Journalism or technology? The Post’s techy experiments

Friday 13 July 2012, 12:49

Charles Miller Charles Miller edits the College of Journalism blog and produces documentaries for the BBC Money Programme. Twitter: @chblm

We were in a stuffy conference room off London’s Victoria Street but if you drifted off you might have dreamt you were in Silicon Valley listening to some well-worn techie truisms:

“We’re always in beta.”

“We’re busy, but we’re definitely shipping.”

“Roadmaps are cooked out for the next year and-a-half.”

“We’ll keep iterating.”

The speaker was Cory Haik, who had flown in from the States, but from the east coast – and the world of journalism, not technology.  

She’s executive producer for digital news at the Washington Post, and this was the first session of the News Rewired (#newsrw) conference held at Microsoft’s London office.

Haik was talking about the Post’s many online initiatives. Any doubts that jargon was a substitute for action were dispelled by her mind-blowing audio-visual presentation. My learned friend Myles Runham tells me it used Prezi.com, but it was the content as well as the style that impressed. 

Here are a few of the Post’s projects:

- @mentionmachine: a Twitter analysis tool developed by the Post to allow monitoring of names in tweets - for instance, changing interest in President Obama after he’s made a controversial comment

- The Washington Post social reader: a free Facebook app that shows your friends what you are reading on the Post’s website, and let’s you see what they’ve looked at. Potentially troublesome, but it’s had an incredible 28 million downloads since it was launched less than a year ago

- The White House visitors log: which takes publicly available data about who visited who at the White House, when and for how long, and what the President was up to at the time

- The Post’s Politics iPad app: an unbelievably comprehensive guide now focused on the presidential election (e.g. who won each state in every election in the whole of US history – surprisingly popular, Haik said).

Haik admitted that the approach to all this is experimental. The kind of person she looks for in her team, while needing to think “journalism first”, needs to be able to “speak the developers’ language” (see above).

It wasn’t clear how many – if any – of the projects can be justified in business terms. In the Q&A, Haik’s shortest answer was to the straightforward question “what’s your business model?” The question actually got a laugh from the audience – but it wasn’t clear if that was because it was so obviously unanswered so far or because it’s the kind of dumb question only asked by someone who doesn’t ‘get it’ in the world of digital journalism.

Haik smiled indulgently: “None of this is behind a paywall.” Engagement is its own reward: “We like your eyeballs.”

You had to be impressed with the ideas and their execution, even if in some cases they had been taken to an almost comic level: I’m thinking of the graphical presentation of the shifting education policy positions of presidential candidates, placing them along an axis between state and federal responsibility over time. It was for those who hadn’t got time to read the policies, Haik explained.

Like a start-up adapting a product and putting it out there, Haik’s team learns what works and what doesn’t. If the business question remains unanswered, the philosophy is clear:

“You have to think big even when you’re doing something narrow.”

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