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Nov. 17, 2015, 1:51 p.m.
Mobile & Apps

Here’s how the Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab wants to experiment with news on phones

“In six months, I’d love to have done a couple of experiments, learn from them, and hopefully have had as many failures as successes.”

Back in June, The Guardian’s U.S. operation announced the creation of the Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab. Funded by a $2.6 million grant from the Knight Foundation, the Lab is developing and creating new approaches to delivering news and information using mobile technology. That’ll be done in a series of mobile-centric experiments over the next couple of years.

Further details on the project were sparse over the summer and into the fall, until earlier this month when the leads of the project were revealed. Sasha Koren and Sarah Schmalbach will take up the mantle as dual leads: Koren as editor and Schmalbach as senior product manager. Both are new to The Guardian. Koren is a former deputy interactive news editor at The New York Times, while Schmalbach comes from product management roles at USA Today and then Gannett.

Eagle-eyed Nieman Lab readers will note the absence of our usual disclosure after that previous Knight mention. (The Knight Foundation is also a funder of Nieman Lab.) In this case, however, there’s a further declaration to be made: We’re partnering with the Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab to share and report on their findings, data, analysis, and outcome over the course of The Guardian’s experiments. So expect to see more here in the coming months.

I sat down with Koren and Schmalbach right after the announcement to kick off the partnership and learn how they are approaching the project ahead. Below is a lightly edited version of our conversation.

Madeline Welsh: Congratulations on the launch of the Lab! Tell me how you see your new role.

sarah_schmalbachSarah Schmalbach: Having had the benefit of being here a full five weeks, two of which were in London, I’m really excited to expand my product development experience. That means that I’ll be working with Sasha and interested editorial parties to bring stories to life on mobile devices and small screens and bring a practical application sense to all of the great ideas that are going to come out of the next couple of weeks. Both in the newsroom, collaborating with Sasha, and then coming out of our launch event, I’m helping us stay organized, prioritize, and do things that are valuable and feasible on mobile.

sasha_koren3Sasha Koren: I see my role as, first, to work really closely with the newsroom to help us do these experiments in a way that is active and live with real data, and to think broadly about how storytelling can be done differently and better, and in new and interesting ways on mobile devices or even smaller screen sizes.

I’ll also be very active outside of the newsroom in serving the industry and taking what we learn and disseminating it, and keeping tabs on what else is going on in other newsrooms — both globally and domestically.

Welsh: Right, is the work of the Mobile Innovation Lab directed at an international audience, or is it U.S.-focused?

Schmalbach: We have the broadest possible mandate. It’s going to be the topic, the story, the passion that comes out of the newsroom and who wants to collaborate with us on a topic.

So it very well could be global. It could also be hyperlocal; it could really be anything at this point. We still have a couple more inputs coming, from the launch event to make sure that what we’re planning are not just things that we think would be great to experiment with, but the things that are going to elevate storytelling throughout the industry.

Welsh: So how does that start? Even within the context of The Guardian’s New York newsroom, who presents the idea or the story? And then what’s the trajectory?

Koren: I think it’s early for us to have a process nailed down, but the idea will come in discussions and in really close collaboration with Lee Glendinning and Matt Sullivan. We’ll be looking to see if there is a story that lends itself to mobile storytelling really well: What does that story want to be, what kind of story is it and how can we best use that story as a way to further experiment? I think that will be an iterative process. We won’t just land on one thing and have that be how we go through the two-year process. I think it’ll be something that evolves over time.

One of the things that drew me to this project and to this role is that it’s meant to be housed within a live newsroom. It’s not a project that is just off to the side, or on a different floor or something people don’t really think about. Instead it’s part of what The Guardian sees as its future.

Welsh: Do you have an idea how you want this sharing aspect to go?

Koren: It’s going to take a lot of forms, which is a very vague and broad answer, but through publishing updates, making code and lessons available, as well as in-person convenings, and ongoing conversations.

Schmalbach: One of the important things when they were pulling the lab together was to look for folks who had natural relationships within the industry that they could leverage. We have the support of other publishers, and partners in the technology space.

There was a dissemination plan that I was handed when I showed up, and it will likely be through the Guardian blog, maybe a site, a newsletter, social media presence, and a presence at industry events as well so we can share what we learn not only on the web, but in person as well. Always connecting with people who we know would be interested will be a natural part of what we do.

Welsh: Do you think it would ever get as specific as sharing the specific code for an experiment you did? Just saying “Here, newsrooms — do with this what you will”?

Schmalbach: Having worked in product development for a while, I know some of the challenges associated with sharing code, especially when content tends to be created inside of a proprietary CMS. We’re extremely optimistic, but also very realistic about how sharable code would be. That’s why we are hoping to bring in dedicated development resources, engineers from within The Guardian but also be similarly well connected to people within the publishing industry who have a sense of how content gets created and how it is easily shared. Yeah, we’re optimistic but realistic about how much code could be shared — versus statistics, learnings, best practices, workflow tweaks…that kind of thing.

