Why develop in the newsroom

Developing in the newsroom has always been my jam. Even when I’m not directly developing — like now, at Vox Media where I’m a product manager — my core responsibility is facilitating and helping define the development that happens in the support of the newsroom. Here’s why you should do it too, and especially as part of Knight-Mozilla’s 2015 Fellowship. The short answer for why you should develop in a newsroom is because it’s fun, you will be working with insanely smart peers serving an insanely smart audience, there will be lots of whiskey and cursing, and election night pizza, all while building news and information solutions no one else ever has before. But if that’s not enough, let me break it down for you…

Build things that matter.

Every day, you get to build software that helps tell stories that matter. Stories that impact people’s lives. Stories that can uncover corruption or expose mass health dangers or just entertain and inform.

Be shippin’ it all the time.

The world is always changing. At a much more rapid pace than you’d have at your standard technology company, you get to be working at an extremely fast pace and shipping your work on the reg. This means your opportunity for experimenting and iterating on projects is also at a much quicker pace, and often being published to a receptive audience who will tell you almost immediately whether your work is awesome or whether it sucks.

Collaborate with subject matter experts.

The reports and editors with whom you’ll be working really know their shit. They have the sources, the years of knowledge and research for their beats, the trust from readers. You get to work with those experts to collaborate on awesome solutions daily.

Work on a diversity of different projects.

Whether you’re at a newspaper — which has everything from a sports department to entertainment databases to metro desk — or a place like Vox Media with its seven varied verticals or a place like ProPublica, which covers the spectrum from fracking to America’s racial divide, you will be always exposed to a wide range of subjects.

Always continue learning.

To my previous points about diverse projects and working with subject matter experts, this means that you get to always keep learning. In order to execute on products that work, you have to force yourself to learn about processes and history and key players for topics you previously knew nothing about. Working in a newsroom with journalists is like going back to school, but more fun (there’s often a lot more cursing and whiskey and no tests except whether you’ve met the user’s needs).

Always continue teaching.

But it’s a two-way street. In addition to learning what others have to offer, you get to always be teaching as well, whether that’s teaching an editor about which data is most relevant for which formats, or teaching an ambitious reporter about python. You’ll be continually surprised at how eager the newsroom is to absorb your knowledge. And the best feeling is then catching someone teach their peer what you’ve taught them.

Always be challenged.

This work isn’t easy. We’re often dealing with sensitive, high-visibility topics. Credibility and trust are on the line. One mistake in your scraper will send incorrect election results to the masses. Publishing the wrong information can hurt people’s lives and get your publication sued. The deadlines are often quick and the data is often dirty. But you get to challenge yourself in new ways, and always.

Serve communities who care, and who you care about.

Because you’ll be shipping your work all the time, you get to do that experimentation much more publicly than you would in any other industry, and directly interact and build relationships with that community you’re serving. These are often the same communities that we’re a part of, covering topics our families and friends care about. (Hi, Mom!)

Invent new solutions.

The information industry has come far in recent years in evolving how we do storytelling in a digital world, but there’s still so much more to do, so much more progress to make, so many more problems to solve. This is a world that has immense and ever-growing potential at building the kinds of information solutions that help people live richer, more informed lives. And you can be a part of that. You can shape that. You can lead that. We need more leaders in this space.

Change the world.

No matter what newsroom you’re working in or how big your audience is, you’re going to be work that ends up having a big impact on the industry as a whole. The number of people doing the kind of work we do is still relatively small, and we’re all doing our best to show our work and learn from each other. If you come over to a newsroom and do good work and share that work, you’re going to influence and inspire people in newsrooms all over the country and world, who in turn take those learnings back to inform their own communities. It’s a never-ending cycle of stealing each other’s work, making each other stronger, and using all that feedback to continue building bigger and better products.

If you’re at all intrigued by these ideas, scadoodle on over and apply for a Knight-Mozilla fellowship in one of the many esteemed newsrooms across the country. Become a 2015 Knight-Mozilla Fellow by applying today.

My next: Vox Media!

Photo by the lovely Genevieve Alvarez.

Photo by the lovely Genevieve Alvarez.

It is with giddy, bouncing-off-the-walls excitement that I am announcing I’ll be joining Vox Media in 2014 as product manager for The Verge.

Vox is the perfect next home for me, having first been with a start-up that was trying to change the industry from the outside, then to a newspaper to reinvent from within — now, to a media company that does great journalism, builds kick-ass technology and ties it all together with modern design and a vision for the future. A little insider, a little outsider. A huge influencer on the future of media. And not afraid to shake things up.

Owning development of editorial features and products at The Verge is one of the most exciting opportunities I could have asked for. It’s a brand that’s, in some ways, still in its infancy, but already beats its peers — HuffPo Tech, Gizmodo, Wired, Engadget and TechCrunch — in monthly unique visitors. As the product manager (the product is storytelling, by the way… brilliant) I’ll lead design and development projects with a mix of management and hands-on participation. Though I get to help shape strategic goals through product innovation for the Verge specifically, the work of myself and the rest of the product team will impact all six of Vox’s sites.

I’ll be based in New York City. I start on January 21. Someone please teach me about how to hail a taxi and whether I’m supposed to sit or stand on the subway.

Let me tell you about a side project of mine: Fork app for food, friends

Since we just announced our Thanksgivukkah contest tonight, this might be a good time to dual promote a side project I’ve been working on with Mark Briggs and Scott Falconer: a little app called Fork.

It’s a simple but awesome app that takes the food porn out of Instagram and Facebook and gives it an actual home. It’s meant for people to share photos of the stuff they actually cook in their kitchens. For someone like me (who isn’t much of a foodie and doesn’t make the most beautiful looking meals), it feels like a safe space to celebrate little victories, judgment free.

The app is really Mark’s brainchild, but I’ve been helping out on the whole concept and design for more than a year now, working closely with him and developer extraordinaire, Scott.   You should read Mark’s story about what inspired the whole concept (hint: it was his kids).  Key functionality: You upload photos, choose among filters, add a description and title, then share. You can make lists of favorite meals by adding them to saved folders.

The name “Fork” is intentionally inspired by the concept of code forking. We want people to see what their friends are making and riff off it, creating their own deviations. It has changed how I eat and it’s my new favorite app to fire up while I’m browsing around for dinner ideas or aimlessly wandering around the grocery store. (And I’m getting really good at plating my food!)

We had our official launch party here in Seattle at Local 360 in the middle of September, with awesome turnout, including NYT contributing food photographer Andrew Scrivani there to give us photo tips (natural light is the key, folks). Below are photos from the launch party.

So, you should download it. And remember that it’s still pretty beta right now, but that you can send me feedback. And you’ll be downloading it just in time for the Thanksgivukkah contest! Prizes listed below are pretty cool.

Since Thanksgivukkah won’t happen again for about 70,000 years, we’re celebrating with a food photo contest with our friends at Foodista, What Jew Wanna Eat and the folks behind @Thanksgivukkah. We want to see your best food photos when these holidays collide on Nov. 28. The winning photo will be selected from all photos added to the Fork app and tagged #Thanksgivukkah. The prize package includes: A $200 Whole Foods gift card to (for your next holiday cooking adventure), an ‘American Gothikkah’ Thanksgivukkah poster, a special Fork T-shirt!
We can’t wait to see your creations! More information, including recipes and suggestions, can be found here: http://bit.ly/18NhJg7

Happy forking!

Seattle Times mayoral guide, V2

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I’m a little late in writing about this one, but it’s worth posting about the second iteration of our mayoral guide that we launched for the general election. (You may remember V1, which we launched for the primary).

Version 2 featured candidates Ed Murray and Mike McGinn side-by-side, with the ability to easily compare their backgrounds and issue stances. We brought the two candidates in to be photographed specifically for this guide, which was the first time we’ve ever done a photoshoot for a news app!

The bar charts pull in data about campaign financing, breaking down the totals by inside Seattle vs. outside. We also have a neighborhood breakdown view (created in Tableau), which shows you the amounts against a map.

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The individual profile pages show you biographical information at a glance, stances on issues, a biography (complete with childhood photos), campaign finance data and financial disclosures.

