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June 10, 2014, 10 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Chatting with bots: How Slack is changing how newsrooms talk amongst themselves

Only a few months old, the chat app has gotten major uptake in digitally savvy newsrooms. Death to email!

Election nights are always busy for Jacob Harris, a senior software architect at The New York Times. Using internal data and feeds from external sources, he helps feed election results to Based in Washington, Harris spends most typical election nights either up in New York or glued to his computer back in D.C.

But on May 6, as returns from big primary elections in North Carolina, Ohio, and Indiana rolled in, Harris was actually able to step away from his computer a bit more, thanks to a bot he built that imported election results into Slack, a new work-focused chat application that transitions seamlessly from desktop to mobile. Harris used a webhook to connect his election results program into Slack, which meant results were streamed directly into the chatroom that the Times staff was using.

“I was actually at home because it’s in the evening, and what’s nice is that I was actually able to step away from the computer and go upstairs and say goodnight to my son a bit,” Harris told me. “I could look on my phone when I was upstairs and make sure everything was still running okay without having to run back down to my computer and figure it out, so that was really nice. It was also good because people could check in and see what was happening during the night.”

The Internet has no shortage of chat platforms, and each has its own strengths. But for whatever reason, Slack seems to have grabbed a big share of the digital newsroom market in almost no time. (It was only released publicly in February.) Along with the Times, Slack’s in use at BuzzFeed, The Times of London, The Atlantic, Business Insider, Quartz, Slate, NBC News, The Guardian — and even here at Nieman Lab.

[Editor’s note: We love Slack and use it all day. —Josh]

Slack allows for direct private communication as well as group conversations, which can be filtered into rooms. You can easily send files around, and everything is completely searchable. (Up to 10,000 past messages are searchable in the free version of Slack, and you get a larger search history in the paid versions of the app as well as more storage, additional integrations, and other perks.) You can integrate outside services like Google Drive, Dropbox, Google Hangouts, and Twitter. It’s also got the kind of power people like Harris want to build custom integrations — like bots that stream breaking election data.

Slack keeps all this in one window, and it’s easy and intuitive to use across all platforms. It puts the work stuff and the watercooler stuff in the same package. The integrations and custom bots are being used for work and fun — two words: custom emoji — and have allowed newsroom groups to optimize the app for their own workflows.

The Times of London built a bot that pulls in people’s schedules — so you can ask the bot if someone is busy before you bother them directly. Vox Media’s product team gets alerted through Slack if there’s an issue with any of their sites — and they’ll also get an alert that notifies who was assigned to fix the problem. At BuzzFeed, one developer loves to eat at a certain Mexican food cart, so they built a Calexico Bot (named, appropriately, after the food cart) that asks if someone wants to go to the cart every time someone types his name.

“It’s massively reduced the scope of people’s inboxes,” said Nick Petrie, deputy head of news development at The Times of London.

Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield, who also cofounded Flickr, didn’t specifically know how many total news outlets now use the service, but he told me when we spoke last month there were now about 65,000 total Slack users. The number of users has been growing at a rate of 10 to 20 percent per week, Butterfield said.

Slack wasn’t built with news organizations in mind, Butterfield said, but he said he now understands why media outlets — inherently highly collaborative organizations — would be attracted to the service. “We’re software developers, and that obviously influenced our approach to it, and we’ve gotten a lot of feedback from other people and we’ve modified it, but it was definitely a tool to suit our own needs early on,” Butterfield said. “It would not work well for certain types of businesses. It works well when there’s a lot of internal communication: people on the team talking to other people on the team.”

Slack arose out of the failure of Glitch, an online game created by the founders of Slack. After shuttering the game in 2012, they switched their focus to developing the chat application. In April, it announced that it raised $42.8 million in new funding. And its growth has been fueled exclusively by word-of-mouth and press coverage — no advertising.

Many outlets had previously been using Campfire as their group chat app of choice, but 37Signals, the company that developed Campfire, announced earlier this year that it was going to focus its business solely on Basecamp, its project management app. (The company changed its name to Basecamp, too). Others used or considered using HipChat before settling on Slack.

More than 300 people across Vox Media use Slack, which it just switched to last month. (And though he praised the usefulness of the app, Justin Glow, Vox Media’s director of product, said that it’s “maybe not the most helpful thing, actually” sometimes due to an onslaught of push notifications and constant chatter.)

Quartz uses Slack, and has spread the gospel to other Atlantic Media properties like The Wire, which has also made the transition. BuzzFeed has been using Slack since the fall as it was part of the group beta testing the app.

Despite the chatter concern, everyone I spoke with at a news outlet was unequivocally pleased that Slack had cut down the need for intraoffice email while making it easier to communicate with one another through the app’s various channels. Take Quartz, which has a channel for all Quartz staffers, but also channels for its editorial staff, its technology team, its business operations, and more. It even has a channel that solely features a bot that sends all incoming annotations, its version of comments.

“Some of us on the editorial team work a lot with the development team, so if you need to dip into the dev chat, it becomes really easy, and you can dip out as necessary to focus on something else,” said Quartz senior editor (and former Nieman Lab staffer) Zach Seward.

At TCU 360, the student news site at Texas Christian University, the top editors are required to have Slack installed on their smartphones. They have a specific channel for breaking news and use it to share information as quickly as possible.

“If all they have is their phone, they’ll take a picture and put it in the breaking news channel, so whoever is posting or editing the story is using it and has immediate access to it,” said Andrew Chavez, the organization’s adviser.

Last semester, one of the students on TCU 360’s data team was building a new app and began engaging with Chavez on Slack in one of the public channels, which afforded other staffers a valuable learning opportunity by almost eavesdropping on their conversation.

“That’s a conversation they never would’ve gotten to witness had he and I been talking in my office, but it was in the back of everyone’s mind as it happened,” Chavez said. “And as he and I were building out the app, they were seeing it progress because they were seeing the GitHub comments stream in. That’s not like anything we had expected when we started with this.”

POSTED     June 10, 2014, 10 a.m.
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