[Since this was written, I have concluded my work with The Post. I wrote a recap with some parting thoughts.]

In May 2014 I joined The Washington Post’s new WPNYC design studio in New York City. We are “rethinking” The Post online. It’s a broad effort. We are trying to look holistically at the challenges and opportunities before us; everything from the external reader experience to the internal tools, workflows, and culture. It’s a big challenge and I’m really excited! Joining The Post was a big shift for me. I put on hold the work I have done for the last eight years through my own design practice. It also meant diving head first into the world of journalism, which I haven’t done before.

(We’re currently building out the team, if you’re interested.)

Why The Post?

I had decided it was time for me to join a team instead of continuing to serve clients as a vendor for a number of reasons that I lay out below. I started telling colleagues about the idea. I also started lightly reaching out to various people. But I wasn’t actively applying anywhere. Sarah Sampsel, who is now one of my collaborators at WPNYC, reached out through a mutual acquaintance and we started talking.

I felt a real sense of excitement and enthusiasm for what was ahead at The Post during my initial conversations with folks there. For several years, The Washington Post faced the same financial challenges so many news organizations face, leading to cutbacks and postponed efforts. We still face these challenges, but now have a bit more room to figure out how to address them. People here use the term runway. It’s a good metaphor. It implies sufficient time to get off the ground using our own propulsion, but not a never-ending road to just keep driving. People are fired up and channeling their excitement into productive channels. I got fired up too.

The Washington Post has an attractive legacy. One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about working with established institutions is how clearly engrained their values are. Often their methods or tactics can become over-solidified, putting them at risk of disruption from the outside, but I’ve found people within institutions, especially leadership, less willing to jettison their values when the going gets tough. When people speak of “legacy news organizations” and “digitally-native news startups”, the legacy label is used as an unqualified crutch while digital-native is an unqualified advantage. Both have advantages and disadvantages. The task is to build on the strengths and overcome the baggage. The Post has a long, proud history of producing journalism that matters, from Watergate to the NSA surveillance. At this point in time The Post feels young and grown-up at once. Master journalists and digital-natives working together.

It’s a good match. Our little operation, WPNYC, is charged with broad goals. Throughout the organization there are many concurrent new efforts. I saw an opportunity for me to participate in a meaningful way to help bring these efforts together. I enjoy connecting dots. I like looking at a bunch of pieces and parts and figuring out how they can go together to make helpful things.

I enjoy working at scale. I like the breadth of the challenges we’re working on and how interwoven they are. I like the mix of user needs, strategy, personnel issues, process planning, design and development, execution, iteration. Scale allows for impact, and that’s what I hope to have.

An exciting time for journalism

It’s a really exciting time for the field of journalism as it rapidly re-invents itself. There’s a new wave of digital native organizations, new experiments from existing sources, established brands reinventing from within, new business models being explored, major investments from outside sources. There’s a lot going on.

I have been a news-nerd from the sidelines for a long time. Not just as a curious person keeping up with current affairs, but as someone interested in the ideas of journalism. The field has been forced to evaluate its mission and methods in fundamental ways. Watching the industry change over the last decade and a half has been fascinating.

There’s also an amazing community of designers, developers, and makers of all kinds working to figure these things out together. I recently participated in the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews’s SRCCON conference. It was a great introduction to the community and I left thrilled with the openness and interest in sharing ideas, questions, code, and lessons. This is a community I want to be a part of.

So much good “content”

Throughout my career I’ve been deeply involved with content. Content. A demeaning term for which I’ve found no better substitute. The term is helpful because it is broad and neutral. It allows practioners such as information architects, content strategists, and designers in very different industries to share experiences and techniques. That’s good. But it is a divisive term.

I’ve certainly been in contexts where content referred to lorem ipsum, but not for a while. For years I’ve been working primarily with mission-oriented groups. I’ve been amongst Federal employees fighting hard to rise above politics and produce clear, plain-language materials to help people make important decisions about health insurance. I’ve been collaborating with humanitarians working to provide actionable, accurate information about the mess we’ve made of this world. I’ve been helping environmental change agents extend the impact of their research across the built environment. And there are many more. People whose content has purpose, so I can forget that the word is charged.