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The app was built in django, off our elections app that we previously wrote about. It works off a custom template for the race page, then reuses many of the blocks from the primary guide for the profile pages. This year’s general election results fed into the same app, using the same templates and mostly the same scraper from the primary. Yay for resusability.

The goal of the app was to help readers understand the nuances in the views of two seemingly similar candidates. Both tend to align on a surface level on many issues, but have different paths for getting the end result. Big shoutout to Emily Heffter for doing the bulk of the reporting (and inputting the data into the django admin!), John Lok for the photos and Dean Kramer (who recently left The Seattle Times :’( for the development. As usual, I did the project management and design.

Refocusing the “story” away from individual articles to the overarching narrative

Kill the article.

That was the theme of the Global Editors Network hackathon that I participated in with Seattle Times teammates Ben Turner and Justin Mayo. This was one of 20 hackathons happening worldwide, with winners of each event going to Barcelona to compete against each other. Unfortunately, we didn’t win. But we still think our idea is pretty kickass and we’re excited about implementing the concept (to some degree) into our CMS overhaul over the next few months.

We decided not to kill the article entirely, since the concept developed at the hackathon is something that’s supposed to be implementable in our newsrooms, and ours isn’t one to kill the article anytime soon. But we did want to take the focus of the “digital story” away from individual articles and direct it toward the individual pieces of data that connect those articles over time. Because what’s an article, really, but one episodic slice of content in context of a larger, evolving narrative?

Here’s a mockup of our idea, something I’ve been dying to sit down and think about since I wrote a post in 2011 (crap, that long ago?) about the convoluted life cycle of a story and in 2010 (yikes!) when I wrote about structuring metadata within articles.


A little explanation about what’s going on here:

  • A seemingly normal story appears on the left, but what you don’t see is the back end (shown below), which allows journalists to markup various components of the text — names, locations, key facts, key quotes, tweets, multimedia — to provide additional metadata about them and their relevance to this story.
  • A curated stream of content to the right, which is generated based on the metadata from all the articles in this topic over time. This means you can see where one little sliver of an article exists within the larger meaning of the story.
  • You can filter by newest or jump to the beginning if you’re new to the story. If you want the high-level overview, you can see “only the important stuff.”
  • You can explore by content type or data type. For example: Key people, key locations, all videos, all photos, all tweets, thematic filters (for this particular story: arena design, concerns, investors, etc.) Thematic filters are determined at a topic level, chosen by editors.

Here’s what the input interface might look like:

Why we decided on this approach

Our team felt like the premise of “killing the article” may have been a little off. The internet was created as a place to easily read, share, interconnect text. What’s missing is the context. How can we stitch together individual pieces of information that make up disparate articles so they make sense in the larger meaning?

This idea was born out of meshing together two concepts: the wiki(ish) approach to news, plus an activity stream. We wanted to focus not on breaking news — though this concept could be applied there — but to the stories that are most important to our mission as local, independent newspaper. We wanted a format that gives meaning to longterm reporting that impacts many sectors of our community, enterprise reporting that is watchdog in nature.

You can check out the functional prototype that Ben built. We’ll let you know when the real thing is implemented into our systems.

Related coverage/links:

How universities and student media organizations should modernize themselves

Part of me can’t believe we’re still asking this question.

It comes from Patrick Thorton:

Student news organizations have traditionally existed to give students experience before entering the workforce. The kinds of journalism jobs and journalism companies have changed considerably in the past 10 years, and most student news organizations are set up to mimic traditional print or broadcast news outlets. How would you set up a student news organization in 2013 or how could an existing college news organization modernize itself?

It’s the same thing we were asking when I graduated in 2009. I wrote a letter to my j-school about what they should do to modernize by revamping existing tracks rather than creating new multimedia ones.  I wrote a post urging other student newspapers to not be afraid to break the rules. A group of us around the country hosted an open chat between students and educators about risk-taking.

And here we are, five years later, dealing with the same struggles.

Except that many educators didn’t listen back then, and our 2009 urgings are already long out of date. Catching up is now that much harder. What’s a j-school to do? It starts in the classroom.

Create curriculums that are concept-based

Technology changes quickly; approval for curriculum changes does not.

You can’t create classes based on certain platforms or strategies. Classes need to be concept-based to allow flexibility of easily swapping out technology as the times change, and focusing more specifically on goals to achieve rather than tools for achieving.

A few examples:

  • Rather than having a class about how to use Twitter, create a class around finding sources and doing solid reporting, which touches on elements of engagement and community. Twitter can be a part of it, but not the focus. 
  • Rather than having a class about video editing, focus on visual journalism, the elements of visual storytelling. Editing a video can be a part of that, incorporating a ton of self-teaching (more on that soon).

The tools are just the vehicles that get us to the heart of what we do as journalists. The tools don’t define our journalism.

Teach self-teaching

You can never teach students everything they need to know because two months into the workforce, the tools will have changed. And students, you shouldn’t wait around for your professors to teach you what you need to you know. Ideas I’d integrate into classes without telling students how to accomplish the following tasks, or which tools to use:

  • In a basic reporting class: Tell students to create a searchable database. 
  • In a visual communications class: Have students plot data on a map.
  • In a narrative/features writing class: Have students creatively integrate multimedia into the narrative process.

The point would be for students to figure out how to solve the problems, using whichever tools they have at their dispense. It doesn’t matter how they get there, so long as they do it in a way that is accurate, usable, elegant. Extra points for mechanisms that are reusable, integratable, responsive, etc.

Programming isn’t only about presentation

At the same time, remember that coding isn’t just about what you see as an end user. I’ve learned from spending time with students that this is often the misconception. “Why would I want to build a website to show my work? Won’t other people at my news org be responsible for that? I want to focus on the storytelling,” is a question/statement I’ve been asked when speaking to journalism students. Programming is also about what happens on the back end. It’s about how information is organized, and how we use it. It’s about using technology to bridge the gaps, to make our jobs more efficient, to tap into information we could never access.

Which leads to the next, related point…

Data, data, data, stats, stats, stats

Why wasn’t a data analysis / statistics class a requirement for my journalism major? It should have been. Multiple classes of it. Not as electives. With the wealth of information that’s publicly available, and the wealth of information for us to record ourselves, how are we still teaching interviewing as a primary source of information-collecting? Students should be learning how to find data, scrape data, analyze it, make sense of it, display it.

More innovation labs

And to tie all these concepts together, we need more safe places for students to collaborate and experiment. Bringing it back to the original question about how student media organizations can modernize, they need to function more like innovation labs, implementing all of the core functions I’ve outlined above. I’ve always pointed to how college should be environments ripe for disruption and failure and experimentation. It’s theoretically a safe space to try new things, though the culture can often be as stagnant as professional organizations because of business implications.

How to bring the innovation lab idea to life at a news organization:

  • Partner with other departments (computer science, software engineering) to do projects on a quarterly, or even a monthly or twice-monthly basis. 
  • Add an advertising/business student to that mix.
  • Rotate reporters/editors into those teams throughout the year to give everyone exposure to the team.
  • Make it a goal to release code into the open source community quarterly.
  • Kill the print publication all together, or cut it down to just once a week.
  • Create brand new products that are completely separate from the publication itself (think: Circa, reddit, Evening Edition).

And if I was a student today, you know what I’d do? Ditch the traditional organization all together and create my own news start-up on campus.

What I look for when it comes time to hire

Yes, a website/portfolio helps. I immediately look at a student’s website to find a sampling of their “clips.” These clips should come in the form of links to the student’s projects, and hopefully some blog posts that explain how the projects were done, and what plans are for the projects moving forward. This doesn’t have to be anything overly-fancy. I just want a place where links are easily collected. Even a Delicious feed works.

No, I don’t care if you can use Tweetdeck or Google Analytics. So can my 12-year-old cousins. Where are you pushing the boundaries? How are you thinking outside of the box? How are you reinventing? Don’t show me how you can use tools that other people made. (Derek Willis writes about this more eloquently than me in, “The Natives Aren’t Restless Enough.” Just stop now and read that instead.)

Write about your ideas. Share you knowledge. Spread your knowledge. Ask questions. Deconstruct concepts we all take for granted. Contribute to the community. Contribute to the greater good of this mission we’re all working toward. Then I might give you a call.



