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March 11, 2015

Filed under: journalism»new_media

Template Trouble

About nine months ago, I made the first check-in on the Seattle Times news app template. Since that time, it's been at the heart of pretty much everything we've done at the Times, ranging from big investigative projects to Super Bowl coverage to dog name analysis. We've adapted it to form the basis of our web component stack, and made a version that automates Leaflet map creation. It's been a pretty great tool, used by news apps developers, producers, and graphics team members alike.

That said, I think in digital journalism we often talk in glowing terms about our tools, but we don't nearly as often discuss the downsides they possess. So let's be honest with ourselves: I love this scaffolding, but it's not perfect. It has issues. And I think those issues say interesting things about not only the template itself, but also newsroom culture, and the challenges of creating tools that can operate there.

  • The templating situation can be confusing. Since it's all JavaScript, it's sometimes hard for scaffolding users to keep track of what's running during the build, and what will run on the client. Generally, we use a different library in each scenario (Lo-Dash during builds, ICanHaz or DoT in the browser), but it can still be odd for people who are used to a language split — and worse for those who have little or no programming experience.
  • Deployment could be better. This really has less to do with our scaffold, and more to do with the environment in which it operates. We don't have great CMS integration, because the hooks don't exist. And we have to keep credentials in a separate file (which isn't checked into Git), because many of users can't update environment variables on their own machines. We're also still trying to figure out what we check into Git: should Google Sheets go in there? What about their ID numbers?
  • It was great when the paper launched its new responsive site last month, because it meant we finally have reasonable default styles. The news app scaffolding has previously left these up to the project authors, and the result is that we're not nearly consistent enough. I think we have a fine line to walk between "build everything in" and "provide flexibility" — what's good for the main site may not be good for us.
  • Along those same lines, the new CMS offers us a better, responsive layout, but it also took away a lot of flexibility. The result is that we're probably overusing the news app template to compensate. While I think it's great that we have a place for generating unconventional pages, I'm not wild about effectively creating a parallel content system on S3 whenever we need a small amount of control over the page.
  • Old apps are locked to old dependencies. Like any good Node package, we load dependencies for the news app template on a per-project basis. But I've been tinkering with this framework for 8 months now, and several things have changed radically (most notably, a switch from RequireJS to Browserify). Stepping back into old projects often requires a bit of code archaeology to figure out where everything used to live.

What are the common threads here? While you could point to the static page approach as being part of the issue, I actually think what causes a lot of these problems is that the intended audience for the news app template is both broad and narrow. It's broad in that its users range from novice journalists to experienced developers (and, indirectly, non-technical editors and reporters feeding data into Google Sheets). It's narrow in that the actual production still requires a high level of technical comfort: familiarity with the command line, new kinds of tooling, and some ability to roll with unexpected bugs.

This is a tough, and self-contradictory, audience for a visualization toolkit. It's not, however, out of character for a general-purpose dev framework. And indeed, when we talk about app scaffolds from any news organization (not just The Seattle Times), that's what they are. They're written to be fast, to be portable, and to generate static files, because those are our priorities as deadline-driven journalists. They are also the far end of a range of newsroom tools, where news apps are at one end and pre-built widgets live on the other. I'm not really worried about where the template lives on that range, and I'm certainly not planning on reducing the complexity — I think it's at a sweet spot right now. But I do worry about the ways that it (and our CMS) fit into newsroom culture.

At the Times, like in many newsrooms, the online presence is largely run by "producers," who curate the stories on the home page and handle the print-to-digital transition process (it's not the same as a "producer" in software development). This process is complicated and highly-skilled, because news CMS systems are generally terrible. The web production staff also often work on projects that would, in print, fall under page design: building complex HTML presentations for special stories. This isn't because they're trained designers: producers are often younger, and while it's not entry-level work, it's close. They end up doing this work because trained, HTML-fluent designers are rare, and because nobody else in the newsroom bothers to learn web design.

As a result, we end up in a funny situation: the only people in the newsroom who really understand the web are the producers. Editors and reporters are discouraged from becoming more technically savvy because the workflow is print-first, and the CMS is so intimidating. Meanwhile, producers rarely become editors or reporters because the newsroom can't afford to lose their skills. There's a tremendous gap in newsroom culture between people who produce the content, and people who actually understand the medium in which that content is consumed. While the tooling is not entirely responsible for that, it is a contributing factor.

I think the challenge we face, as newsroom developers, is to be always aware and vigilant of that gap and its causes. Tools like the news app template are important, because they speed up our work, and the work of other technical people. But they don't mitigate the need for better, web-first publishing systems — something that can help diffuse web thinking from a producer-only skill to something that's available throughout the newsroom.

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