Build The News event update
On the weekend of Feb 22/23 The Times and Sunday Times Digital Team ran its first coding event.
Named Build The News, we invited 10 student teams and our two titles to compete in four categories over two days to see who could produce the most disruptive / useful / innovative new way to find information or tell stories digitally.
After almost 14 hours of idea generation, sense checking, designing and coding our attendees had to present back and show us what they had made and why.
We wanted the students to think very carefully about solving a particular problem - whether this was for journalists in the newsroom or for readers on digital platforms.
The teams rose to the challenge in spectacular fashion, some bit off more than they could chew and had to pivot to narrower solutions, others faced technical challenges that ate up precious time, two lost their developers at short notice.
Yet they were all still standing at the end to pitch their ideas to our judging panel.
The four categories we asked teams to focus on were:
Think about long form journalism on the web across multiple devices. How do you make sure the experience is immersive, readable and doesn’t distract from the story?
The power of the crowd is growing with the internet - can you develop a tool or platform that allows newsrooms to campaign effectively on issues that matter to their readers?
The Sunday tradition of sharing sections of the paper, the magazine and supplements around the kitchen table is evolving - can you think of an idea that enhances the reading/sharing experience?
It’s easier than ever to find out what readers / citizens / protesters think and feel - how do you make it easier for newsrooms to find the details and people that matter around big events and moments?
There was an fantastic atmosphere in the room all weekend with groups working incredibly hard to keep their ideas on track, often realising that they could simplify solutions further both technically and for their proposed users.
On the Saturday night we took everyone out for dinner and drinks so the teams could properly socialise with each other - the first day had been very intense and we wanted to make sure people were relaxed before day two began.
12 teams presented back to the group as a whole on Sunday afternoon; 10 student teams and two title ones. The title teams were only competing for bragging rights and it was closely fought, with The Sunday Times winning with their Trust.it concept.
We then had a judges prize for best presentation which went to Winchester with Longform.ly
Category winners were:
Crowd - Birmingham City University/HS2
Stretch - Kingston/Slide
Noise - Goldsmiths/Be There
Digest - University of Birmingham/Digest
Event winner - City, Imperial/Low Pass
Overall we were impressed with the ideas all the teams pursued, they had really taken to heart our advice to focus on solving a problem, rather than features for the sake of it - a good lesson for any newsroom.
We’ll be blogging in more detail about each of the ideas shortly as well as publishing a social roundup.
Thanks to everyone that helped make the weekend a success:
Main venue: BL-NK
Food: Speck Mobile
T-shirts: Action Advertising
Evening venue: Corney and Barrow
The Times and Sunday Times does FLOSS: Letter-spacing CKEditor plugin
While developing a typography widget for the long form content tool I’m working on, I was struck by how little ability modern WYSIWYG editor libraries have in terms of easily modifying text tracking, or “letter-spacing” as it’s known in CSS.
This kind of astonished me — is web typography really at such a nascent stage? Project like kerning.js are great steps forward in terms of bringing serious typographic concepts to the web, but a quick survey of most WYSIWYG editors shows little care paid beyond the simplest of formatting options.
Given as I was already using the terrific and massively popular CKEditor for the other text formatting aspects of my project, I decided to write a quick plugin to let users pick ±10px tracking. The result is CKEditor-Letterspacing (GitHub), which we’re releasing today as a FLOSS (Free/Libre Open Source Software) project.
I may refine it slightly over time, though my intent is to keep it as simple as possible. Let me know if you find it useful!
-Ændrew Rininsland (@aendrew), news developer
Iteration in the newsroom
There are a great many challenges in further integrating digital thinking into our newsrooms, but one of the easiest to overcome is the immediate reduction of needless jargon.
The Times in particular has a justified reputation as an arbiter of clear, elegant and grammatical writing. Being circumlocutious and conveying little that plain English cannot, jargon goes against these long-held principles. By its nature jargon is intended to be elitist and designed specifically to keep out those who are unfamiliar with it. Our aim is to be as inclusive as possible, especially when working alongside colleagues from print.
One piece of jargon that does seem to have stuck, however, is Iteration.