ONA13 second screen panel recap and behind-the-scenes peek at our GameCenter

From left: Rami Khater, Lauren Rabaino and Patrick Stiegman at the ONA13 second screen panel.

From left: Rami Khater, Lauren Rabaino and Patrick Stiegman at the ONA13 second screen panel.

At ONA13 this year, I was on a panel with ESPN’s Patrick Stiegman and Al Jazeera’s Rami Khater to talk about second screen experiences in a session called, “Broadcast For All: Mastering Multiscreen Production.”

I would by no means call myself an expert at multiscreen, as our first foray into it was just last month with the launch of our Seahawks GameCenter, but what I did bring to the panel was a realistic look at how to experiment with second screen using free tools, cheap tools, open source tools and very few developers.

Below I’ve embedded the entire presentation and audio (my slides are the last chunk).




To recap my points:

  • Not everyone has full-time teams of multiple people working on projects. At The Seattle Times, I’m the sole news applications person, stealing developers from sales and marketing. We were able to pull off our first GameCenter with 2 weeks of development. 
  • We built our GameCenter using WordPress. There’s a page that pulls in the_content of any post categorized as “GameCenter”, which usually is always going to contain a ScribbleLive chat.
  • The right column of the page on desktop uses WordPress widgets to populate the content. The mobile version of the page flips that menu horizontally to become swipeable tabs.
  • The blog uses a child theme, so we can spin up a GameCenter on any blog. All we have to do is create a category called “GameCenter”, a page called “GameCenter” which uses our custom page template, define the core colors in our sass and plop in some widgets and IDs for the team stats.
  • The entire GameCenter fits within the workflow of our bloggers who have to do nothing but add a category to the live blog posts they were already used to creating weekly.
  • We were able to monetize it by selling a sponsorship that injects an ad every 10 posts.
  • Time on page is about 6.5 minutes, and half of the GameCenter’s traffic is via mobile, compared to only 29% sitewide.
  • It’s been an easy way for us to experiment with mobile-first design and responsive design, two things we aren’t able to do on a large scale yet.

Map & UGC: Puget Sound rent map

Rent is a touchy subject in any community, so it’s no surprise that when we created a way for readers to share their rent stories, they responded en masse.

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How it works

Dots on the map represent major neighborhoods within Seattle and other major areas outside of Seattle. Readers can click a point to get more information about it, submit a rent story for that neighborhood and read others’ stories for that neighborhood. We’re using the Mapbox and tabletop.js  to display the map and submissions from our readers, which are inputted via a Google form. This is our last map that will use tabletop and Google spreadsheets to store data. The next one is using a django form and spitting out data as json.

Why the big dots to represent neighborhoods?

Not sure whether I need to explain myself on this one, but since it was the source of much discussion in our newsroom when deciding how to represent neighborhoods, the thought process is worth noting. We used big dots to represent geographic locations for a few reasons.

  1. Rather than using shapefiles: Neighborhood boundaries in Seattle are very ambiguous, and there aren’t any official definitions of what is where. Rather than nitpicking about where one boundary started and other ended, we used big dots to ambiguously represent the neighborhoods so readers could self-identify. Eventually (soon!), yes, we’re going to have to just settle on some boundaries and create neighborhood shapefiles for our city.
  2. Rather than letting smaller dots represent each individual submission: This would require asking readers to input an address, then map that address to a longitude/latitude. Because of privacy concerns and time limitations, we opted not to do this.

First time doing full-screen maps

You may remember our reader state parks map, which we were able to build off of for this project. It was a clunky experience (and not responsive) because we were forced to embed it into our CMS on a fixed-width flatpage. Though doing full-screen maps is certainly nothing new, it’s a first for us and will likely be an issue other smaller newsrooms have to deal with.

Here’s are the points I made to our UX team in sales and marketing when I made the case for why we should be able to do this:

  • Google, Bing, MapQuest, etc. have already set a precedent, meaning it won’t be “unexpected behavior” that surprises our users.
  • If we want our maps to be responsive (yes, of course we do), an iframe on a flatpage won’t do the trick and makes for weird scrolling within scrolling panes.

And speaking of mobile, here’s how it all looks on a phone:

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Screen Shot 2013-09-21 at 11.36.18 PM

Huge shoutout to Alexa Vaughn, Dean Kramer and Gene Balk for their work on this.

News app: Seattle Times mayoral guide

It was a busy summer this year for Seattle Times news apps, with a fall lineup that’s looking even busier. While I have a second to breathe this weekend, I’m catching up on writing posts about some of our notable summer projects.

The mayoral guide is at the top of that list. It’s one of the first projects we launched this summer, and also marked the first time we’d ever worked directly with a reporter, the talented Emily Heffter, on information gathering that was specific to a news app and completely independent of any kind of print product.


The goals

In a super-congested primary mayoral race, we wanted to give readers:

  • A way to easily, digestibly learn about each candidate on the ballot
  • A visual way to compare where each of the candidates stands on each of the major issues facing the city of Seattle
  • A home for primary coverage leading up to the election

How we did it

What resulted was a django app built off our legislative guide and the prior year’s election guide. We built off the politician model to add candidate, people and issue models, setting the groundwork for what could be an extensive database of all candidates, campaign financing, vote totals, endorsements, etc. for Washington state.


We now have (though forgive the ugliness of them right now) a view for all election years, each election within the year, each race within the election, each candidate in the race, and both a race detail and candidate detail. See the potential now? API is next!

One of my favorite pieces of the app is the “issues” section, which visually breaks down where each candidate stands on an issue by displaying his/her mug in one of three categories that represents the common stances on major ballot issues. The tone of the guide was also a little more straight-talk than other political resources we’ve written, which made it more fun and approachable.

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The entire app is, of course, responsive. It builds off a responsive grid that originally looked a lot like the 1140 grid system, but has since been extremely modified for our needs.  We’re not doing anything fancy other than that. The hardest part of getting this thing out the door was building out the models to be as reusable as possible.

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Stay tuned for the general election version of the guide which launches sometime this week!

Map: Structurally deficient bridges in Washington state

Screen Shot 2013-05-27 at 1.42.29 PMIn an act of rapid turnaround, deadline-driven development, Dean, Cheryl and I bring you a map of all structurally deficient bridge in Washington state.

Seattle Times remote breaking news headquarters in Katrina's living room.

Seattle Times remote breaking news headquarters in Katrina’s living room. (Photo by Dean)

Thursday night the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River collapsed and fell into the water. Yes, this is a big deal because I-5 is the main corridor through the state. Two cars fell in but everyone survived. This news broke while Dean and I were enjoying a lovely dinner at Ben and Katrina‘s house after work, so naturally we turned her dining room into a breaking news headquarters: I maintained the social feeds while Katrina worked with homepage producers to build out the package and Dean started working immediately on the map (I jumped in after our social media producer go to the office).

We worked all night on the map, spending most of our time attempting to get PDF data into a spreadsheet before we got a better data set from our data editor. We started with a Google Fusion table and quickly moved over to Mapbox (thankfully, we knew what we were doing after building our state parks map).

We used basically the same technology I described in my state parks post. We launched the map on Friday morning then  updated a second-iteration version Saturday that has filters to see: bridges built more than 50 years ago, bridges with low sufficiency ratings, facture-critical bridges and high-trafficked fracture-critical bridges.

This one of our first heavily deadline-driven news apps projects and probably the best job we’ve done of really telling a story through our apps. We’re getting good at dumping a bunch of stuff into a well-packaged space (maps, political guides), and are trying to get better at truly finding the stories within those data dumps. Hats off to Cheryl and Dean!

Map launch: Seattle Times readers photograph, review best Washington state parks

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best_parks_kelly_sheaThis week the news apps team launched a fun little user-generated content project: a map with reader reviews of the best, worst, most kid-friendly state parks, and the best places to camp. We put out a reader callout using a Google form to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Washington state parks and received more than 300 responses. We didn’t previously have a plan for what we’d do with those responses, but thanks to all the answers being in Google Spreadsheets and tabletop.js, we were easily (ok, not that easy, but still) able to plot the points on a map.

