Interviewer: Esther Kezia Thorpe

Esther: What does your job as the Newsroom Innovation Chief actually involve on a day-to-day basis?

Robin: What it actually involves is that I lead a team of developers, and what we do is we build prototypes. So we build prototypes of new tools, new formats, new features.

The way that I really like to sort of think about and describe this part of the work that we do is that, we’re a newsroom innovation team, and really, great ideas are everywhere, and there’s lots of really great ideas for things that we could be doing.

But what our team really tries to do is to help answer the question, should we do it? Should we do it as a news organisation, should we do it as a business? And where possible, we try to answer that question by actually building something, and then putting it in front of people, either to get their verbal feedback on it, or just look at the data of how they’re using it.

And really, I would say that actually, the core output of our team is actually the insights and the data and the analytics that comes out of showing prototypes to people, rather than the prototypes themselves.

So does the Wall Street Journal have big goals that you kind of try and work towards? Or do you guys literally just throw spaghetti at the wall, see what works, and then integrate that in?

Yep. I mean, it can feel like we’re throwing spaghetti at the wall sometimes! But like any other big organisation, The Wall Street Journal has some big, broad strategic goals, and I don’t think they’re going to be a surprise to anyone really, they’re quite commonsensical. So we want to grow our readership, we want to diversify our readership, and I think we want to engage more deeply with the readers that we already have.

And so when we as a team take a look at what projects we take on, what prototypes to build, what ideas to pursue, that is one of the considerations. We keep an eye out on what are the possible ways in which this thing that we’re doing could contribute to one of the strategic goals.

So that’s definitely one of the considerations, but I think I’m also quite mindful of the fact that part of the role of an innovation team and why we have that in our name is to create some space for creativity, and for figuring out what the right questions to ask are.

And so we have these big broad strategic goals in mind in the back of our heads, but we’re not – compared to some of the other teams at the journal – we’re less specifically beholden to having to hit this numerical target in this quarter.

When you’re building things and you’re looking to release things, do you just test them on a very small portion of the site before wider release, how much actually ends up getting and actually integrating into the Wall Street Journal site?

So one of the things we’ve built actually goes out to practically everyone, so if you go to the Wall Street Journal homepage, you’ll have seen since Coronavirus started that we now have this grey ribbon, a grey bar at the top that highlights the free to read content, the free resources that the Wall Street Journal has.

That was a very, very cool quick prototype that we built when we were given the challenge, or the question was posed to our team that the Journal has operated a pretty strict paywall for pretty long time, but with the pandemic coming, the higher ups decided we really should make some of the key essential content free to read, but how are people going to find it?

We went really for the most obvious solution, which is smack bang in the middle of the homepage! So there are some things that really sort of go out quite publicly.

But actually, our team is quite new, so I joined the team in December. And one of the questions that we are trying to figure out as we go along is, the different ways in which we could test ideas.

So obviously, when something goes out as publicly as that ribbon, there are a bunch of quality control, a bunch of sort of layers to go through before you can put something on the site. Whereas if we’re testing something with a smaller group of people, we can act a bit quicker, we can be a bit more scrappy, we can adjust things as we go along.

And trying to figure out different ways of testing with different groups of people is actually something that’s pretty high up on my mind for at least the last couple of months.

And your background is reporting and data journalism. So how have you got to this stage, which sounds a little bit more kind of technical?

Yeah, I guess I’ve always been interested in new things, in using new ways to tell stories, to do journalism, and I’ve always really been interested in how people work together. In the course of my career, and then sort of the course of thinking about, what is the job that I should be doing? Where can I have the most impact?

It’s sort of gradually evolved from working in journalism to trying to work sort of on how we do journalism. And so I think being on the interactive news team at the FT was one of the transition points of where I actually was working with technology. I felt like I needed to learn how to code.

And then sort of moving on, realising that actually, the people that I really want to help the most, that I really like the most, are my fellow reporters and editors, and figuring out how to use technology to help them is something that I’m quite passionate about. And it just sort of gradually led down this road into working on the technology that delivers the journalism itself.

Do you get quite involved with the technical side of that, or is it more leadership, and you’re leading a technical team?

These days I’m completely unqualified to touch any of the technical bits! But no, it’s mostly leading the team, as I mentioned, we’re quite a new team. So it’s a lot of time spent setting up and thinking about, you know, what is the purpose of our team? What is the mission? How do we measure our success? And that sort of thinking really goes from thinking about the team as a whole down to the individual projects.

A large part of the other part of what our team does, which I haven’t really spoken a lot about up until this point is, we don’t really want to own innovation at the Journal actually. We want to be able to empower innovation. I mean, if you think about what does a healthy, agile, adaptable, innovative company look like, it’s people experimenting and trying new things, regardless of which position you’re working in, right? You don’t really want to silo it all into just one team.