The term iteration seems to be almost unique in the fact that it is a useful piece of jargon: certainly ‘the incremental repetition of a process with the hope of getting closer to a set goal’ is far harder to remember, let alone say.
The idea of iterative working is obviously one integral to agile digital product development and deployment. But as a team we occupy an exciting position in the middle ground between the traditional newsroom and a small technology company: we’re journalists, but we’re also product managers.
So we’re more than familiar with concepts of iterative development, like Eric Ries’ idea of Build-Measure-Learn:
Yet we are part of an environment where the idea of working to a deadline and then sending a completed newspaper to the printing press is still an important one.
You don’t soft launch newspapers every day, or at least not ones with a combined history of 321 years, as with The Times and Sunday Times.
So our project deadlines are often defined by news events like, for example, our Nelson Mandela obituary. They are also set according to print deadlines: our Malala Yousafzai piece was built to coincide with the publication of her autobiography.
In both of these instances we wanted to launch a completed editorial project, with no need or time for iteration. But we found that this approach meant that we occasionally spent a lot of time building things, launching them and then moving on to another, different project.
One answer to this problem is an iterative approach.
Take our Fashion Companion App. Built on a basic code framework we’d created last year for a Conference Companion tool, the latest iteration of the idea added new functionality and an increased editorial voice by giving journalists the ability to file short bulletins or news headlines directly into the app.
This part of the process was an obvious one: we wanted to improve on something we’d already built. The next was far more daunting: we wanted to launch something incomplete but allow our readers to help shape it.
So instead of aiming to deliver a finished product to deadline, the approach we took was to use what we’d learnt from the Conference Companion to identify our new editorial requirements. Then we spent three weeks creating an MVP, published it and are now iterating on it throughout the four fashion weeks in New York, London, Paris and Milan.
The fact that it is a live app means that we were able to use operational audience data to make decisions about improvements or tweaks to the product and also to decide when the app will be ‘finished’ and we can move on to our next project.
This move to iterative development was a daunting cultural shift, even if it’s one that has already been made by the Guardian and New York Times in releasing beta versions of their digital products.
But really the idea of iteration is one that is easy for journalists to understand.
We iterate on the news all of the time: a story breaks. We report it. We file a more detailed followup or a new line. Analysis of audience data might lead the story in new directions or extend its lifespan.
So the story might start with an editor or a reporter but then becomes shaped by the audience according to their interests and appetite for further updates.
In other words our readers interact with it our products, further helping us provide the most useful and interesting content for them. This isn’t a new idea, of course: it was one of Tim O’Reilly’s core principles of Web 2.0. But the idea of making news products live and then improving on them in front of the readers’ eyes is an exciting one for both us and, hopefully, for them.
Now all that we need to do is to come up with a jargon-free alternative to the word iteration itself.
Pat Long, Head Of News Development
Front Row fashion app
Earlier this week we soft launched a new fashion week experience for our subscribers. It’s called Front Row and it looks like this
It is designed by Eoin Tunstead and coded by Callum Christie & Aendrew Rininsland.
It pulls together a number of feeds including twitter accounts, custom text and photo updates from our journalists and eventually Instagram, Vine and Tout.
It’s an evolution of Conference Companion a project we pushed out last September.
We’ll post about the code behind the app soon - in the meantime get your fashion gossip fix at frontrow.thesundaytimes.co.uk
The Times and Sunday Times digital might spend a lot of time working with new technology but sometimes we like to reflect how the papers used to be produced. So this week, we ventured to the News UK text and pictures archives in Bow, East London, to take a look around.
Steve Baker, Information Services Manager from the Group Publishing Services team, was kind enough to organise the visit and Picture Librarians Marc Russell and MJ Jennings generously gave up their time to show us round the labyrinthine archive. We posted some pictures to our fledgling Instagram account and on Twitter to give our followers a sense of what goes on behind the scenes at the archive and they proved to be very popular. The photos here were taken on a Canon 5D MkIII with a 24-70mm f2.8 L lens.