How it works: You click a point. Point pulls up reviews, photos and number of “best camping” votes for that park. You can filter by category. Relatively simple, but it helped us start to define what our standards are for mapping, and create a few reusable templates so we can do projects like this more quickly in the future.

Here are some of the awesome resources we used to pull this off:

  • Google forms to solicit answers
  • Google spreadsheets to store the responses (had to significantly restructure the responses and do a lot of manual splits because our form was poorly structured in the beginning. Thanks to our awesome intern Daimon for fact-checking the shit out of every lat/long point :) )
  • Tabletop.js + Flatware
  • Handlebars.js
  • Mapbox
  • Google spreadsheet script from Mapbox to handle geocoding
  • Cloudmade
  • A flickr scraper thing that I stole from John Keefe

Special thanks to: 

  • Developer Dean Kramer for ninja skillz
  • Digital news production intern Daimon Eklund for fact checking, geocoding, QA testing, and generally good feedback and ideas and catching all our flubs.
  • Data editor Cheryl Phillips for helping me merge, split, tear apart and reassemble the original mess of spreadsheets from our Google forms.
  • Art director Whitney Stensrud for her eagle eye for UX and colors and fonts.
  • News artist Kelly Shea for all the lovely graphics and cute icons.
  • Travel editor Brian Cantwell for editing all the content.
  • Features producer Holly Henke for managing all the promotion across the website, teases in print, and social media promotion. And for putting together the original forms and doing a reader callout, even though we weren’t quite sure yet that we’d do anything with it.
  • Engagement guy Bob Payne for feedback and keeping the ball rolling.

Yes, we are highly collaborative here at The Seattle Times, even on small projects. :) Now, time for some summer outdoors adventures!

What I’ve learned about changing newsroom culture

I’ve learned a lot since I started as the news applications editor in November. And I’m still learning every day. But I know that it’s hard, and that people at places smaller than The Seattle Times have to fight even harder cultural battles. Well, change is hard. We all know that. But something about being in a newsroom makes it harder — the legacy systems, old habits, the necessity of providing content for old and dying mediums.

But I think now more so than ever, newsrooms are ripe for change. They’ve been resistant for so long, but now I’m witnessing them coming around. The turnout to NICAR this year was the largest ever, Pulitzers are being awarded more often for digital storytelling, breaking news events keep teaching us more and more about social and mobile consumption.

So in a very anecdotal way, I think the news industry might finally be at a place where it’s stopped denying that it’s moving too slow. Now, how to make that jump? This is my list of mechanisms, published here as a more thought-out version of an Ignite Talk I gave at West Virginia University last week. Not everything on this list will work for you, but it’s based on lessons I’ve learned first-hand and observed elsewhere.

1. Show don’t tell

For a long time, I really misunderstood what the now-cliched motto of “Demos not memos” meant. For those of you unfamiliar with the etymology, the phrase originated from Politifact’s Matt Waite indescribing about a guiding principle that helped them win a Pulitzer Prize. Until recently, I had used the “Demos not memos” mantra in how I approached new project acquisition — rather than writing about all the reasons why we should be doing a project, I instead showed a demo in the form of prototypes or mockups to help convince the right parties and bring ideas to life.

But that was my problem. I was using “show don’t tell” as a means of example, rather than execution. The approach I’m trying to take now? Show by launching. Show by doing. Show by pushing products to market and tracking their success, then show those results to people to get buy-in for continuing to do them.

2. Start with the low-hanging fruit

Inspiring complete cultural transformation takes time. A lot of time. It’s not something that can magically happen with one instigator infiltrating from within. Sometimes it can be hard to get that momentum going. A trick mentioned in Harvard Business Review’s collection about Change Management is to show quick results early, start with the low-hanging fruit. Find quick problems that you can solve using technology. Nothing particularly glamorous, but something practical that will make people’s lives easier. For me, this was getting all the blogs from an old version of Moveable Type to WordPress. The inclination might be to start off with a big, flashy project to start with a high bar, but that’s not how you get quick payoff and set the tone for what’s possible. This way, you show people why the work you’re doing is important in small, tangible ways that they can understand — then keep working toward the big picture with their support.

3. Find your allies early

Co-consiprators often pop up in unsuspecting places. Any progress I’ve been able to achieve at The Seattle Times has come from finding people who have unutilized skills, unchanneled passion and enough initiative to take on projects on the side as we build those side projects into the norm. I’ve also found allies in people who didn’t even know they were good at web stuff. We have a news art director who, despite a technical lack of web skills, has an incredible knack for UX. She’s now my go-to for all questions, brainstorming or advice around interaction design. You probably have similar allies all around you that you didn’t even know about.

4. Fight against the assembly-line style of project management

This whole concept is hands down stolen from Trent Walton. Go read his post on reorganizationthen come back and continue reading this. It’s very common in a newsroom to have a process that works like so: People at the top — probably strategists, people in charge of revenue, etc. — devise a plan for a product completely independent of any conversations with the actual creators. Those thinkers pass the concept on to a design crew who will complete pixel-perfect mockups to match the vision, then from there, the coders get their hands on it and build it out exactly as told.

The people in the newsroom who can code are not vendors who cater to clients. They and other journalists should be  a part of that process at each step. So should the designers and the business people. Rather than handing projects off to each other and weaving together ideas with different missions, the core group of decision makers should consist of a group from all the stakeholders.

5. Done is better than perfect

This one is stolen from a sign that hangs in the Facebook office and concepts in the Agile Manifesto. Once you get your allies in line and a good workflow and some projects on the docket, it’s easy to fall off the bandwagon of agility. You can easily get sucked into the world of project management and roadmaps where your ability to innovate is stagnated. You might hold off project launches in order to work toward a false ideal of perfection. Don’t fall into that rut. Respond to changing technology and the changing expectations of your users with such agility that they don’t even notice you’ve ever fallen behind. Define the absolute minimum for what you need to launch, meet it, then iterate from there.

6. Rock the boat without tipping it over.

This little nugget of wisdom is also stolen from the Harvard Business Review (yes, I steal a lot of ideas from a lot of different people and places — shoulders of giants, you know). I’ve easily fallen victim to the idea that I can single-handedly change it all by being the rebel without a cause. That’s not true. We have to learn how to communicate with people in a way that introduces them to change and gets them comfy without scaring or overstepping boundaries. I still haven’t figured this one out. Working on it.

7. Ask forgiveness, not permission — but carefully!

Sometimes, when you really believe in something. You have to play a little dirty and risky. If you have something you really believe in, sometimes it’s OK to get things done, push them live, then ask later for forgiveness (which you’ll usually always get if you’ve made the right call). Only do it if it’s worth it. And do it very rarely. Which leads me to my next point…

8. Choose your battles

You’re going to lose some battles. That’s ok. Make sure that the battles you do fight are the ones that are going to help you move the needle. You can sacrifice the pieces you don’t care about. Before every fight, ask yourself if it’s worth it.

9. Seek first to understand, then be understood

This is one of my favorite takeaways from 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Colleagues often feel threatened and get defensive when their ideas are dismissed or ignored. Resist the urge to be a know it all (even if you really think you know much more than the people around you). Listen to what people need and they will have an easier time understanding what you need. The more you give, the more you get. And you might learn that you weren’t right after all.

10. Develop a common language

It’s hard to be a person who jumps between the traditional newsroom and the tech-savvier side of the newsroom and IT  and sales and marketing. You can’t the be the only person who speaks all the languages. To inspire true cultural change, you need to be able to spread that knowledge to everyone. For example, we started a worksheet at The Seattle Times that people can use to initiate new projects. The language included in it hits the whole range — from words like “key performance indicators” to “nut graf.” This gets people comfortable in each other’s worlds.

11. Resist the urge to be the cool kids in the corner

It’s hard to not be. Even when you’re situated in the middle of the newsroom, anyone who is trying to do new, innovative stuff fights the  perception of being the “cool kids in the corner.” Don’t let them see you that way. You want to be part of the team that empowers the entire newsroom to be innovators, and you want to put the tools in their hands to help them get there. You cannot hold the monopoly on innovation. Give people the opportunity to contribute.  Help other departments — like IT and marketing — learn from you so they can innovate in their worlds, too. You don’t want anyone to feel like your team is the only team who is allowed to be cool.

