The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Dec 10, 2013

Global Editors Network: Six lessons from the Editors Lab Hackdays

Posted by Antoine Laurent

Knight Foundation supports the Global Editors Network, a nonprofit that empowers newsroom leaders to innovate, to demonstrate the value of data journalism. Below, Deputy Director Antoine Laurent writes about the network’s experience hosting “hackdays” to develop new newsroom content and tools around the world. Above: Editor's Lab Ria Novosti Hackday in Moscow.

Over the past 12 months, the Global Editors Network visited newsrooms all over the world to organize journalism hackdays where teams of journalists, designers and developers have competed in the development of innovative journalism tools, content and apps. This program of hackdays, called Editors Lab, took us from The New York Times to India Today, via Zeit Online in Berlin, NOS in Holland, Clarin in Argentina and many others. It’s been an incredible trip around different journalistic cultures. Here are some of our key takeaways:

1. There were few differences in journalism cultures.
As surprising as it might seem, cultural differences do not matter that much when it comes to journalism hackdays: When you travel to newsrooms around the world you find the same types participating in the events and creating content together: newspeople, looking for informative and innovative content. It’s the same for the standards in journalism graphic design and Web development; we found good journalists, developers and graphic designers everywhere. Even in countries where we were organizing the first journalism hackdays—at India Today and the Egypt Media Development Program—good teams produced quality projects. Still, a few things were different.

2. Product management is key.
The most technologically advanced countries and newsrooms we visited for hackdays were not always the most innovative. Innovation and success rely more on idea selection, brainstorming, time management and product management skills within the teams. Finding the right balance between editorial content, design and code is not easy, and the most valuable skill is to innovate well and quickly. We found very good product management skills in South Africa during Editors Lab Cape Town, in Moscow at Ria Novosti and in the United States during Editors Lab New York City.

3. In-house interactive news teams rule.
We have noticed two different ways of running interactive projects. The first one: Small interactive studios inside newsrooms quickly and regularly produce interactive journalism pieces that follow the hectic pace of daily news. These types of teams perform well during hackdays, and we saw many all-star news apps teams in Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, representing newsrooms such as the BBC, Deutsche Welle, Digital First Media, The Guardian, NPR, ProPublica, The Texas Tribune, Süddeutsche Zeitung and Zeit Online. The level of interactive news and data journalism production in these countries reflected the quality of the teams; they clearly lead the pack in regularly producing exceptional pieces.

4. External agencies work too, but mostly for one-shot projects.
In other countries, such as France, Italy and the Netherlands, many media houses work with external interactive news agencies. This does not mean that the content is not as good or as innovative; it is actually excellent, as shown by the work of FomicaBluAskMediaEffecinqueWe Do DataJournalism++ and others. But that makes it more difficult for these media organizations to react quickly to breaking news and to regularly produce interactive news pieces. It is also more complicated for them to participate in hackdays, as they prefer to book their developers and designers to work on real projects rather than on contests or events. Outside of hackdays, they work more easily on one-shot projects.

5. There were many women participants.
This was not really a surprise for us, but some people were convinced women would be absent from the hackdays. The majority of participants are men, but, overall, one third of the hackers in our hackdays are women. This means at least one woman per team, and a women’s-only team won the hackdays in Cape Town South Africa. So, there is still a lot to do, but the situation is not that bad.

6. In-house news apps teams are assets.
Media organizations that start hiring and building teams of interactive news specialists early on, even very small teams of one or two news apps developers, quickly gain a big advantage on others. Usually, the team naturally grows and grows, and hopefully one day, as Gabriel Dance, interactive editor for The Guardian US says, we will “drop some of the prefixes and leave it as 'reporter' or 'journalist.'

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