Phillip Smith

Working toward a more "open" news organization at @TheTyee

Come in we're open

I haven’t done much “thinking out loud” about my ongoing work for the award-winning daily online news site, The Tyee. The collaboration started in 2007 when I was asked to retool and automate The Tyee’s e-newsletter systems. From there, we started working together on special projects and campaigns, and – after their design refresh in 2009 – I took over as the resident Web Maker on May 1st, 2010.

Over the last two years, I’ve worked most closely with The Tyee’s Front Page & Technical Editor, Geoff D’Auria. We work together so closely, in fact, that I often stay at Geoff’s when I’m in Vancouver for work sprints with The Tyee (you know a working relationship is a good one when you can pull that off!).

We’ve often discussed the opportunity to be more “open” and transparent with The Tyee’s community – specifically, we’ve discussed being more proactive in talking about technical changes we implement and about technical priorities in the coming months. For example, there have been several re-launches of The Tyee’s commenting system over the years – it started as a kludge to tie together story pages with Web forum software back in 2003 or 2004 – and eventually became what it is today, where the comments are powered by Drupal, while the site itself is managed with Bricolage. There’s a good chance it will change again later this year – part of our push to simplify the technical infrastructure as much as possible – and it would be an interesting experiment to communicate that to users in advance, and to invite feedback on the options that we’re investigating.

There are many other projects that would have been interesting to announce ahead of their implementation, like the HTML5 Web app, the “Small-M” mobile site, and the new Video section. And, as new non-technical projects roll out at The Tyee this year, like the Master Class series, the Builder Campaign, and a soon-to-be-launched iBook experiment, my sense is that there are lots of opportunities to leverage the wisdom of The Tyee’s crowd, who are in my experience smart, often tech-savvy, and very tuned-in to local and regional issues.

But, practically, what does this type of user engagement look like?

Geoff and I have discussed everything from a “Tyee Labs” blog, similar to what several news organizations with “news apps” teams have done, to something more straightforward like The Verge’s Version History page. For me, neither are quite right for The Tyee. Even though the team at The Tyee likes to think of the whole enterprise as an experiment (which is an awesome context to be able to work within), the honest truth is that technical resources are stretched pretty thin and we don’t have a lot of extra cycles for true “experiments,” so my sense is that a “Labs blog” might be underwhelming. On the flip side, while I like the simplicity of the Version History idea, it does nothing to provide a forward-looking view into what we’re working on, i.e., what’s on deck for next week, next month, or next year.

The more I think about it, the more a picture comes to mind that is half what the Guardian UK is trying by publishing their “news lists” and with their Inside The Guardian blog, and half an idea that Amanda Hickman waxed poetic about at last year’s NICAR conference that involved using a “bug tracker” or issue-tracking system for news, and making that system visible to the users. In summary, something that would capture both what we are working on, what we’re discussing, what we’ve completed recently, and what “bugs” or issues that the community has brought to our attention.

Ultimately, I wrestle with the two tensions around a project like this:

  • First, I have a gut sense that a lot of the Tyee’s community would really appreciate a “view inside” their favourite news organization, a peek “inside the tent” if you will. But what I’m talking about here is almost exclusively technical, and not about the editorial calendar or the personalities inside The Tyee, which is probably the most outwardly interesting stuff. So, would this view across technical projects be enough to create some deeper engagement with Tyee users?

  • Second, there’s the obvious question of the work involved in “opening-up The Tyee,” whether that’s technical systems or, more likely to be a big push, the effort to change the way we do things so that there’s more “thinking out loud.” Then, after that work, there’s the added overhead of listening to users and bringing their voices into regular planning meetings, and so on. Just like having comments on stories, once you give users the opportunity to speak you have to be prepared to make time to listen.

With any new project I always try to consider the opportunity cost, i.e., What will we not be able to do because we’re embarking on this undertaking, and I try to weight that against the possible upside, i.e., what’s the best and worst possible outcome of the project in question and does it justify the investment of time and resources?

It’s a tough question.

Having inspiring examples of other news organizations that have lead the way on projects like this is always helpful fodder for these discussions. So, if you have some examples, please drop them in the comments, or shoot me a note on The Twitters.


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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