12. Remember that experiments are serious business

Sometimes people in news companies can misunderstand what “experimentation” truly means. It’s not about frivolous, pie-in-the sky ideas. It’s about rapidly testing new ideas to start building toward new standards. You are building the future through experiments. Experimentation is just as important as those mission-critical roadmap projects.

13. Measure your success

So how do you build those new standards? This comes back to show-not-tell. A trick I learned fromJohn Keefe is to track numbers on everything you touch. I’ve been really good about tracking all the news apps I launch, but I didn’t track projects embedded into article pages (which are just tracked like normal stories) or track the projects that reporters were creating (timelines, word clouds) based on the development I’ve done. Do that so you can more accurately measure your true impact. People respond well to numbers when it comes time to make decisions.

14. Keep your users at the heart of everything you do.

At the end of the day, you’re not fighting these fights for yourself. You’re fighting for your readers — your users — who are taking the information you give them to make decisions about their lives. If you’re ever wondering why you’re fighting or whether it’s worth it, go back to your mission to best serve the user and look at the problem through that lens. You will likely find some clarity.

15. Remember that you’re not in this alone

If it ever gets hard, you have a whole community of people who are fighting the same fight as you. Reach out. We’re in this together.

New mini-project launch: Custom ‘list’ post type


I know the idea of doing “Top 10″ posts feels a little cliche and cheap, with front pages of Cosmo magazine first coming to mind. But let’s face it — people read lists. It gives them something easy to consume at a glance. It gives them a point of reference for navigating a story: I know when I’m half way done, or I know I can easily skip through a section if I’m not interested.

So this is why we’ve launched the first phase of a bigger project around lists at The Seattle Times. Our lists can be seen as highly curated collections from our experts, on topics ranging from how to winterize your home, to best outdoors adventures, to eating healthy, to takeaways after a Seahawks game. We write a ton of lists for the paper and in our blogs, but they’re not easy to read. Continue reading

New project launch: Seattle Times Legislative Guide


I’m happy to announce the launch of the latest project from the Seattle Times news applications team: a guide to all Washington state lawmakers, including sponsored bill information, campaign contributions, bios, contact information and committees.

The guide is an evolution of our first-ever news app, The Seattle Times election guide that we launched in August. It uses information collected through reporting, from the Washington state legislature and Follow the Money.

Of course, it’s responsively designed, so it works fluidly across all devices. The front page lists key lawmakers and education leaders as a jumping in point for readers. Optionally they can enter a home address to see a list of lawmakers who represent them.

This is just the first iteration (second, if you count the original election guide) which we’ll continue to build out over the coming months to include a more comprehensive way of exploring bills, contributions, financial documents and more.

This app is running on the Django framework and hosted on Heroku. Congressional and legislative districts are calculated using a Washington-specific version of Django Boundary Service. Our boundary service is hosted on an Amazon EC2 instance, with static files served using Amazon S3. We’re using a custom Django template tag to pull in RSS feeds from WordPress, Tilemill for our map design, OpenStreetMap for the base and Leaflet for the browser interaction.

Huge shout out to data editor Cheryl Phillips and developer Dean Kramer for bustin’ their asses with me!

New project launch: Balance the Washington state budget


Washington state lawmakers have a big problem: The next two-year state budget faces a shortfall of up to $1.3 billion. And on top of that, the state Supreme Court has said Washington isn’t meeting its obligation to fully fund basic education. Meeting that mandate could cost an additional $500 million to $1.7 billion over the next two years, depending on whom you ask.

To help readers understand this problem and explore real options on the table for finding funding, The Seattle Times news applications team launched an interactive this week that lets our readers try their hand at balancing the state budget and increasing education funding at the same time.

Continue reading

Infographic: A look at administrative costs across community colleges


If some of California’s 72 community college districts could consolidate their bureaucracies, millions of dollars could be saved and redirected to pay for additional class sections and student services.

If some of California’s 72 community college districts could consolidate their bureaucracies, millions of dollars could be saved and redirected to pay for additional class sections and student services.

My latest infographic for California Watch shows how the California community college system spends millions on duplicative administration costs. Reporting by Erica Perez and Agustin Armendariz.


New role for me: Seattle Times’ first news applications editor

Dorky photo taken by Hannah Birch. Thanks, Hannah.

I’m honored and thrilled to announce that today is my first day in a new role at The Seattle Times: the company’s first news applications editor!

It’s no secret that this is the direction I was headed. Though I’ve been working for about a year and a half at The Times as a homepage producer, my free time and energy has been spent working on special, app-like projects. In the spring, we started a beta tools and apps team, then this summer we really kicked it into high gear with Kevin Schaul working as a news apps developer  —  proving that we need people to work on this stuff full time if we want to create quality products.

Now I get to spend every day doing what I love and what I hope will move the company in the right direction. As news apps editor, I’ll mostly be serving roles of a project manager and creative lead.  I’ll be working directly with (and learning from) designers, data enterprise editor Cheryl Phillips, news artists, engineers and the rest of the newsroom to build some awesome stuff. And keep your eyes peeled — we’ll hopefully be hiring throughout the next year to expand the team.

Here’s the announcement sent out by Eric Ulken:

Colleagues: You’ve seen her fingerprints on The Today File, our acclaimed Election Guide, our word cloud app, the local Olympian medal tracker and many other digital projects. And if you’ve been fortunate enough to work with Lauren Rabaino, you know that she has vision and creativity that match a can-do spirit and the practical ability to build cool stuff.

I’m pleased to announce that, starting today, Lauren will be focusing her talents full-time on creating compelling digital news experiences as The Seattle Times’ first news applications* editor.

In this capacity, she’ll work within the newsroom and with counterparts in design and IT to help conceive and build tools for presenting news and information in innovative ways that our increasingly sophisticated digital users are coming to expect — all with an eye toward growing audience and engagement.

Our audience isn’t standing still, so neither can we — and I’m confident Lauren won’t let us.

Please join me in congratulating her on her new role.


*What’s a news application? News applications are digital tools and platforms built for the purpose of presenting news and information or building engagement and conversation around the news. Together with the core content management system, they form framework within which information is delivered across our digital channels.

If you have any words of wisdom for me, I’d love to hear.  Charting new territory!

Thanks to everyone who helped me get here.  xoxo

On newspapers, over-branding and “blogs”

Newspapers have one brand that really matters: The centuries’-old name at the top of the masthead. Anything that falls beneath that logo is held to a high standard of credibility. Secondarily, the byline attached to each published piece can hold its own allegiances — and those bylines are also important. But I’d love to see a world where we stop with the over-branding, where we stop launching “blogs” with catchy titles and columns with fun labels.

For example, at The Seattle Times (yes, I get to pick on the Times because I work there), we have multiple labels and taglines for various bloggers and personalities: The Seattle Sketcher, The Today File, Politics Northwest, Happy Hour, Northwest Wanderings, Weekend Plus, Lit Life, ArtsPage, All You Can Eat, The Hot Stone League, The Brewery, Tails of Seattle, Nicole & Co, Names in Bold, ReelTime Fishing NW, Weather Beat, Sound Economy, Sunday Buzz, Microsoft Pri0, Take 2, Popcorn & Prejudice, Field Notes, Ed Cetera, Matson on Music. These are just a sampling of the various “brands” and voices under our media company’s umbrella.

Some of these labels are based on various CMSes that power the content.Various blogs have titles and taglines, and that’s useful for us internally when we’re trying to communicate and divide ownership. It also stems from print where various pages of the newspaper have different titles at the top so you can easily spot what you’re looking for as you flip through the pages. Continue reading

Seattle Times is a general excellence finalist for 2012 OJAs


This is an exciting day. We didn’t want to get our hopes up too high for the Online Journalism Awards because, even though we’re a smaller regional paper, we fall into the “large” category with likes of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and CNN. But lo and behold, there we are, listed as finalists alongside them for general website excellence! I am so, so proud of this team and this newsroom for all the changes we’ve brought to the site in the past year.  We’re also finalists for online commentary (in part for this video editorial by Prometheus Brown) and investigative reporting, for our Methadone investigation. Thanks to everyone in the newsroom who has contributed to our successes, and to all the other finalists. Drinks on me at ONA in San Francisco! (Just kidding. But I’ll totally give high fives).

