Agile Storytelling: the Brian Boyer Way

Published on
September 23, 2011

Brian Boyer is an evangelist. His cause:  transforming newsroom culture to make news reporting feel more like open-source programming. Sporting a t-shirt emblazoned with "Share Your Work," the logo of the news application team he heads up at the Chicago Tribune, he made an enthusiastic case Thursday for  collaborative innovation in newsrooms.

Developers and designers – the nerds of the newsroom – filled the room for his workshop at the Online News Association convention in Boston. I was one of the few non-geeks in the room. But as I listened to Boyer outline the steps for a team approach to developing news applications called Agile project management, I found myself thinking about all the ways that the model applies to online storytellers as well.

The Chicago Tribune, like Hearst Corp. and the Telegraph in the United Kingdom, are among the newsrooms that have embraced Agile project management for news application development. Agile programming has been around in software development circles for more than a decade. It calls for tackling big projects in small bites.

At its heart, Agile project management is built around flexibility, quick decision-making and an ability to make course corrections when confronted with new ideas and new information. Agile reporting approaches news gathering as a two-way conversation with the audience.

Calling for Agile Reporting

In an agile reporting process, the story itself becomes a work in progress, not a finished product. Or as Staci Baird, a social media guru at Stanford University, puts it: "You don't just publish it, and that's it." Baird, who once received a certification as an "Agile Scrum Master," likes seeing journalists taking these principles to heart. Models such as Public Insight Journalism have institutionalized these ideas by finding ways to channel the knowledge in the audience into the news gathering process. And Boyer himself has developed a collaborative model for gathering and sharing knowledge and data in newsrooms called PANDA, which garnered him a Knight News Challenge this year. (For more on that, check out my USC Annenberg colleague Melanie Sill's eloquent essay on Boyer's open journalism ideas in the Online Journalism Review). 

Software developers who subscribe to the Agile model use the phrase "iterative" a lot, jargon that basically means that works happens in short cycles that build upon each other -- with change and course correction built into the process at every stage.     

This "iterative" approach, to steal the software jargon, is one that Baird and colleague Susan Mernit advocated for frequently during our Online Community Building and Health Fellowship earlier this year, where they served as senior advisers. Don't wait until the story is done to start your social media strategy, the two advised. Solicit feedback before, during and after your reporting in the field, letting the feedback shape questions, approaches and new stories that you would not have anticipated otherwise. Once engaged, your community is more likely to keep the conversation – and the story – alive. 

Be lithe and leave room for innovation

In a more typical development cycle, Boyer says, each programmer specializes in one narrow area for weeks and then the efforts are combined at the end, with a hope and a prayer that everything will work together. Piles of documentation are written first, spelling out specifications that can lock programmers into plans that may not pan out.

Under the Agile model, the concept comes first (or what Boyer calls a "manifesto" and a "system of beliefs.") Boyer tries to come up with a one-liner that the development and news team can use to set the direction of the entire project. "It's something we can keep looking back to and make sure we are on track."

The manifesto can be useful in avoiding what a developer I once worked with called "mission creep," a term that evokes a Vietnam War battle plan that expands wildly beyond its original scope.  Having a manifesto can be useful in beating back bright ideas at the eleventh hour from higher-ups, such as adding a section on the Arab Spring to a hyperlocal site. That's a moment, Boyer helpfully pointed out, when having a manifesto can "create parameters and rules to make sure your decisions are easy."

Constant Course Correction

Rather than working individually, programmers participating in Agile development work together intensively in weeklong cycles to develop independent portions of a bigger project. Because only a week has been invested in a given portion of the project, it's easier to reassess and junk unsuccessful elements at a stage when little time has been invested. "Make something. Show it, review it, throw it out" if need be, Boyer advises.

Following Boyer's lead yesterday, a team from the Boston Globe and went through an Agile exercise, using flash cards to organize ideas for a hypothetical website that would provide disabled Bostonians with real-time information on broken elevators in metro stations and high rises. They organized applications into piles of cards labeled "really like," "tossed out," "kinda okay," and "meh." Then they tossed out every except "really like" early.

 And now for the tricky part. These brainstorming, mission-setting and prioritizing meetings must involve both the nerds and the newsroom. In regular weekly meetings, the developers present chunks of projects as they are finished in draft form to the news decision-makers, rather than holding off for weeks to develop a finished project that may or may not fly. "Okay, boss, you want me to build this crazy application?" says Boyer. "Show up every Friday at 3 p.m. to see if you think we are on track. You have skin in the game. It's about constant course correction."

In a sign of just how radical that idea can be, one developer in the room raised her hand and plaintively said: "I don't want to be in a meeting once a week with certain higher-ups." Many in the audience nodded and laughed sympathetically.

But if newsroom developers can take a deep breath and learn to talk with editors, surely those of us in the storytelling business can cross our own Rubicon -- doing a better job of involving the community in the stories we tell and providing ordinary people with a deeper role in the story telling.