Lessons from Verge's hack week

The morning after Nilay became Verge's editor in chief, I got a phone call from him telling me that he wanted to do a hack week. "That's a great idea, let's do it!" I said, agreeing to a thing that I thought would happen in a few months, after much planning and scheming.


"Let's do it next Monday," was Nilay's original suggestion. We pushed it out a week from there, hosting a hack week from Aug.18-22.

Me and Nilay at Hack Week kickoff. Photo by Thomas Ricker. 

Lesson 1: Not planning can be a good thing

The hack weeks I've personally organized in the past have been very meticulously planned out, much like product team's Vax was. People submit ideas, they do a bunch of upfront work, there's sometimes a theme and predefined teams. And that works for certain types of events. What I never anticipated was that it would also work to not plan.

We did this a week after the idea came about. By not having a strict set of projects lined up and set teams, ideas were able to naturally arise and editorial-product collaborations could happen more organically. We ended up hacking on a per-story basis, rather than the overall systems. 

Lesson 2: Ok, but a little bit of planning is also good

That all said, we did make sure to have a few tools lined up (all 100% stolen from Yuri) to get people's brains turning about what's possible. The Wednesday before Hack Week, I set up a little dashboard that included links to all the tools, docs on how to use them, and other resources relevant to getting hack week started. This ensured that we could have a few items ready to go on Day 1, since we were playing out our hack week in real time, in public.

Lesson 3: It's about more than hacking on technology

We were hacking on content and on culture and on relationships. It was under this premise that we were able to get away with less planning. People who had never interacted were talking to each other. Editorial got insight into what makes a good product, and product got insight into what's important editorially. We were able to peek at each other's workflows and ask each other questions.

Takeaways and planning your own hack week

  • Make sure someone from each discipline is involved. I mistakenly totally forgot about including designers the first time around (apart from the interns) and we would have struggled and failed without them. 
  • Make sure to secure actual, physical space. On day 1, we ended up making a mini product room outside of the product room because there wasn't anywhere to sit, and more importantly, there was nowhere to plug in our dying laptops. By day two, we had cleared out space in the main newsroom to sit with plenty of outlet real estate. 
  • If you're not going to plan, do a daily scrum. Without people working on dedicated projects, it quickly became easy to lose track of who is working on what and easy to not set and meet goals. Doing a daily scrum helps you achieve this. Hell, I'd throw in an afternoon checkin as well, since the pace of work is much quicker.

More reading about our hack week:

What I've been up to since moving to New York

It's August, meaning I've been in New York and at Vox Media for almost eight months now. It's been crazy and energizing and a ton of fun. Here are some things I've worked on and what's next for me.

What I've been working on

Product manager is a new role for me. I've done very similar things in past roles, but this is the first time my sole focus has been solely on seeing a product through and making sure it succeeds. It's super refreshing to have so much focus, and I'm 100% sure I was made to be a product manager. It's a role I love and keep learning more and more about. 

In addition to launching two bigger projects, an email newsletter and new series called This Is My Next, I've been working with engineers to make many small product improvements. My role as Verge's PM means I manage the entire site as a product, and am in charge of its backlog. We've added cool behind-the-scenes product improvements like:

  • Changing the behavior of our linksets at the bottom of each article to have more granular control of which "read these next" links display where and when.
  • Added video support to our end-of-page linksets.
  • Added the option for "promo headlines" to the site, empowering editors to have a different headline at the homepage level than other spots on the site where a headline might appear standalone, without other contextual details of the story page. 
  • Changed the "trending now" bar on The Verge from being updated manually to being powered by realtime analytics data
  • Ongoing project to responsify The Verge, which will launch by the fall. 

In addition to managing the backlog, we've also worked with the newsroom to build out cool storytelling features:

When I started with Vox Media, we had dedicated product teams on each vertical, which is how we were able to build some of the features referenced above. But a few months ago, all of the product managers got together and did an inventory of the kind of work we were doing and the amount of time we were spending on art-directed storytelling, and we reassessed that structure. Which leads me to...

What I'm up to next: Editorial Apps Team!

About a month ago, I started product managing a new team, called the Editorial Apps team.  Ryan Mark, who just started at Vox about two months ago from The Chicago Tribune, is leading us from the engineering side. We have a crazy strong team, which consists of:

Apps team at Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia writing our team manifesto, June 2014. 

Our team works with reporters and editors to tell stories on the web in impactful, innovative and engaging ways. In the day-to-day, we participate in art direction and presentation of stories, editorial planning and analysis of data. Through our work, we'll focus on big-picture thinking and experimenting around how Vox Media continues to evolve its storytelling. But a key to all this is that we'll develop software and processes and provide training to support, streamline and scale the most successful of these endeavors.

And of course, we maintain close communication with video, sales, Vox Creative and the ad products team to ensure that editorial work drives revenue.

Specifically, we'll focus on these areas:


Light art direction, code reviews, training, photos sourcing and treatment, and other light production work. High-touch graphics, illustrations, logos,  interactive visualizations and other experiences that can engage our readership beyond what is possible with text alone.


Assisting reporters in retrieving, managing and analyzing data necessary in the course of their work. Building relationships with reporters and help them find interesting stories in datasets. We want to build data products that are told accurately and ethically, but also beautifully and scalably. 


Collaborate with editors and reporters to find ways to involve readers in the reporting and story generation process, not just at the point of publish. 


Through participation in both the day-to-day and long term collaboration on news generation, reporting and presentation, we'll identify ways to automate common tasks and templatize common designs, processes and frameworks. The software will be made available to everyone in the organization, thoroughly documented and open-sourced as much as possible.

Processes, Communication and Training

The team will continue to iterate on its process and keep up-to-date documentation that will be accessible to the entire organization. We plan to provide tools and training to editors and reporters to make them more efficient and self-reliant. The team will host quarterly show-and-tells in New York and DC to share interesting projects, inspire reporters and editors and provide a forum to surface ideas and spark collaboration (we just had our first one last week!).

I'll keep you updated on this work as the team progresses. These first few months, we're doing a lot of cleaning up and standardizing on templates and processes to make the initiation, build and deploy of projects way better. You can see a few examples of small data things we've worked on here and here, but keep an eye out for some bigger projects we have cooking. 

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. 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.

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 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.



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.