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May 21, 2012, 3 p.m.

NPR snags Brian Boyer to launch a news apps team (and they’re hiring)

“I’m a project manager masquerading as a programmer masquerading as a journalist,” Boyer says.

NPR has hired Brian Boyer, head of the Chicago Tribune’s news apps team, to lead a new, similar team of data grinders and designers focused full-time on interactive storytelling. That makes NPR the latest major outlet — like The New York Times and The Boston Globe — to devote newsroom resources to news apps.

Brian Boyer

“Apps,” in this context, means interactive, data-driven visualizations of the news on any platform. The network was already creating these — Poisoned Places, The Fracking Boom — but with resources scattered across departments.

The new team is seven people, including Boyer, Matt Stiles, who has done database reporting for NPR’s StateImpact project and who was the founding data apps editor for the Texas Tribune, three staff designers, and two yet-to-be-filled positions. (They’re hiring, which means more great Brian Boyer job postings.)

It hardly seems strange anymore that NPR dropped “radio” from its name.

“For a long time text was a multimedia challenge for a news organiation like NPR,” said Mark Stencel, the managing editor for digital news and Boyer’s new boss. “What we’ve been able to add over the past several years is this visual storytelling…whether that’s amazing photography or video or now really robust data-driven interactive graphics and document presentations.”

News apps are the next logical step. In an interview, Boyer described the last 10 years of multimedia journalism as an “expensive conceit,” a way for news organizations to put sounds and pictures on a screen and say they’re doing something new. He feels strongly — and says so at many a conference — that multimedia journalism should be useful, not just pretty.

“I like pretty things, don’t get me wrong,” Boyer said. “I always like to make the point that I like art but I like craft more.”

Take the Chicago Tribune’s recent story about high-rise buildings that fail fire codes. “I could have made a map. And we could have made a timeline. And those would have been interesting and explanatory in some way,” Boyer said.

“I want to give people a place people can look at to see if their house is safe,” he said.

Boyer’s challenge will be in scaling up these experiences to reach a national audience. That includes working with member stations to build customized, localized versions of news apps.

“I’m a project manager masquerading as a programmer masquerading as a journalist,” Boyer said, summing up the life of anyone building news apps. He wants to create “a really rigorous process that involves user testing, that involves being ready to change things if they stink, if they don’t work, that involves failing fast and iterating toward something.” To put it in journo-friendly terms: “You could call it inverted-pyramid style of development. If you run out of time, you cut off the bottom.”

Boyer will also help NPR move into responsive web design, something Boyer has been doing at the Tribune. For example, open the Tribune’s recent story on flame retardants and resize your browser window. The elements adapt gracefully to any screen size. “The challenge that everybody in the news apps business is facing right now,” Stencel said, “is figuring out how to make these experiences work beyond Web classic, how to get them into the handheld and tablet space, which is where our future is.”

For those of you following Boyer’s PANDA Project, it continues operating as an IRE initiative (independent of Tribune), and Boyer will remain involved part-time. (The project’s 2011 Knight News Challenge grant expires in four months.)

Boyer starts work May 28 July 9. We should see job postings in the next few weeks.

POSTED     May 21, 2012, 3 p.m.
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