We’re hoping to do another #timestour to our artefact archive in Enfield, North London, and perhaps one of our new offices in London Bridge when we move in this summer soon so stay tuned for more snaps.
- benwhitelaw and Owen Jones
Vining The Times front page
The idea of an animated front page was put to us by Jon Hill, Design Editor at The Times, who was keen to explore a new way of presenting our newspaper’s front page and snippets of content through social media.
Vine has proven to be a great tool in relaying short form pieces to our audience, in particularly with illustrating data such as our Budget and Mulled Vine projects.
What’s great is that we can publish this prior to the newspaper hitting the news stands and so it can provide a teaser for anyone wanting to get a insight into the next day’s printed edition.
The Vine has a basic format in place that maintains the tradition of having the front page on view at the end, and begins by highlighting a core news element (a photograph or headline) that then builds into the final design via some simple transitions.
We started by analysing previous front pages and the compositions that had been produced over the past month. We took into into account picture crops and type arrangements that we might encounter and then came up with a loose structure that could be played with depending on what the content might be for each edition.
It’s important that this doesn’t become the same animation with different content each time and there is still scope to try new things.
The process of producing these Vines is relatively simple, at around 6pm the layout of the front page starts to take shape and offers us an insight into the structure that needs to be used.
By 8pm we have the final front page design from the news desk, allowing us to start dissecting the content and applying it to the framework that we’ve put together. With a bit of handy work in After Effects we can create the final clip ready to publish at around 10pm.
With the first one in the bag and plenty more ideas starting to roll in off the back of this, it’s clear that there’s still plenty of room for improvement. The good thing is that we’ve found a neat new way to publish our front page on social media.
Fraser Lyness @fraserlyness
Developing “The Man Who Changed The World”
One of the goals of our team has consistently been to push the boundaries of how The Times and Sunday Times creates stimulating visual content for the web and iPad. Partially as a response to industry trends and partially as a way of breaking new ground for our various platforms, long form content has been a clear focus since I started as a developer in May last year.
While we’ve produced a number of long form features in that time, the one that started it all was our obituary for Nelson Mandela, which we published last month and began work on last August when it was apparent he was in ill health. Working under the need to be prepared in case Mandela’s condition turned for the worse, the main thrust of it was completed in about three weeks, with several more weeks dedicated to bug squashing and cross-browser testing.
We archived the piece when Mandela was released from hospital in September, but by that time we had a fully-working and tested project. As such, our work on it predates even our earliest long form-style pieces, particularly those on chemical warfare and Christina Lamb’s experiences as biographer to Malala Yousafzai.
How we started
The Mandela coverage was particularly embryonic as it was all hand-coded using the Twitter Bootstrap framework, with Tabletop.js being used for content management. This contrasts with our later attempts, which have been focused on creating tools that will eventually enable non-coder digital producers to build similar content without needing a developer to work alongside, managed via the popular WordPress CMS.
In fact, a lot of the individual elements (Most designed by Mario Cameira) have been translated into modular WordPress widget templates, which in turn have been used in some of the features we’ve produced since Mandela. By forcing us to think in terms of modular widgets that get added to our content suite after every project, our system has quickly accumulated a wide range of design elements that can be used without any extra coding effort on our behalf.
Challenges we faced
Beyond that, the Mandela coverage had a few unique aspects. The one I’m most proud of is the Hyperaudio-driven narrated introduction.
Initially, we only had the text of Ben Okri’s fantastic introduction opening the piece, but after some discussion realised it might be possible to record the Booker Prize winner reading his work aloud.
We were able to capture the audio when Okri visited our offices, I then used subtitle software to create time signatures for each line in the introduction. The resulting .srt file was then used by Hyperaudio to create the effect in the final product. While it took roughly a day or so of development time, I’m rather pleased with how it turned out in the end — the effect of watching Okri’s words light up as you hear them in his voice is rather powerful.
There are also substantially more scroll-driven special effects in the Mandela feature than our other pieces, which are more optimised for tablet. Part of the learning process was realising which desktop-based effects worked on iPad (Which is increasingly our subscribers preferred method of reading The Times).