New project launch: The Seattle Times Election Guide


How can we empower our readers to easily navigate through elections coverage and make informed decisions? It’s a question we ask every year around this time as we sift through our months of articles around people and issues leading up to November. We publish a wealth of journalism, but have no easy way of tying it all together in an easily-digestible format.  It’s a problem that we’ve never come close to solving. Until now. Continue reading

Infographic: California rethinks criminal justice

My latest infographic for the Center for Investigative Reporting / California Watch helps visualize how California’s prison realignment program has fared so far.

The 2011 Public Safety Realignment Act redirects low-level offenders from state lockups to county jails, while providing local governments with millions of dollars and broad discretion over how to spend the money to handle the felons.

A few results of realignment:

  • Overcrowding has been successfully eased in state prisons, but many counties are struggling to cope with the influx of felons
  • Six of California’s 10 most populous counties have reported rising jail populations since realignment began
  • San Francisco County, which has historically relied on alternatives to incarceration (like customized probation programs) has seen a decrease in county jail populations.
  • On the other hand, a place like Fresno County, which has no alternatives to incarceration, has seen a 32% increase in local jail populations.

You can see the full infographic here and watch the fantastic video piece here.

Tracking Washington state’s local Olympians

The latest project from our tools and apps news apps team is a local Olympian database that lets you track local athletes in London. The glorified table lets you see at a glance:

  • Day and time athletes compete (both local and London time)
  • Channel where you can watch the competition
  • Bio information about each athlete
  • Local connection for each athlete
  • Result of competition (icon changes to reflect medal earned) with link to coverage

Most of the credit for this project goes to our news apps developer intern Kevin Schaul, developer Dean Kramer and sports producer Amy Bergstrom.  My contribution was in the design/UI/vision realm.

As Kevin notes, the app is built with Django, flattened out and sent to Amazon S3 using django-bakery. It’ll be more awesome looking as results start coming in.

Infographic: Schools struggle with menus, picky kids

As a fun side project, I’ve been working with the Center for Investigative Reporting to build fun infographics to supplement investigations. This is the most recent graphic that supplemented a California Watch investigation about how school lunches are missing the mark for nutrition standards.

So, Chartbeat’s new “heads up” display is pretty awesome.


It’s a realtime heatmap of how links are performing on a landing page based on clicks. My favorite part is the display floating on the bottom right that shows you how many visitors scrolled to a certain length of the page. Chartbeat currently looking to hire awesome people, if you’re interested. (Wish we could hire them to reinvent news design).

Behind the scenes: Seattle Times news partner network

The Seattle Times News Partner Network got a nice little mention in Ken Doctor’s Nieman Lab piece about 11 reasons to be optimistic about the news business. He writes as reason No. 7:

This movement is now several years old, and in its most worthwhile forms, is beginning to form both new identities and new revenue streams for newspapers. Take The Seattle Times, which has expanded an experiment that started with five regional blogs, produced by non-staffers, and built it into a 50-blog News Partner Network. The Times pays the bloggers with recognition and traffic, currently sending about 115,000 clicks a month to partners, says Times executive editor David Boardman. The benefits to the Times are both tangible and intangible. Continue reading

Real newsroom producers vs. producers on HBO’s “The Newsroom”


The Differences Between The Newsroom And An Actual Newsroom (Thought Catalog)  - “On Newsroom, producers stop what they’re doing to have long, eloquent arguments about the state of America, journalism, and life itself. In a newsroom, producers stop what they’re doing, occasionally, to go to the bathroom. Other than that, they’re really quite busy.” Absolutely true. When I’m in the homepage producer chair, I only leave to pee, or maybe (on Saturdays) refill my coffee cup. And, yes, this is an admission that I watch Aaron’s Sorkin’s new HBO series.

First project from The Seattle Times tools & apps team: a better word cloud

Ok, ok. Before you tell me that word clouds are harmful or that most people use them ineffectively, let me start by saying that the one we built at The Seattle Times isn’t meant to be some type of comprehensive data visualization tool or a way to tell a narrative. The goal of the project was to create a reader engagement tool to easily collect and gauge reader sentiment around important issues.

We always ask people, via Twitter or Facebook, how they feel or what they think  about a topic, and we usually get pretty good answers. But we don’t do anything with that information; it falls into an abyss.  We sometimes use word clouds as a visual way of collecting and displaying reader input — but prior to the existence of our Word Cloud tool, the only way of doing that involved Google forms, which put data in a Google Spreadsheet, which we manually moderated and exported, then imported into Wordle, then changed fonts and colors, then saved as a JPEG, then manually uploaded into a blog post or story page multiple times a day (and it sure looked fugly).

Our word cloud tool — tentatively named the ‘Tude Cloud — removes all those steps. It’s a simple reader input form that validates against a few rules and a bad word API, records responses to a database, then displays them in a cloud format via jQuery and updates in realtime. It has an admin backend for Seattle Times staff to create clouds, moderate or add new bad words to our no-no list. The first project we used it on was our Recession Generation project, where we asked people how they feel about today’s job market.

Screenshot of our first usage of the word cloud tool.

Oh, and if you’re wondering: The tools and apps team at the Seattle Times is a “beta” team that consists of a producer, web designer and engineer who get a few hours a week to work on innovative tools for the newsroom. I’ve been sort of hush-hush about the launch of this new team because I wasn’t sure how long it’d be around, but now almost three months in, looks like we’re here to stay. Victory!

We’ll be open sourcing this project soon, along with a few other projects we’ve been working on . Stay tuned.

Customer service of the day award: Chartbeat

Today Chartbeat had some login problems. None of our producers or editors could log in. Our Google TV that usually displays realtime stats for the newsroom was blank. And we weren’t alone at The Seattle Times, as evidenced by mass freakout on Twitter. But Chartbeat pulled through… and also bought beer for The Seattle Times. See tweets below. Continue reading

Pre-TechRaking braindump

The concept of “measuring impact” in journalism is one that’s been on my mind a lot lately. I think about it daily in my role as a homepage producer at The Seattle Times,  it was the prompt from Greg Linch for this month’s Carnival of Journalism, and now as I prepare for tomorrow’s TechRaking conference: What’s a better metric for journalism? It’s the golden question.

I spend some of my time at The Seattle Times working as a homepage producer. This means that when I’m in the chair, it’s my job to find the best content on the site and from our partner sites (blog posts, wire stories, articles, photo galleries) to create the most interesting, diverse and useful mix on the homepage. Hundreds of pieces of content (and journalism) are being thrown my way, each vying for top real estate above the scroll.  But I only have roughly 10 spots to fill.  How I can I decide what goes where and for how long?

If I made my decisions based purely on metrics, the page would constantly be a combination of headlines about Amanda Knox and any/all sports. We don’t make editorial decisions based purely on metrics, because metrics don’t give  you the full picture. Yet, when it comes to monetizing journalism online, clicks and pageviews are the only metrics we use to make decisions. Our editorial values aren’t aligning with our business values — then we wonder why making money online is so difficult.

What we need to do is find a means of measurement that measures the impact of our journalism, empowers us to keep doing the journalism that creates said impact, and then monetize the journalism that has the most impact.

My handwritten brainstorm about quantifying impact for investigative journalism.

In the spirit of TechRaking, I’m going to focus here on investigative reporting: It’s the kind of reporting we do that has the most impact. It can lead us to public policy changes, resignation of top officials, the eventual saving of lives. The impact it has is far-reaching, but it’s not necessarily the kind of content that gets the most eyeballs. A reporter could spend years gathering data and records on a story like this, yet it’ll end up on the front page of Google News for a day or two, at absolute most, before it falls into the abyss of the web.

When I’m on the homepage or running The Seattle Times’ social channels, those investigations will get love while they’re fresh. Maybe a few days, or a week. Then we’ve moved on to the next thing. Is that OK? The purpose of this kind of journalism is to bring issues to light and create change, regardless of how many people see it, right?

