while the company allows those engaged in solo projects to work from home. Of course, this assumes everyone knows what they want to do, what they want to work on and that it plays down the admittedly incredible value of overhearing two people talk about something and realising you’ve got an idea about that. The inspiration for stories can come from everywhere, after all. It’s just that it might be time to start evaluating, and implementing, these things more systematically. For example, how often do we stumble upon story ideas? Is it a feature that editors deliberately try to work into newsrooms? Under what conditions does it manifest? And can better technology help?

This is because not everyone in a newsroom can work remotely – but every newsroom is likely to have someone who will benefit from being able to, whether temporarily or permanently. Moreover, ‘new media’ newsroom workflows have largely calcified, which means developers today have a greater incentive than before to build integrated/symbiotic newsroom tools with potentially industry-wide adoption. So at this juncture, they should consider collaborative tools for journalists that also make remote-working more efficient and less prone to communication gaps because, as technology promises to offer more solutions to better journalism, its choices will increasingly affect how journalists can or can’t work.

To be clear, the answers could lie in many spheres, could manifest in many forms – just that I’m particularly curious about whether technology has any of them. Because if it does, I can think of at least two major challenges.

Collaboration tools

For a developer, ‘communication pains’ can arise in at least three contexts (I don’t presume to know all of them): when brainstorming, when collaborating and when receiving feedback. For a journalist, there are two corresponding contexts: when brainstorming and when editing (collaborating to create an article seldom happens when the writers are working remotely). Here, the developer has the advantage because her ‘language’ affords shorter paths to truths. It has fewer syntactic rules, the syntax and semantics are strongly connected and the truths that need to be realised are very well-defined. For a journalist working with a natural language, things are more fluid and open to negotiation. The result is that it’s easier for developers to work remotely because building something good together requires a tool that is highly process-oriented and has perfect version control.

(Could one way out be something like the Hemingway app? It lets writers see what could be wrong with their writing by highlighting difficult sentences, the use of passive voice, adverbs, etc. Maybe. Such an app could definitely go a long way in improving bad writing and making it readable – which would be a boon for editors because they can then focus on making more creative kinds of improvements. But until the app is able to discern narrative techniques and styles, it won’t be able to run the last mile, which means you’ve still got an editor working mano y mano with whom is going to be better for everyone.)

Communication tools

None of Skype, Slack, Hangouts, etc. can cut it when it comes to realising perfect communication options for the remote-worker because the barrier they pose isn’t through a built-in function but concerns the user herself. She still has to want to open the app and dial/ping/buzz/whatever. On the other hand, it’s always been easier to just open your mouth and start talking. Moreover, chat-apps like Slack and Hangouts passively discourage users to reply immediately. In one-on-one communication, when someone talks to you, you’re expected to reply then and there if and when you can. This immediacy is very convenient and useful. However, when chatting with your friend, the app maintains an archive of past messages that your friend can return to later. It’s also quite tricky for you to force a response without coming off as pushy or annoying. //

Even if all of these are problems, the advantages of having a newsroom that is distributed yet not disconnected, more accommodating of different ways to be productive, more open to having its workflows hacked and more efficient at communicating feedback could be great. Then again, could technology have the perfect solutions?