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July 9, 2019, 10:07 a.m.

Working across disciplines: A manifesto for happy newsrooms

For news outlets to successfully innovate, interdisciplinary teams are essential. Here’s how to make them work.

This piece is from our sister publication Nieman Reports.

Do you want to be ready for a startup in your newsroom, for new research methods, immersive storytelling, and product thinking? Then open doors for people with different skill sets. Invite coders, statisticians, bio-engineers, designers and {INSERT YOUR WILDCARD DISCIPLINE HERE} to work with you. But you’ll also need a fresh toolset and new management approaches.

Working with and within an interdisciplinary team at BR Data, the data journalism team of the German public broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk for the last few years (yay, BR Data!), I came to Harvard last summer as a 2019 Nieman Fellow with a lot of questions about how to do it better. Here are some of the answers I found.

I divided my attention during my Nieman year among interdisciplinary newsroom management, automating the news, and algorithmic accountability reporting. I got to talk to a bunch of smart people who tried different approaches to insert interdisciplinary teams in their news organizations. I’m immensely thankful for their insights and the experiences they shared with me. (You’ll find a list of all contributors at the end of this article.)

Working with people with a different mindset and skillset from yours is one of the best experiences I’ve had in my career. And it can be a pain in the ass. I’m sharing this ambivalent feeling with most of the people I’ve talked to.

Because it’s a lot of trial and error. Because you depend on one another AND on the strategy of the news organization as a whole, which comes down to the nitty-gritty details of your everyday work. Do you get server access, or do you have to ask the IT department every time you want to work on your story? Are you bound to a rigid content management system, or can you build your own storytelling framework to experiment with new formats? Do people with wildly different backgrounds really have to have the same journalistic credentials as every other person in the newsroom?

All this can cause a hell of a headache. But in the end, it’s worth it. Together you’ll be making a much better product and most probably having more fun. That’s why this is a manifesto.

If you’re setting up an interdisciplinary team in a newsroom, these ideas, experiences, and tools will hopefully make your life a little easier:

  1. Define your mission.
  2. Grow your team organically.
  3. Fit a model to your newsroom.
  4. Hone a digital strategy and mindset.
  5. Work on a common language.
  6. Manage your skillsets.
  7. Live in beta mode.
  8. Develop your own tools (below are some you can steal).
  9. Engage in job development for news nerds.
  10. Experiment A LOT and learn from your failures (I know, you know — but this is so important).
POSTED     July 9, 2019, 10:07 a.m.
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