Sure, the Post is in the content business, but the word content is especially derided here. The Post’s content is journalism. The neutrality of content is harmful in this context because it fails to express the values imbued in the work, as laid out in 1933 by then-owner Eugene Meyer:

  • The first mission of a newspaper is to tell the truth as nearly as the truth may be ascertained.
  • The newspaper shall tell ALL the truth so far as it can learn it, concerning the important affairs of America and the world.
  • As a disseminator of the news, the paper shall observe the decencies that are obligatory upon a private gentleman.
  • What it prints shall be fit reading for the young as well as for the old.
  • The newspaper’s duty is to its readers and to the public at large, and not to the private interests of the owner.
  • In the pursuit of truth, the newspaper shall be prepared to make sacrifices of its material fortunes, if such course be necessary for the public good. The newspaper shall not be the ally of any special interest, but shall be fair and free and wholesome in its outlook on public affairs and public men.

I am a mission-oriented person. It is my job to help amplify the efforts of the organizations I work with. This is why it’s been so important for me to work with people doing good work in the world. The Post has a mission and history that I can get behind.

Additionally, working with The Post allows me to explore a number of issues I’ve been thinking through over the last few years, particularly around providing context, connecting related information, and structured content.

Being part of a team

For a while now I’ve felt like a team player who didn’t really have a team. The transience of client work is part of what makes it really interesting. Each project has all new challenges and people. You need to learn both quickly to get to work, but as soon as you get settled, you move on. It can grow tiresome.

After leaving Squeaky in 2006, the design shop I helped start in 2001, I was hesitant about building out a team of my own. The need to meet payroll is a serious demand that dramatically affects the kind of work you take on. Instead I focused on building project-based ad hoc teams. That gave me a lot of freedom to choose clients but it had its own limitations.

The first time I worked on HealthCare.gov in 2010 was the closest thing I’ve done to a startup. It was a startup, really. That was how Todd Park and Macon Phillips fashioned it. Working so closely with a tight-knit group of mission-driven folks doing super important work was exhilarating. I worked extremely hard on that for five months, then slept, then returned to my regular practice as I always had planned to do.

My second stint on HealthCare.gov was a much larger affair. The variety of players ran the gamut from madness-inducing contractor megaliths to scrappy, highly effective small teams. I worked with and watched teams from Development Seed and IDEO be really good at being teams. In both cases they were small groups of people who had learned how to work well together. I came to know that was what I wanted: to sit around a table with a group of people. Make something. Learn from it. Remake it. WPNYC is designed to be just that: a small team working on big things within a major institution.

Problems with client services

For almost all of my career I’ve worked in “client services”. This arrangement has allowed me to pick up a broad range of skills and establish diverse experience. However, the constraints imposed by the client-vender relationship have been feeling increasing fraught for a few reasons.

First, it has become clear that the optimal way to address complex needs is to build things iteratively over time, constantly learning and constantly improving. Thinking of a website, product, or service as a thing you launch and are done with is usually problematic. In most situations I’ve experienced on the vendor-side, clients still think in terms of discreet projects. I know some companies that are working hard to shift to more agile contracting methods, but it’s a long road.

Second, as companies’ online activities become core to their operations, it makes more and more sense for them to build out in-house capacity. As a vendor, despite every effort at good documentation and clear guidance, it is inevitable that handing-off strategy and planning will result in diminished fidelity. For clients it makes sense to keep institutional knowledge within the organization and build upon it. It allows for greater freedom to adapt and respond to lessons learned.

Finally, I’ve never particularly cared for the business side of running a business. I like working. I like digging into a project, understanding the needs, and seeking out solutions wherever they may lead. Most projects have a finite timeframe, scope, and budget. As such, contracts are put in place to define these details. These realities of working as a vendor have felt increasingly frustrating. They are things I want to take a break from. I just want to work.

So I’m excited…

I’m excited about entering both a traditional news organization and an organization reimagining the possibilities of journalism. I’m excited to be at a place with runway and constraints. I’m excited about upholding traditions and inventing new things.

Holly Morrison, one of my professors at the Cleveland Institute of Art, once said interesting things always happen at the edges. This opportunity feels like it’s all edges.

Filed under: