Inside the Globe and Mail’s New Interactive Team
How we built our team’s processes and tools from scratch in 12 months
From the oil patch to the arctic, the Globe and Mail is committed to telling Canada’s story. But covering a country with a population less than California spread out over a landmass larger than China requires a nuanced digital strategy.
In the last 12 months, the Globe’s approach to digital journalism—both on desktop and across mobile devices—has changed drastically.
Following the successful launch of a paywall in 2012, our digital strategy has shifted from one driven by page-view economics to a more nuanced approach that pushes us to create impactful journalism that readers will pay for.
To meet that demand, we built an Interactive News team from scratch. We created a tight-knit group of editors and newsroom developers with a focus on quality. This team also creates tools and processes that allowed us to disrupt a print-first workflow.
Here’s a look at how we got there and what we learned along the way.
Building the Team
As Canada’s national newspaper, creating high-quality journalism has always been our fundamental goal. (Our main audience is readers looking for in-depth coverage of Canadian business, politics and international affairs.)
For years we had a small, loose group of editors committed to long-form storytelling online—but the process was ad hoc. We struggled against newspaper deadlines and often lacked the resources to take on the projects we were passionate about.
We knew that if the Globe really wanted to take interactive journalism seriously, we needed a real team. But by U.S. standards, the Globe is a mid-sized newspaper. So while we have the largest multimedia news team in Canada, we couldn’t hire for every specialty.
Instead, our five interactive editors are all coders with a keen design eye and sharp news sense. If one interactive editor is busy, another can almost certainly help out. That means flexible hours and the ability to say “yes” to more. A newsroom developer is only a Slack message away.
In addition to our interactive editors, we have three content editors embedded in different sections of the paper: sports and features, news, and business. They work on breaking news, build weekend features, whip up charts, and write ledes. Often our best digital concepts come from them. We’ve found that embedding team members throughout the newsroom really helps with communication, and with getting more reporters involved in the work we do.
Each content editor is responsible for ensuring our articles meet (or exceed) the high standards of our print product.
Having the opportunity to build a team from scratch is a rare gift. We were able to hire a group with diverse perspectives and backgrounds that (we hope) is more than the sum of its parts.
When creating a new team, it’s critical that the goals are clear—both among members of the group and across the newsroom. We aimed to do this through all-staff notes about our team (inspired by NPR Visuals), and a clear statement about what types of projects we do, and why.
This is, verbatim, the mandate for the Globe’s Interactive News team:
The primary goal of our team is to build high-impact journalism of two kinds:
- Quick, targeted files based on the most important stories of the day. These pieces aim to give context and depth to breaking news, as it happens, leveraging the reporting and editing resources of the Globe newsroom. Because of the habits of our breaking-news reader, these files will be built with mobile as the primary platform.
- In-depth, investigative pieces that push the boundaries of digital storytelling through the use of design, data, video, photography, user engagement and excellent reporting.
We will also produce medium-term projects as capacity allows. The criteria for evaluating these projects will be:
- Audience and impact: Will the use of data, interactive graphics, or multimedia with this story help increase its value for our readers, or help us draw in new readers?
- Scope: Do we have an existing template or storytelling format that can easily be repurposed?
- Experimental value: By devoting resources to this project, could we potentially learn something new about our readership?
- Extensibility: Could this project help us develop a new template for editors to use?
How We Build Skills
Our team would be far weaker if we didn’t prioritize skill sharing and bonding (we eat a lot of cake).
A portion of our time goes to building tools that make editors’ lives easier—these tools help free us from routine tasks (like creating charts from scratch), and also give us an opportunity to learn new skills or software.
A few month ago, for example, we used dot voting to decide which projects to take on over the summer.
Once we know what the priorities are, we emphasize tackling projects in small, targeted workshops. A handful of people will meet to work through one specific concept. It goes a long way to ensuring that every member gets something out of it.
Working on the tech side of a newspaper can feel like sprinting across a narrow ledge. We’ve got tight production deadlines that must be met without breaking our website or leading to a lawsuit. A few tools—some built from scratch and others borrowed and tweaked—make that ledge feel a little wider. Here’s a look at some specific examples.