A few questions worth exploring:

  • Why do we do the kinds of reporting that we think are meaningful?
  • Is the act of publishing enough?
  • What opportunities does the web provide beyond publishing and data display?
  • In reporting investigatively (i.e. the kind of reporting that has the most impact), we obviously have some kind of agenda, even if it’s a fact-based one. Do we take it too far if we become advocates?
  • Do we leave it to the public to be their own advocates?
  • Is it still considered “advocating” if we provide a platform for change?
  • What would that platform look like?

Now, to try to answer them one-by-one:

We do enterprise, investigative reporting to uncover the truth, bring about social change, reveal corruption, or make sense of mass amounts of data to reveal trends that otherwise would never be brought to light. This is the kind of reporting that could take years of someone’s life.

The act of publishing used to be the end of the story. With the web, commenting comes after publishing, and then comment threads close after 72 hours.  It shouldn’t start or end there (see Daniel Victor’s post about the reader contributions grid). Certain cases of investigative reporting require secrecy before publishing, but many types of reporting provide an opportunity to crowd source information and data. Post-publishing, we can continue engaging, which leads me to…

Do we take it too far if we have an agenda? We know that there’s an increase of methadone-related deaths in Washington state because we have the data. We know the increase in deaths is directly related to the state preferring the drug over other painkillers because of its cheap cost. We know the overdoses are accidental, not from addiction. We know deaths are more frequent in poor areas. We know this is bad and we know that publishing the facts can bring good, can bring change. We know there’s something we want to uncover. Is this an agenda? Some would say yes. Most would probably say that we let the public decide. Either way…

Can we provide our audience with a platform for seeing through the change we hoped to bring? A way to donate to a fund, or write a letter to a senator, or share the campaign on social media (think KONY 2012-esque movements, which newspapers haven’t been able to parallel). In the past, this would be something we leave for other, independent groups to take on — we’re completely unbiased, objective entities, after all. But think of the opportunities for creating an engaged community that you can steer. A community that keeps coming back to do good. A community that is well-informed and about to drive conversation around the issues you cover. A community that’s empowered.

What would that platform for empowerment look like?  Maybe something like Spot.us, where there is a specific call to action for each item, and a progress bar to show amount achieved until the change has been brought about. Maybe this aspect is led by an editorial board, making them relevant again.

And while we’re talking about UX/new functionality as a form of engagement… we should make investigations easier to digest. Walls of text are good, but with varying parts to different series, plus dumps of data and source documents and visualizations and interactives and social media and video, etc., it can sometimes be hard to just “jump into” an investigation after-the-fact. Imagine thinking beyond the 65-inch story that contains a few hyperlinks to other parts of the investigation.  A few ideas:

  • Include highlights, key findings and/or trends for investigations (idea stolen from State of the Media 2012
  • In fact, imagine if you could explore every investigation like you can explore State of the Media: as its own project, a standalone site. Not a news story shoved into a web format after-the-fact, but how you would tell a story if it were only web-based. If that was a 100-page PDF, I wouldn’t have read it all. But I delved into all elements of the State of the Media report because it was easy.
  • Each investigation is searchable — beyond the site-wide search
  • There’s an easy way of finding previous info and catching up if you missed the earlier part of a series or investigation. (If you took the standalone, project-based website approach, this is irrelevant. People just click the “home” button and can start their exploration there. No, putting it on a “project page” that links back to other various parts of the coverage is not the same thing).
  • Give people a way to “explore” beyond a list of links — let them filter down, see an overview where they can zoom in on various elements

If we want people to pay attention, show them how much time went into the journalism. It may seem like you’re tooting your own horn by doing this, but it’s a way of establishing your own credibility and the news organization’s. A few thoughts:

  • The hours spent reporting are made public and broken down to see which sources got more time than others.
  • All sources are publicly disclosed. Not just in the reporting itself with a paragraph or two about that person’s title, background, affiliation. Full profiles linked to each person’s name with previous employment, affiliations, published papers, etc.
  • All transcripts from on-the-record interviews are public, searchable
  • All raw data is public with an API for readers/general public to build their own apps/tools off if it, which the organization then republishes

And finally, just as we need to show how much time went into a series, we should also show what resulted. Newspapers sometimes write follow-up stories that reference some sort of legislation change that resulted from a particular piece of reporting, but there’s no way of integrating that back into the project as a whole as a way of showing the community our value. Imagine if, at a glance, the community could see all the change one newspaper has brought over hundreds of years, or the change that one online-only org has brought in a few years? Just one more way of getting communities to trust us.


Of course, I opened this entire post talking about how measure impact, and the items above really only address how to more accurately and effectively show impact to the people who matter most – the people who read what we publish, the people who benefit (or don’t) from that impact, the people who can become more engaged to heighten that impact.

After we accomplish that, maybe measurement will be easier to come by. And maybe then people will be more interested in paying for that kind of journalism, because its valuable, reliable, easily-digestible, and very clear to see its value. Maybe.


I know I need to do mockups of all this to bring my ideas to life, and I promise to do it soon. Maybe on the plane ride back to Seattle. But, now, sleep. See you in the morning #techraking. As always, thoughts welcomed.


//end braindump

//p.s. though I’ve referenced Seattle Times investigations in this post, these are my own, personal ramblings and don’t represent the motivations behind The Seattle Times, editors, reporters, or in fact any relation to the actual reporting we’ve done. I’ve just drawn from those examples because I am familiar with them.


Can a journalist be a capitalist? Yes.

Can a journalist be a capitalist? It’s the question asked by Michael Rosenblum as he describes the current state of the journalist:

We are the perpetual groveling employees, beggaring for a few crumbs and generally seeing our jobs and incomes slashed as the web and new digital technologies roll over the old.

And why is that? Why are we such schmucks?

It’s in our nature.  It’s in the image that we have made for ourselves.

It’s true. They don’t teach us how to make money in journalism school. That was what they taught business and advertising students. We’ve always been spoiled in that way — we provide the content and the other side of the company (you know, those people on the eighth floor that we don’t ever talk to), they’ll make sure we get a paycheck.

I’ve always had this theory about business people, though (sorry business people; you can contradict me if I’m wrong). I first observed it in college when business students handled advertising at The Mustang Daily, my college paper. They didn’t care about advertising on the web and they didn’t care about finding innovative revenue solutions because newspapers weren’t at the heart of their industry, their training, or their passion — it was a small subset. These students were going to leave college and work at tech companies, non-profits or other businesses — probably not newspapers.  They will always be able to find jobs in other fields, and, if newspapers go away, that’s only one small part of their entire industry.

(Interjection — small, unscientific survey: Of the business staff that I knew from my college newspaper, none of them are working at newspapers or anything related to the news industry today.  Of those that I could find online via Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, these are the places they work: Box.netSayNoMore! PromotionsBon Voyage TravelTriage Consulting Group, Bridge Design, News America Marketing, Merge Healthcare, The Shand Group, Cal Poly University, Target).

From a career perspective, it doesn’t matter to business students whether journalism flourishes or fades away. But for journalists, this is what we do. This is our lives. We have more invested in the survival of journalism. This is our future at stake, and, more importantly,  society’s — the future of free-flowing information, watchdog reporting, and democracy. If we want high-quality journalism to stick around, we have to take it into our own hands to figure out innovative ways to support it.

The reason journalists are “perpetual groveling employees, beggaring for a few crumbs,” as Rosenblum describes it, is because of our oath to objectivity. Once we start thinking about money, our pure motives for obtaining truth at all costs are suddenly obliterated. The aura of unbaisedness surrounding the work we do becomes murky when we try to sell it, because we’re no longer thinking about the better good, but our individual (and the industry’s collective) good. Right? Right?!

Wrong. Because once you’re unable to sell it, there’s something inherently wrong with how you’re doing it. That burden falls on the content producers (journalists), not the content sellers (advertising). Once we have our act together, they can monetize it more effectively.  Journalists are the ones who know the content and the readers. We are the ones with access to the information and data and public records. We are the ones who have to think outside the box, first and foremost.

