A developer’s advice: Dream big, but be realistic

Apr 17 2013

The mission of the Reese News Lab, as stated here on reesenews.org, is “to push past the boundaries of media today, refine best practices and embrace the risks of experimentation.”

When you work in a newsroom focused on producing innovative content and taking risks with experimental storytelling, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll be surrounded by journalists who thrive on brainstorming and the free flow of ideas. Reese News Lab is no exception. Almost every time I’m in the news lab, I catch myself jumping head first into an impromptu brainstorm whatever staffers happen to be sitting in the vicinity, dreaming up all the cool, new things we could possibly produce.

I love these discussions. We’ve actually come up with some of our better ideas in these random talks in the newsroom. In fact, the idea for the North Carolina budget tool I’ve been working on came into fruition when a random professor from the School popped in on a nearly empty Friday afternoon to say hi – one mention of the budget data during a brief conversation with him and two hours later, we were taping a paper mock up of a possible budget tool to the dry erase board and inviting every passing student to play with it. We also started having “blank hours” this semester to give a structured space to discussions like these (we fill in the “blank” with a word describing what we learned or discussed in the hour).

However, for every productive brainstorm we have, we have at least 20 others that don’t result in much. We come up with a lot of really unique and innovative ideas that get us momentarily excited, but never make it past the “we should totally build that!” stage of conversation. As a graduating senior closing in on my last few weeks in the news lab, I’m realizing how many of these projects we were once so excited about never made it out of the brainstorm. Even some of the projects that made past discussion and into the stages of planning and execution were never finished or published.

As a developer for the news lab, this is frustrating and disappointing. I get really excited when we have these brainstorms because we come up with a lot of great ideas, but simply don’t have the people power to execute half of them, much less all of them. Most of these ideas require a lot of effort from the programming and design side of the newsroom, but when you only have two developers and one designer (all three of which are full-time students who work only 10-15 hours a week in the lab) it’s hard to produce a lot of large-scale interactive projects. I feel like when I graduate and leave the news lab, I’ll be leaving behind a lot of undone projects and unfulfilled ideas. There are a lot of projects I wanted to complete and simply couldn’t because there wasn’t enough time or hours to get them done.

Honestly, I’m getting jaded and burned out when it comes to brainstorming and new ideas. I cringe a little inside every time I get an email with “So, I have this really cool idea…” in the subject line, and I get a lot of those.

Don’t get me wrong – big ideas and brainstorming sessions are the driving force behind innovation. We wouldn’t have produced awesome tools like the Roll Call, our vote-tracking application, without them. However, ideas aren’t everything, they’re just the start – execution is just as important. When approaching innovation and experimentation, it’s important to be realistic about what your newsroom is capable of producing and what resources you have to expend. This has been one of the more difficult things I’ve had to learn this semester in the news lab. Idea people are great colleagues to have in a newsroom, but for every idea person you have on a project, you have to have someone thinking practically about the details of execution to keep brainstorming in check and the ideas (somewhat) realistic.

At Reese, we’re all about working in teams. One of the little sayings we frequently toss around is that if you’re working by yourself, you’re doing it wrong. I believe teams with a diverse array of members, ranging from reporters to developers to designers to data gurus, are the way digital newsrooms should be structured. Diverse teams work really well when it comes to creating and publishing innovative and experimental storytelling tools.

With me being a newsroom developer and therefore one of the executors of our larger-scale projects, I’ve had to learn to start thinking practically about the details behind the implementation of any tool or application we talk about creating. It has to be my job to know when to say no if an idea is too large-scale for our small-scale staff to handle.

Collaboration between top-level idea people and detail-oriented executors is key in producing great content. So, newsroom developers: Don’t be afraid to say no if something truly cannot be done.

Furthermore, don’t be afraid of the big ideas your more creative colleagues come up with. Don’t cringe when you get emails with crazy application ideas. Some of those ideas could end up being really great.

Newsroom brainstormers: You’re great and a necessity for the future of digital newsrooms. Keep the crazy ideas coming. However, you need to try to be more aware of what your team is capable of producing, and be understanding when your developers seem frustrated and tell you no.

And not to sound like a broken record, but learn to code! Just having some understanding of how the development side of your ideas works helps you better understand how your big ideas can become a reality.

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