While scroll-driven special effects are relatively normal and straight-forward when optimising for modern desktop computers, the event model specific to touch-driven devices makes these effects juddery at best, and nearly unusable at worst. Given this, the few scroll-driven effects in the Mandela piece (namely the background change during the prison section and the fading in of the sidebar blocks) are designed to be fairly simple and consistent between platforms.
I can’t stress enough how great an honour it was to work on a piece designed to commemorate the life and struggles of such an amazing leader and human being. Forgetting for a moment all the visual flourishes, the content really does speak for itself; by clicking the “T” logo in the upper-right corner, one can see the extent of The Times’ Mandela coverage, which the long form feature acted as a portal to. Being able to develop around such amazing journalism — both new and historical — is easily one of the best parts of my job.
It’s an absolutely fascinating time to be an editorial web developer given the way Snow Fall has turned news content presentation on its head, and our journey here at The Times and Sunday Times in creating visually-stimulating long form feature content has really only just begun. Make sure to watch this space.
Ændrew Rininsland is a news developer with The Times and Sunday Times. He tweets via @aendrew and occasionally blogs on Tumblr.
Sunday Times NHS reform campaign wins award
Last week The Sunday Times won Campaign of the Year for its NHS Reform campaign at the Press Gazette British Journalism Awards.
The campaign has engaged thousands of readers since the launch in July, with 9,000 committing their support and over 500 sending in stories of their personal experiences of weekend care.
Congratulations to everyone that has worked on the campaign so far
Build The News
We’re really excited to announce an event held by The Times, Sunday Times and the Sun for student journalists and programmers - Build The News.
Build The News will be a chance for web developers to team up with student journalists to compete with others in order to produce the best digital journalism project.
The aim is to see how student journalists and developers can work together to create innovative forms of storytelling, with a choice of topic and prizes awarded for the best in each category.
Throughout the two day event, teams will benefit from the expertise of Times, Sunday Times and Sun staff, as well as companies (to be announced) with interesting APIs and tool kits to give feedback and assistance with your projects.
To learn more about the event and book your ticket, take a look at the event page here.
If you’ve got any questions, feel free to tweet us at @TimesDevelops or me at @JosephStash
Easy to find and follow: The Times and The Sunday Times Twitter directory
Lots of our journalists at The Times and The Sunday Times use Twitter to break news and engage with readers about what they write. Some of our journalists have built up large followings whilst others have been contacted with stories as a result of the loyal and engaged following they have.
Not only that but we’ve found that their use of social media has caused people to become subscribers, especially around big events such as the death of Margaret Thatcher. At numerous points during the last year, the conversion rate of visitors from social media (surprisingly if we’re honest) was stronger than other channels like search and PPC.
Anecdotally too, social is increasingly a way in which new subscribers begin their relationship with The Times and The Sunday Times. We often speak to new readers at Times+ events who say they were persuaded to subscribe having followed a journalist or a section account and seeing content that they’d like to read but can’t. Twitter, it turns out, is a great shop window for our journalism.
With that in mind, we figured it would be beneficial to try and increase the number of followers across our journalists and section accounts. To do so, we decided to create a Twitter directory for each title to make it easy for readers to find and follow the accounts that interest them.
The directory is pulling from two Twitter lists, one for The Times and one for The Sunday Times and has been built using a Django backend plugged into Twitter API to allow the social media and community team to add and remove journalists and edit their titles without using a developer’s time.
We’ve promoted it every day in our tablet editions and on the homepage of both websites (although it’s a bit hidden at the moment). Unique visitors have been a steady on The Times version since launching in September and, whilst the number of followers driven from the directory is difficult to measure accurately, average dwell time is over 1 minute which we think is pretty healthy.
We’ll be keeping an eye on The Sunday Times version which launched this week and will make tweaks to the design and UX accordingly. We hope to make it easier to find individual journalists and sections by adding anchor links and a search functionality. Also we think there’s value in linking the Twitter directory to the news agenda by explaining why you should follow certain journalist on that day or week. We’ll post about any changes here on the Times and Sunday Times Digital Development blog.
Thanks for reading
Ben (benwhitelaw), Henrique and others from the Digital team