So we try to work really collaboratively with a lot of other teams. We try to help other teams when they are trying to do something new and just sort of structuring their approach and their thinking. So asking, what is the hypothesis that you’re testing – if you think about this as an experiment, instead of just a new feature that we have to build, or a new product we have to launch – and how will you know if you’ve either proven or disproven it?

And reminding people after launch, for example, that ‘Oh, what about looking at the data and communicating it,’ and helping a lot with the framing of the work, and helping a lot with the communication of the work, that’s also part of what we do. Since my team – other than me – are developers, that’s quite a lot of what I do day in, day out.

So you’re almost the educator for the rest of the business.

It sounds a bit grand when you put it that way, but that’s what I would like to be able to help with!

So what does success look like for the team?

I think the success looks like several things. One is that – this relates partly back to that question of what are the right groups of people to test on and what are the right ways of testing something – I think success looks like having a stable environment for experimentation and prototyping. Having sort of almost playbooks, knowing exactly what we need to do to test something and being able to carry that out. I think we’re still in the early stages of establishing what that looks like. So that’s really quite a specific goal for my team.

More broadly, I think success looks like lots of other teams at the Journal feeling like they have the freedom to try new things, have also a set of processes and a way of doing it, or at least know who they can turn to for help when they want to try new things.

And I think success looks like, from the outside, the Journal looking like a company that is constantly evolving, it’s adapting and changing, and it’s sort of really unafraid to fail. I think that’s probably actually one of the harder things for anyone in any organisation working in innovation.

Can you talk a bit about any of the other features you’ve launched recently, apart from the Coronavirus bar?

Yep. Let me do a fun one, and then I’ll talk about one that really, I think has had quite a big impact. So the fun one is we launched a WSJ jigsaw. So this is jigsaw puzzles. And the Journal has had actually for a long time, a really loyal crossword puzzle community and following. And we know that playing the crossword puzzle actually is really engaging, the people who play puzzles are deeply engaged with the Journal.

And so we thought, actually, what if we could expand – since everybody’s working from home now, they’re sitting in front of the computer – what if we could expand the range of puzzles that we have at the Journal, and how do we make something like a jigsaw puzzle, which people are familiar with, it’s quite common, been around for a long time. How do we make it distinctly WSJ?

So what we did is we took the head cuts, these are the stipple drawings that go with the A-hed articles – one of the things I’ve learned is I have to learn a lot of jargon since coming in to a different company – but the A-hed is a generally slightly humorous article on the front page that sort of illuminates a slice of life, and it’s marked in the print paper by a hand drawn stipple drawing of the subject of the A-hed. And if you’ve been at the Journal for a long time, and you’ve become a columnist, then you also get a stipple drawing, you also get a head cut sometimes.

We realise we had these archives of really quite lovely and quite distinctively Wall Street Journal images, and we thought, what if we took them and we made them into digital jigsaw puzzles that people can play?

This one that we actually worked with one of our graphics editors, who was working from home, had some free time, and found a JavaScript library that is open source, but hasn’t been updated for a long time, to turn images into jigsaw puzzles. He worked with the code, updated it, and worked with our team to launch it, just to make sure that everything passes all the right checks and all of that. And that’s been really fun for some people.

We’ve been gathering feedback on the puzzle itself, and people are saying, ‘Make it harder!’ ‘We want more images!’ ‘Can you have it in colour as well?’ So that’s been quite fun.

The other one that I will talk a bit about is one that I really think has had a big impact, which is – and it sounds really simple, in concept, which is – we launched a tool to let reporters and editors create an embed feedback forms into [stories]. It’s like Google Forms, basically, but embeddable within a Wall Street Journal story, and then also we figured out, working on all of the backend stuff that happens afterwards. So where do the responses go? How do the reporters and editors actually view it? What do we do with personally identifiable information, and all that sort of stuff.

And that’s had a really big impact because we worked really closely with our audiences teams and our audience voice teams. And reporters and editors have been using that as a call out for tips, as a way of asking our audience and our readers, what more do they want to read about a story? What questions might they have that we could help them answer?

And I think it’s been used in dozens of stories, and we’ve gotten hundreds and thousands of responses. I think it’s been a really important tool in almost sort of invisibly, shifting us towards being a more, I guess, sort of member engagement type of organisation, of making the journalism a bit more of a two way conversation between the journalists and the readers, rather than just a one way broadcast.

Is that not open to a little bit of abuse?

Yeah. So we’ve had to figure out some of the, well, so there’s two things. One is that unlike the comments section, the feedback form the responses doesn’t get published. So it’s just instead of a person emailing the reporter directly, they fill out a form and it goes to the reporters and we have all the disclaimers in the form itself around what we do with your personal data, how we gather them and all of that.

