Last year the Times and Sunday Times introduced a news development team, tasked with moving beyond day-to-day development to actively work on new products and formats for reporting.
The launch of the team, now eight-strong, was "part of a more general digital restructure", Pat Long, who heads up the team, told Journalism.co.uk in an email interview recently, during which he discussed how the team has approached digital strategy, innovation and evolution of the culture across both newsrooms.
"Previously we did have developers in the newsrooms of each title," he explained, "but their focus was more infrastructural and involved a lot of sort of maintenance work in keeping the digital versions of each title afloat and working".
"So we hired some clever people and decided that what we needed to do was quite different - we wanted to actually make stuff."
Building new tools with the newsroom
Last October, The Times's digital development editor Joseph Stashko told Journalism.co.uk about his plans to create "a suite of tools" for long-form, immersive reporting.
Long explained that part of the news development team's approach is to create solutions which empower the newsrooms' journalists to be digitally-innovative themselves.We’ve been making widgets to allow journalists with minimal coding experience to create these things themselves without our helpPat Long, The Times and The Sunday Times
"It’s much more sustainable that way," Long explained, "so instead of us building a single rich media web template, we’ve been making widgets to allow journalists with minimal coding experience to create these things themselves without our help."
Earlier this week we reported on how another News Corp-owned title, the Wall Street Journal, is driving innovation at its newsrooms across the world, and for The Times and Sunday Times, the news development team also pursues a collaborative approach, which feeds off the requirements of the newsroom.
"We could spend a lot of time and money hand-coding things," Long said, "but it’s much more effective if we work alongside journalists, or designers, or picture editors, to identify their individual needs and then give them a new set of tools to serve these needs."
While the WSJ has a network of almost 2,000 members of staff to engage around digital strategy, the news development team for the Times and Sunday Times has the challenge of working across two separate newsrooms, which operate under "different cultures, different editorial focuses and different deadlines".
Another challenge it faced early on was the ability to be agile and "reactive", and avoid getting "tied up in a lot of bureaucratic process", Long said. The team's response was to adopt a start-up mentality.
"We soon figured out a commissioning and development process that allowed us to build, test, deploy and iterate products in a way that had never really been done before."
For a team working across The Times, a newspaper which is almost 230 years old, and The Sunday Times, which dates back to 1822, the issue of evolving a legacy brand in the digital arena also would have been a challenge to start with, but Long said culturally there have been marked improvements in recent times.We’re slowly creating little sleeper cells of digital converts among print journalistsPat Long, The Times and The Sunday Times
"Much of the rapid recent change in thinking about digital has come from the top down," Long said, pointing to editor John Witherow as a positive force in driving the digital-side.
In fact, he added that the team's recent Build The News hack event was not just a useful exercise for letting digital-natives experiment, but also engaged "dyed-in-the-wool print journalists" who were "then spreading that kind of enthusiasm once they got back to the office".
"We’re slowly creating little sleeper cells of digital converts among print journalists," he said.
Sharing the lessons
Seeking out opportunities to discuss audience and other digital content-related data, as well as other learnings, is also important for ensuring everyone understands the significance of its digital operations.
This includes the news development team throwing its hat into the ring at the daily morning news conference, "to talk about our work and discuss traffic reports or analytics", Long explained.
"We’re also much more set on ensuring people understand which the most important metrics for us are, from both a subscriber retention and advertising point of view. So we’re much more interested in dwell times or repeat visits rather than page views or clicks."
Another area the team is focusing on, in its efforts to continue to evolve the culture at the Times and Sunday Times, is a newsroom layout that encourages the right digital thinking.
Highlighting the Times and Sunday Times's imminent move, along with other News UK titles and the WSJ, to the so-called Baby Shard later this year, he explained that this is something they are thinking about carefully.
"I think this will be a huge opportunity for us in terms of affecting the culture of the organisation," he said. Part of their research has involved comparing newsroom layouts and strategies at non-journalism related companies, such as "trading floors in banks", to understand how they "communicate key information around their offices or get people more engaged through ambient factors".
This can already be seen at fellow News UK outlet The Sun, which, he explained, presents a "studio set-up" to visitors on arrival, helping to illustrate the importance of video to the tabloid.
As well as delivering a clear message to the newsroom about its digital identity and more drilled-down data in morning meetings, Long added that the members of the news development team regularly discuss the latest hot topics in digital content with each other, and the rest of the newsroom, to keep everyone up-to-date with the latest technology.
"Marshall McLuhan said something like ‘every new medium begins as a container for the old’, and it’s hard sometimes to think beyond just the short-term possibilities of a particular platform or medium. So it’s important to make time during the week to reflect or discuss.
"In terms of passing that kind of debate onto our colleagues, we do things like organise daily lunchtime talks, send out reading lists and briefings of key articles, invite people from analogous industries to come in and speak – and just generally try and let our enthusiasm and excitement be as contagious as possible."
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