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Aug. 25, 2014, 10 a.m.
Reporting & Production

The Verge threw a hackweek and invited everyone they know

Developers, designers, and writers from across the Vox Media family are getting involved in building new storytelling tools for the tech site and plotting its next phase of growth.

The idea for a Hack Week at The Verge was fairly simple, says editor-in-chief Nilay Patel. Looking at the example of how quickly sister publication Vox.com spun to life — nine weeks — and started building new story tools, widgets, and other products, Patel wanted to find a way to share some of the toys within the family. “We wanted to throw the doors open and bring some of that big, integrated spirit to The Verge,” Patel told me.

That was, of course, before his staff made this: “Touch my body: the top 10 Nilay Patel videos on the internet.” Including, apparently, his turn in a feature film called “Paper covers rock: The rise and fall of Woodstock Willy.”

Screen Shot 2014-08-20 at 5.05.05 PM

Media companies, especially the more digitally-oriented ones, have started to make a habit of throwing hack events to MacGyver together new and interesting tools for storytelling. In the case of Vox Media, hack days and hack weeks have become a part of doing business. But this time they did it with a twist: They would do it out in the open, in front of readers, and people on the editorial side would be just as involved as developers and designers.

The goal, Patel says, was to test out new tools, get immediate feedback from users, and get everyone from Vox Media playing around on the site. “We have a bunch of tools we want to use and we’re overthinking, because we want everything we launch on The Verge to be perfect,” Patel said.

That’s why you’ll find quizzes on which sci-fi robot is right for you, and a listenable history of Kanye West samples complete with accompanying YouTube clips. There are photo sliders showing magazine covers from the year The Simpsons debuted, and a timeline showing the history of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

On the surface, the stories might seem trivial (I, for one, am interested in things like Doctor Who and the egomania of Elon Musk), but Patel said the idea is to get the staff comfortable with all the elements at their disposal. “We’re just going to try to use these tools so that the new ways of storytelling are ingrained in us when we want to do something that’s not as much of a throwaway,” he said.

But they’re also making more permanent changes to the site, including a rollout of a beta of a responsive design version of The Verge. They’re also planning to create a hub for shorter, sharable materials on The Verge, similar to the GIF repository that is Lookit on SB Nation, or IDK at Eater.

In throwing the doors open to the site for new types of storytelling, they also wanted to bring in more voices from across Vox Media. The effect is something like a crossover episode of your favorite shows, when The Jetsons meet The Flintstones, or when Steve Urkel showed up on Full House. Or, in this case, Ezra Klein of Vox.com writing about the future of politics, Spencer Hall of SB Nation on drugs and gambling in the future of sports, and Vox Media editorial director Lockhart Steele on getting back to the spirit of blogging. “I’m trying to push [Vox Media CEO Jim] Bankoff to write something,” Patel says. “We’ll see how it goes.”

Crossing site boundaries might be an expected result of The Verge’s new leader, which did the same. Patel, who was a cofounder of The Verge, left the site in March to help launch Vox.com. He returned to The Verge as editor in July after Josh Topolsky left for Bloomberg. He said he wants The Verge to “become a better Internet property” by trying more dynamic methods of storytelling and finding new ways of engaging with readers.

The quickest way to do that was to let Verge writers jump right in and start playing around. At the beginning of the week, staffers were given access to a dashboard of new tools to use on top of Chorus, Vox’s vaunted CMS. Lauren Rabaino, a product manager for The Verge who is leading the hack week, said they gave staffers tools to create timelines, lists, and quizzes along with some training. That was Monday morning; after that, they were on their own to use the new toys anyway they like.

That serves a couple of purposes, says Rabaino, as it helps test the tools for bugs and shows what features are missing. “We quickly found out as people played with them, they had ideas for them,” she said. Putting the editorial and product people on similar footing, as well as in the same room, gives both sides a clearer understanding of each other, she said. So when a developer says no to a project, a writer might have a better idea of the reasons why, Rabaino said.

Giving writers more control over the way stories are presented will eventually have the benefit of taking some day-to-day responsibilities away from developers. That means the product team can focus on bigger ideas rather than custom interfaces for individual stories, Rabaino said. One thing they hope to build by the end of this week is a better reader submission tool, that lets users offer photos or other content to be used in stories, Rabaino said.

“It lets the community engage in way that the community hasn’t done before, but always had the potential to do because we have such a strong, opinionated, tapped-in community,” she said. “They know everything Nilay Patel has done and have a GIF of it.”

Vox Media is thinking much bigger now. The company started with a federation of sports sites and grew to a media company whose properties crosses into tech, gaming, news, food, and real estate. With last fall’s addition of the Curbed network of sites and launch of Vox.com, the company has reorganized the way its tech talent works. In the past, each site had a dedicated product team; now the company has one large team that can dispatch people to work on projects on a case-by-case basis.

Trei Brundrett, chief product officer for Vox Media, said the company wants to create as much cross pollination between the editorial and product teams as possible. As a digital media company that also considers itself a technology company, there’s an emphasis on people who understand tech no matter what their day-to-day job entails. Hack events are a way to get both sides to work together because you’re letting people out of their normal responsibilities and giving them free rein to come up with new ideas, he said. What that does is bolster a culture of experimentation and collaboration in the company — which could lead to new products and more hack weeks across other Vox Media sites. Brundrett said he thinks that process is already a success.

“One of the things that’s awesome about this to me is I’m actually not there,” he said. “That’s a total victory to me. This is just something the team is good at now.”

Photo from The Verge hack week by Thomas Ricker used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 25, 2014, 10 a.m.
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