We like to iterate a lot at Vox Media. Not just on our software and our content, but also on our internal team structure. I started in January 2014 as the Product Manager for The Verge, and in mid-July 2015, I stopped doing that and joined forces with a freshly-hired Ryan Mark to start a new group, the Vox Product Editorial Apps team.
In creating the apps team, we were looking to solve for silos of work happening across all our media brands, which had dedicated storytelling designers and developers building out different solutions to solve the same problems. We brought those teams into a smaller, centralized team to work on standardizing and scaling our products. In January 2015, we further evolved the Editorial Apps group, and created a new group called Editorial Products, broken into three themes — editorial apps, embedded data and design, and platform editorial tools.
I am incredibly excited about where this team has gone and how much we've done in a year. Our output of work has been so fast and so frequent that I haven't had time to properly document what we've done, this consider this my State of Editorial Products report, a recap of some of the best work the team has done in the past year.
Please note, this report is about the Editorial Products team that I help oversee, not the product team as whole, or any of our other very important groups.
- We grew from a team of 5 to a team of 18, including all of our embedded hires.
- We've written more than 48 pages of internal documents about our processes and best practices, not including all the wiki pages in Github.
- We've worked on 311 projects. I'm counting projects here as anything that got a Trello card on my board. Things range from documentation, to building out quick graphics, to working on multi-month projects with newsroom teams.
- We've open sourced 7 projects.
We've published about 50 big editorial apps, all of which I will not recap here. These are examples of a few of the big ones for each of our media brands.
Interactives and data
Part of what our team does is serve as an art department for Vox Media. Our stellar illustrators Dylan Lathrop and Brittany Holloway-Brown are to thank for all of these.
As you can tell from some of the work above, a lot of what we do on this team is take a project we did for one site, then redo it with different information or content or art or data for another site. So we've done a lot of work on our Middleman Rig to reduce redundancy.
Our biggest project was the release of Autotune, which deserves its own post about how amazing it is. We built this application to address the problem of reusability in our work. This project is open source and available to everyone. Ryan Mark says it best:
As any news hacker knows, one of the most challenging requests we get is for "more of those things." We'll make a neat chart, visualization or map, which sees some success: our readers or reporters like it or maybe it helps tell a better story. You better believe other folks will come around asking for "one of those charts like on that one story."
One of the most difficult messages to communicate to our non-developer colleagues is how tricky "reusability" is. The common misconception is that once software is built, it can be reused. In reality, software is almost always built to accomplish a specific task in a specific context with no thought to how it might be reused.
It may sound as if this is a problem, a lack of foresight or a rookie mistake, but it is not. It is almost always a mistake to attempt to build reusable software from the start without taking the time to understand how it will be used and why. Working under deadline, building something for a specific story, is the worst time to try to anticipate how the code will be used in the future.
The goal of Autotune is to shorten the gap between building a one-off website or interactive graphic and building a reusable tool for generating many things.
We've come a long way with how we get things done on the team. Taking project requests from seven different newsrooms isn't easy. Through our team structure and process, we're being very deliberate about enforcing a product lifecycle that lets us continue to innovate, while making sure we institutionalize the successes — building once for use, and rebuilding for reuse.
You can read more about how we're doing this on the Vox Product Blog, though it shouldn't be surprising to hear that we're about to change this all up again, now that we've grown to a nearly 20-person team.
That's where we're at with the Editorial Products group at Vox Media after nearly a year of existing in varied structures. This is just an overview of what we've done in the past year. We've learned a lot about how to make this work scale even better, and I hope to share more about our findings and experiments in Q3 and Q4.