Welsh: You were mentioning the timeline. It’s a two-year grant. How will things play out?

Schmalbach: It will be at least a few more weeks of collecting input from various places. There’s a bank of ideas and places for experimentation that have been put forth by folks within The Guardian, and there are things that Sasha and I have as passion points, within mobile and social and small screen storytelling that will be added to the list.

Having this prioritized list of things to tackle, challenges and user stories that we will have to apply criteria to, we’re going to have to see who is available to do what at what time, what is feasible — what are the short-term and long term things we can do.

I would like us to not shy away from things just because they might be intellectually challenging — but also technical challenges, especially if those are the ideas that could be more reusable or have a bigger impact. That process will take weeks, if not a few months.

We’ll have to pause to get feedback from folks both internally and externally. We’ll be asking: What did you think about this experiment — do we want to take this one farther or let it end and explore something else? A lot of the answers will be driven by how the newsroom here feels about what we put out and how the industry at large feels about what we put out — whether they want us to keep exploring certain things or try something new. It’ll be open and that’s good. Everyone is used to these quarterly roadmaps of like “Q3: We’ll be adding a clickable headline on mobile.” We’re trying to something that’s different — more flexible.

Koren: And the idea is not to have a two-year process where, after 18 months, we come up with some grand product that is going to save journalism and save the industry. It’s to learn as we go as the industry evolves, as tools evolve, platforms evolve…

Schmalbach: …costs get reduced…

Koren: So the arc is not: start, reach a peak, have a resolution — as a traditional arc would be — but to have a more curvy line, or have many different arcs. We’ve also chosen to do some things that are smaller and more nimble and can be put in place more easily.

There’s also a news cycle — like elections — to consider. Clearly there are a lot of opportunities for us to dive in at any given moment, but we will be cognizant of the news cycle.

Welsh: Is election coverage a likely subject of experimentation?

Schmalbach: I don’t think core mobile product development around election coverage is going to fall within the Lab, because that is a full-time job on its own. But what I do expect to happen is to be a part of editorial brainstorming and see where we can dive in and have targeted influence on things, potentially around live coverage. We’ve had some discussions around that and how to make it more real time and dynamic. We may help with some wire framing and hacks into the live blog.

Welsh: Why is it important to have the Lab to focus on mobile specifically?

Koren: From my perspective. when newsrooms are thinking about digital, they are increasingly thinking about mobile. But we are still in a place, where when newsrooms think about digital, they mean desktops and web. There’s been a lot of experimentation and innovation around that view size, and this is a completely different environment.

We’re not looking to solve every digital problem; we’re looking to push the industry forward, or help it move forward so that we don’t end up in two years with publishing still working in a slow way on an older model and other information dissemination moving full steam ahead. It’s so we aren’t getting left behind. A big component of this project is to serve the industry, which I think it is really exciting and key to its identity.

Schmalbach: I think the two things that make mobile different or a reason why we need to do experimentation a little quicker is that first, small screens are part of the remit here — because small screens are a bigger challenge to be able to convey information and give context is really hard when you’ve got three and a half inches.

Also, I think there is a certain intimacy associated with a mobile device that is different than a desktop device of even a shared tablet device. Part of the product development thinking here will be around how we leverage information that is automatically associated with your small screen or mobile device and how do we use that to tell better stories, or tell stories at the right time, or stories that allow you to take action as things become easier to do on mobile devices, like completing transactions, following people on social, getting information and information sources into your social stream. I feel like that will be important and more common on mobile devices than on desktop or tablets.

Welsh: Who else will be involved? You’re going to be working within the newsroom here, with the product teams both here and in London, but are you bringing in additional people?

Schmalbach: Is the Lab going to be bringing in additional people? Yes. Do we know who they are? No. That will all depend on the project. So some may be development heavy, others less. So for some we may need six reporters and a handheld camera, as opposed to six developers and me and Sasha.

Welsh: Lay out what you want in the next one month, six months, and a year.

Koren: Ha — well, in the next month, I’d like to meet everyone in the newsroom! For me, it’s getting the lay of the land, us talking a lot about how we are going to do what we want to do. In six months, I’d love to have done a couple of experiments, learn from them, and hopefully have had as many failures as successes. Or to not even think on that scale, but think about what we can glean, what kinds of assumptions can we debunk or affirm.

Schmalbach: In a month, I’d love to have that bank of ideas, and to have finished or started prioritizing them so we can begin work. In six months, we would have a few experiments under our belt. And then after a year, after having these experiments done, I’d like to have more of a solidified community around the Lab, a group of people who we meet with often.

When I was over in London, I was trying to recruit people in advance — like, “When we have beta things, can I send you a link?” Traditional product teams have internal beta distro lists and I’d like us to have that same type of thing.

Photo by chrisada used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 17, 2015, 1:51 p.m.
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