But even then, so one of the technical bits of work that we’ve had to do is to realise that, well, when reporters and editors ask these questions, and they get responses, they want to use them to do their work, which means sharing them with other reporters, and editors within the same organisation. Of course, we’d never share it outside, but even then, because of data protection laws and privacy laws, we have to be really careful about people’s identifiable details.

So there’s a lot of work gone into figuring out how we can set up a system that almost sort of automatically strips out those and hides them so that the reporters only see the non identifiable responses.

That’s a small example, I will say that a lot of the times the work that our team does, and a lot of what’s really hard about coming up with new things and doing new things is actually figuring out these sorts of – they seem like smallish questions, it’s all the little details, right?

And really putting the work in to figure that out is the difference between a tool that can be used widely, and a tool that you put it out without having thought about it, and then two months later, you get a complaint and then it all has to be shut down.

Do you have comment sections as well? Or is it literally just those forms now?

So we have comment sections, and the work on the comment section happened a bit before I arrived, and a bit before our team got set up. But that is a large part of the genesis of the audience voice teams, which was that comments was just sort of generally open at the Journal previously. And they were quite toxic. There were a lot of negative comments, it was a lot of people that actually actively turned people off from reading the Journal because they say, ‘I go to the comments, and it’s just terrible.’

And so the audience voice teams was set up, I think about 18 months ago now to really try to figure out and solve that problem. And so there’s a combination of really manual curation at the beginning, and then also working with the R&D team, which is separate but sits next to us, which works really closely with AI and machine learning, to use some of that technology to do an initial filtering, and to do a sort of sentiment analysis on the comments to help the work of the moderators.

And so that meant that we went from initially only opening up a handful of articles for comments, because that was the capacity that we had for moderating them, to being able to almost by default open most articles now because the moderators on the audience voice team are able to use technology to really sort of help speed up their work.

Yeah, filter out the garbage before it gets to you. And I know that at the moment, everybody is all over the world, geography doesn’t really matter, it doesn’t matter where you live. But when you first joined this team, you were in London, but you’re working for a primarily US brand, and I assume most of the team are in the US. So how does that work, practically?

Yeah, it’s been interesting. So I’m actually meant to be in New York, I was hired to work from out of New York. It’s just that it just hasn’t really worked out that way because of the pandemic. So I’m still in the process of applying for my US work visa.

But I will say that it was quite interesting, a little bit tough in the beginning couple of months, because then I joined in December last year, because of the situation right because I was the only one out in London, five hours ahead of everybody else, the team were in New York, and they’re all going to the same office.

But funnily enough, since everybody has had to work from home, it’s actually been a little bit of a blessing in disguise. My team has had three or four months of getting used to me not being there in a sense, or me being there remotely, that when everybody went remote, it was, I hope, sort of an easier time for them to adjust.

I’m still hoping to make it out to New York. But who knows?

You’ve got a Wall Street Journal DXS medium publication for the company. So what was the thinking behind having something that’s forward facing about some of the work you do?

So DXS stands for digital experiences and strategy, which is the name for the big broad department that my team is under, as well as a lot of our product teams, our technology teams, our design teams. As a journalist, but as a reporter and editor before, your work is really public; I write a story and it goes out and everybody can see it.

But some of the work that our tech and design and product colleagues do, isn’t it really as visible most of the times. And I’m not saying that just publicly, but actually, internally, sometimes it’s not super visible as well. People sit on different floors when we’re all in the offices, don’t really know what the other people are doing.

And so we thought that having a blog where we could celebrate some of the new projects and new thinking, and some of the work that we do, is good for empowering innovation generally, but also, I think that there’s a lot that different organisations could learn from each other. Even before I started doing this job, I was reading the New York Times’s engineering blog and seeing what they’re doing, and The Washington Post’s equivalent blog.

And so I think a lot of us we’re at different organisations are all tackling fairly similar problems actually. And where possible, being able to write about what we’ve done to celebrate it to help others if we can, is just a really good thing.

Although that’s got to be quite tough choosing, you almost don’t want to give away too many secrets.

Yes. We can’t really go into some of the nitty gritty details in some of them. But then I think also, some of the most recent posts we had was about how the audience voices team came up with seven or eight new ways of engaging readers during the Coronavirus pandemic. And I think some of that is actually already quite public facing work. It’s just that if you haven’t been involved in that specific initiative, if you are not typically a Wall Street Journal subscriber, on the intranet especially, you only sort of really see slices of things.

So there’s lots of stuff that’s actually public and out there, but you only ever come into contact with a small proportion of it. So being able to sort of flag those up, to put them all in one place, to say, ‘Hey, actually, here’s a range of initiatives that we’ve done,’ I think that’s quite good.

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