Building Awesome Charts (for Digital and Print)
We’re a business-focused paper with a strong brand, so finding the right tool to build Globe-style charts was vital. We also wanted a product that would benefit print workflow as well as digital. So we decided to build our own.
The Globe’s chart tool currently supports line, area, stream, and column charts, all of which have customizable axes, legends, and styles. It automatically saves and archives charts as they’re edited (making them searchable), includes both desktop and mobile live previews, allows multiple editors to work on the same chart concurrently a la Google Docs, can export static PNGs at multiple sizes and dimensions (such as for Twitter or Facebook), and generates high-res, print-ready PDFs for the paper. The embed codes it generates for the web are fully responsive, with dynamic legends.
The chart tool’s success lies partially in a GUI that’s held to the same high design standards as our reader-facing content. Editors with little to no technical background can use it and make tweaks as needed.
Building Beautiful Long Reads, Quickly
Our CMS, like most newsrooms’, is pretty rigid. It doesn’t like any kind of custom code, and offers up helpful errors whenever an editor tries to make a non-standard change.
To get around this, we’ve developed a bunch of processes for getting complex code into our CMS, ranging from the highly-technical copy-and-paste method to more sophisticated API work.
With the help of our dev team, we also recently built a new WYSIWYG tool for designing long reads, dubbed “paste-up.” Editors without much technical experience can use it to make simple but stunning features. It also allows for custom code snippets, which means the more technical editors can add custom graphics or charts when an article calls for it.
The whole thing integrates with our CMS, which means no copy and pasting massive embed codes. Instead, a simple “publish” button pushes the whole thing up.
We’ve also set up a modified version of Vox’s meme generator for our social team and built a quick bio card tool to nicely display quick stats about athletes, people, or businesses. Our future plans include an audio tool that takes advantage of the Web Audio API for visualizations, and a rewrite of our existing table tool.
Making Our Lives Easier
Although still in the early stages, a standard team build template has proved indispensable. Gulp, our task-runner of choice, is fantastic. It means less time spinning up a local server or fighting with Ruby. And every project can easily be handed to another developer without instructions about how to set up.
Once you grow accustomed to browser sync, manually refreshing a web page feels far beneath you. An external IP that syncs with your local host has made device-debugging a pleasant (well, less terrible) experience.
Our Gulp builds even lend a hand with day to day work, like updating our election poll tracker. It takes info from a google spreadsheet, cleans and inserts the data into our local JSON.
Communication within a newsroom is always a challenge, but Slack has become an essential team member.
With editors and developers working different hours and scattered around the building, doing a traditional daily “stand up” meeting wasn’t going to work. Instead, we have our team status meeting every morning in a public Slack channel. It’s a great way to keep track of what a coworker is doing without having a mandatory daily meeting eating up time. It can also mean a product developer chiming in after seeing a post with advice or some snippets.
We also avoid long e-mail chains by using Slack’s built-in emoji response feature as a voting platform. You get an idea within ten minutes of how the team falls if voting is this easy.
Like many newsrooms, we make heavy use of Slack integrations for things like Jira and Google Docs.
We also have “Chartmander”: a bot that replies to ID’s from our chart tools with the details and a screenshot. Chartmander mostly earns his keep in a channel that graphics staff use to let home page editors know what charts are ready.
Maybe our next step involves drones. Or robot journalism. Or virtual reality (keep an eye out for our VR collaboration with CIR and others). Our goal is to keep doing new, creative work that changes the way people think about an institution like the Globe.
To get there we’re listening to our readers, watching the great work of our peers, and trying to keep the job fun. We’re trying to develop a culture that lets us build awesome things, but there’s always work to do. We’d love your advice.
Head of Visual Journalism @globeandmail. 📈📸🎥📱🖥📰
Julia Wolfe is a visual journalist at FiveThirtyEight focusing on politics and interactive graphics. Previously, she worked at The Wall Street Journal, The Globe and Mail, and The Toronto Star. She is also an adjunct lecturer at CUNY’s graduate school of journalism.