The three profiles of a digital news team

By on June 8, 2015

This is one of a series of blog posts from the fourth ONA class of MJ Bear Fellows, three journalists under 30 who are expanding the boundaries of digital news. Fellow Aaron Williams is data visualization editor at the San Francisco ChronicleApply for the 2015 fellowship here.

Photo by Flickr user Graham Holliday.

Over the last decade, as newsrooms across the world have embraced a shift to a digital-first focus, many organizations have experimented with the structure of their digital teams. It seems for every success there is another tech challenge on the horizon to consider, such as the Apple Watch and at-a-glance journalism.

In this ever-changing world, it’s smart to think strategically about the roles digital teams take on across newsrooms. I’ve settled on three profiles that the best digital teams often have: research and development (R&D), news apps and tech. My hope is to provide a smart framework for thinking about how your newsrooms can create the most focused and compelling digital content and products.

Research and development

Journalism is a ripe laboratory for analytics, and many newsrooms have tapped into the data their staff generates. The R&D team utilizes this plethora of information. The team emphasizes rapid prototyping and creates tools that may not describe how we interact with information today, but how we might tomorrow. For example, this team might create something like streamtools, a graphical tool from The New York Times R&D lab that provides ways to interact with streaming data from various sources. This team may or may not work within the editorial structure of the newsroom and can be made up of computer scientists, artists, economists and other folks who haven’t historically worked as journalists.

News apps (and sometimes data) team

There’s been greater pressure for newsrooms to create big, multimedia projects since The Story That Shall Not Be Named debuted. The web is a rich environment to create stories that go beyond pasting text, videos and photos into a CMS. The news apps team makes it happen. These folks often have journalism and programming experience (but not always), and use their web development and editorial skills to create vivid, interactive stories. This team often works with the day-to-day operations of a newsroom and is a component of the editorial body. This team may also have a data reporter. NPR’s visuals team and the Texas Tribune news apps team come to mind.

Tech Team

That newsroom iOS app isn’t going to build itself. And what about adding that breaking news ticker to the CMS? This is where the tech team steps in. Newsrooms have technical requests that go beyond stories that need to be addressed. These can be tasks like crafting a better newsletter template or leading the redesign of a news site. I consider this team as product and brand focused. You’ll find these folks working alongside marketing and often resemble a traditional software development team. They rarely work within the editorial process.

What team should you build?

So, should every newsroom create separate teams for each profile? Sure, if you have the resources.

Far too often, though, newsrooms hire a news apps developer to build interactive graphics and then have her redesign the daily email blast. Just because she can doesn’t mean she should.

On the other hand, newsrooms only have so many resources, and re-designing a daily email blast may make sense given the multidisciplinary nature of these teams. In this case, I think it’s smart to treat these profiles as seasons that shift based on newsroom priority. Think about the role of the digital team and provide clear tasks that ensure success. Rather than task a team to do all of the above, stick to one to two profiles with clear roles and focus on those.

With a flexible approach and focused use of your digital news teams, they should create valuable tools for both your colleagues and your news community.

Fellow Aaron Williams is data visualization editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, specializing in front-end development, data collection and online graphics. He previously worked as a news applications developer for the Center for Investigative Reporting, as well as The Los Angeles Times entertainment desk as a Web producer where he built tools to optimize and enhance the team workflow. Aaron graduated from San Francisco State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.