No offense fellow journalists, but we don’t exactly have track records for being innovative thinkers when it comes to content. We’re creatures of habit, filing our 26 inches of copy and calling it a night. It’s naive and irresponsible for anyone in any newsroom to not be thinking about how we can make money from our content.  To create content that is sellable is to create content that is valuable and relevant.

So far, I’ve addressed journalists working at newspapers. You can’t blame me — I work at one; it’s my frame of context. There’s a big difference between whether we should be actively thinking like capitalists, and whether our cultures invite it. When you’re at a newspaper, your ability to truly think like a capitalist is severely limited by the bureaucracy and tradition surrounding a newspaper — there is a whole other department hired to think about that, and what do journalists know about money, anyway? Quite honestly, a journalist in the newsroom probably won’t have much of an effect on how business works. So what they can do is create unique, useable content that can be “sold” in a different way on the web. Simple examples: sponsored live chats or event/issue dashboards, unique video with preroll, data visualizations that can be sponsored and advertised.  It also has to go beyond content types — journalists need to think about how they find stories, tell stories and distribute stories, and how that impacts value.

When I say “value,” I’m not talking about wraping your content in ads; display advertising isn’t nearly radical enough, especially the way that most newspapers do it (see screenshot to the right — you really can’t miss it). That’s why working outside of traditional media is probably the best way to truly think as a capitalist, though I must admit (perhaps naively) that I still have hope that I can do it at a newspaper. Places like Spot.us (disclosure: I worked with them) or places like, dare I say it, Patch, are good examples of thinking outside the box outside of a traditional newsroom.

Ideally, I’d like to see a world where business and journalism aren’t so far separated. We already have hybrid teams of hacker-journlalists forming at places like The New York Times and The LA Times and The Chicago Tribune. It’s a concept that didn’t exist a few years ago — there were journalists and IT people, but not hackery people doing journalism. Why can’t it be like that with business? Jarvis is on the right track with teaching entrepreneurial journalism, but I haven’t seen traditional newsrooms forming business-journalism teams where businesspeople who get journalism have the final say on creating innovative, effective solutions that are integrated into the entire workflow, process, and mindset of how journalists do their jobs.

So, can a journalist can be a capitalist?

  1. Yes, even though the traditional structure of legacy media doesn’t openly welcome or encourage it.
  2. Yes, if we care about the future of open information and democracy.
  3. Yes, because we’re positioned to do it best, as we’re the ones who know the content and the readers — something hard to initiate, as we haven’t been trained to innovate or make money.

Things I would have like to touch more on in this post:

  • Back to the basics: How are we defining “journalist” in this context?
  • How can we create hybrid teams in our newsrooms — similar to the hacker-journo, but in the realm of business/innovation-journo? What are the benefits and would it work?
  • Does thinking about money really make us non-objective?
  • Who is doing it right/wrong? Who can we learn from?
  • How ingraining technology and the web into the culture of the newsroom will give journalists more ideas and inspiration for pursuing more creative and effective content on the web.

As always, your thoughts and criticism are welcomed.

It’s about more than how much our ads cost.


Why can’t newspapers make money online? (Mashable) - So, they’ve got it all figured out? “The bottom line is this: the reason that newspapers can’t make money is because they’re pricing themselves out of the market.” It’s a lot more complicated than that. I like what Paul K. Ward says in the comments of the article: “Newspapers and other information outlets shouldn’t be setting sights on paying their costs, they should be focused instead on creating demand for what they offer at a profit. ” There are so many problems with the way many newspapers present and distribute news online that makes it less desirable than other outlets. And the fact that we’re still calling ourselves “newspapers” is problematic too. If that’s what we identify as, that’s what we prioritize, and the web will always be an afterthought. We are media companies. We have websites and newspapers. And we need to think creatively about the future of both. Create unique demand for our content online, then you can charge for it.

Just initiated the first of many changes to my “personal branding”

I hate going to conferences or speaking to classes and getting the question, “So, is ‘Michell’ your maiden name?” No, actually. It’s my middle name (pronounced ‘Michelle’) and I was stupid to start using that for my global username from the start. So I just changed my Twitter handle to @laurenrabaino. Yes, it’s a few characters longer, but it’s something I’ve needed to do.

The quick back story: I started using “laurenmichell” as a username for various accounts in high school, back when it wasn’t quite cool to use your first + last name. It was a middle ground between anonymity and true identity, and the spelling of my middle name is unique enough that I was able to grab that handle (mostly) everywhere.  After using it for a few years, I’ve been scared to change it.  Continue reading

AAJA Seattle gets a facelift

As the newly-elected VP of Programs for the Seattle chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association, my first order of business was, naturally, a website redesign – freshly launched this morning. It was a quickie makeover that I will probably improve over time. With the redesign, we’ll also be posting more items to the blog. We already have two fresh items from our Seattle members, including a defense of student-journos at WWU and a callout to “backpack journalists.”

Being involved with AAJA is a reality check for me because I’ve always been involved in circles like ONA and Hacks/Hackers — very distinct tech circles of the journalism community. This is the first time I’m involved with an organization more representative of the actual tech skills that everyday journalists have. It’s been fun teaching them about blogging and sharing my philosophies on social media, web journalism, etc. In my role as VP of Programs, I plan to host workshops and training for basic tech skills, even though that’s slightly out of the scope of the role. My main responsibilities lie in organization and promotion around student scholarships.

AAJA Before

AAJA After


Rutledge’s NYT “design redux” gets real


WooThemes launches theme based on Rutledge’s redux - I wrote in July about Andy Rutledge’s design redux getting slammed by journo-tweeters after he wrote a scathing post (which has since been deleted from the web) about news design. While many of his points were spot-on, it was frustrating for those of us at newspapers who know there are a lot more politics and technical integration issues that go into website design than meet the eye. This week, though, premium WordPress theme developers at WooThemes launched Currents, a WordPress news theme based almost exactly of Rutledge’s initial design. Worth checking out.

Behind the scenes of Seattle Times’ new WordPress blog, The Today File

This week marks my fifth month at The Seattle Times, a perfect time for an update about what I’ve been up to. Almost since the minute I walked in the door, Eric Ulken has had me working on an unprecedented project for our newsroom — a WordPress blog.

So here I bring you, The Today File. We soft launched the blog two weeks ago and are now regularly linking to it from the homepage. The slideshow below is the presentation I gave to editors and reporters.

Continue reading

On open news budgets


Making Your News Budget Public: How And Why – I feel like I’ve been talking about open news for years and years. Back then, I referred to it as “making your editorial calendar public,” but now that I’m an old fart in a newsroom, I say “open your news budget.” Same diff. My latest post at 10,000 Words outlines examples of a few news orgs who are actually doing it – finally. Some use Facebook, others use Twitter, some are writing straight-up blog posts and others are using Google Spreadsheets. More later today on how The Seattle Times is approaching this concept.

On deciding to dedicate time to a new storytelling tool

Tools come and go. We blog about them all the time as they crop up. We poke around, make accounts that quickly expire. We wait for platforms to fall out of beta, but forget about them by the time they go public. We claim that some tools are the “future of [fill in the blank]” or the next “[social media tool A] meets [social media tool B].” So how do you decide which ones are worth your newsroom’s time? These are a few of my thought processes. Continue reading

The future of video in online journalism

Predicting the future of anything is tough, especially in online journalism and certainly when it comes to video. I remember a time when multimedia” was everything at conferences and in j-school classrooms. Those days faded and were replaced with “social media.” Now it’s all about data and applications.

My point is that discussion about the “future” of online video has really faded into the background in forward-thinking journalism circles. I certainly don’t know what that future looks like, but as both a consumer and producer, I can make a few guesses based on my personal expectations.  Continue reading

Inside the Seattle Times’ basement

This morning I ventured into the Seattle Times “press room,” which I expected to be a room for press conferences. But, nope. It was the other kind of press room, where they actually printed the paper years ago. The whole experience was like entering a time capsule back to 1994. Everything was untouched, as though everyone got up and left, never to look back.

There was still ink in the canisters and open log books with pens sitting atop. There were even coats and gloves in the lockers. An eerie place.

It’s so strange that an entire floor of a building with levels of heavy machinery and dozens of workers was required to publish a piece of content, and today all I have to do is click a pretty blue button.