Your small team can have a big impact

Cross-posted on the INN Nerds blog.

Making things happen with limited resources and a small team can be a challenge. It can also be an opportunity to experiment and think creatively. During our ONA panel on Friday, John Keefe of WNYC succinctly captured this sentiment with the sage advice: Do crazy sh*t sometimes. (In his case, that meant roadtripping to a cabin in the Catskills with his team in order to finish a major project.)

John, Adam and I share the experience of building and leading small news apps teams within our organizations and we’ve learned a lot along the way. We wanted to talk openly about our biggest obstacles and how we’ve tackled them — in order to make our work more effective and our working lives happier.

Here are a few of our ideas:

  • Break down ambitious projects and iterate. Figure out the most essential part of the project/idea and start by solving that problem. You can add features and build on the project in the future.

  • Check in regularly and be honest about obstacles. We can’t get things done if we can’t talk about what’s preventing us from doing the work. Attend the daily news meeting. If possible sit in the newsroom. Being present during the editorial process will encourage collaboration and make your news apps team more accessible.

  • Don’t make people feel stupid. If you want to build momentum for news apps and special projects in your org, try not to talk down to your colleagues just because they have different skill sets. Instead, encourage skill sharing across departments, talk about what you’re learning, and reach out to those who may be shy about approaching the team.

  • Say no and explain why. Inevitably you will have to say no — you’re on a small team, after all. But when you do, explain why and include people by explaining your decision making process. Affirm ideas even you can’t immediately execute them.

  • Automate repetitive tasks. Think of it like a word processing macro. Anything you do over an over again can probably be automated, saving time and making your process more consistent. Writing simple automation scripts can also be a great way to learn some basic programming even if you’re not very technical (or at least is a way to start thinking like a programmer). Check out IFTTT for some ideas.

  • Document all the things. It can feel like a waste of precious time but it will save your butt in the future. Keep a simple txt file for a project and keep notes about what you’ve learned, bugs you’ve solved and your general process. This documentation will help you share your work with others and help you remember how the heck you built something.

  • Look to the community. There are so many excellent resources out there. Check out IRE/NICAR (and subscribe to NICAR-L). Explore some of the open source code that newsrooms are releasing. Read about how other teams make things over at Source. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, and this community is full of people who want to help.

Check out all of the slides here. Find our notes (and contribute your own ideas) on the Hackpad we put together. We know our ideas are only a small piece of this important topic and we’d like to keep building on the conversation.

A new chapter

I was joking with a friend recently that it feels like major-life-announcement season. Transition is in the air. Now it’s my turn to add an announcement to the pile.

After four years at MinnPost, I’ve accepted the position of design director with the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN).

INN is a nonprofit with a mission to advance sustainability and excellence in nonprofit journalism. They do this in myriad ways — helping member organizations create and distribute high quality reporting, developing digital tools to aid publishers, and refining revenue models that encourage sustainability.

I’m incredibly excited about this opportunity, and in the midst of this transition I wanted to pause and reflect a bit about my time with MinnPost and where I’ll be heading next.

The last four years

These past years have been some of the most rewarding of my career. Being at a nonprofit news startup afforded me the opportunity to experiment, take risks, and pursue projects I was passionate about — all with the support of an amazing, dedicated group of colleagues.

I stepped into the director of news technology role in 2011 and jumped head first into a major redesign of minnpost.com, which included a migration to an open source CMS. We launched the new site in early 2012 as one of the first responsive news sites in the country.

For a while, my primary focus was on building and maintaining a site that served our readers. But I was increasingly interested in creating visual and data-driven projects — journalism that was truly ofthe web, our chosen medium. Storytelling and news apps that solved problems and were built on a foundation of transparency.

It started with me and Jeff Guntzel working on a project about public defenders in Minnesota. A few months later, we built a “You fix the Minnesota deficit” budget calculator. Not long after that, I had the opportunity to hire the brilliant Kevin Schaul as an intern, and momentum started to build for real. We had a news apps team (modest as it was).

A couple of years later, and I have been fortunate enough to build and be part of an amazingly talented team. Tom, Alan and I — plus the editors and reporters that drive MinnPost’s editorial vision — have created live election apps, a Minneapolis crime dashboardcampaign finance resourcesState Fair bingoGreen Line demographic maps, a beautiful and functional style guide, a building-sized visualization of Minnesota’s lakes, and a legislative bill tracker, just to name a few.

Every project we’ve built is open source, and we’ve released numerous tools to help other organizations do this sort of work.

This never would have been possible if my boss, Joel Kramer, hadn’t empowered me to pursue these projects and given us the resources we needed to hire for this team. I’ll always be grateful for those opportunities, especially the freedom we had to build something from scratch and to learn, sometimes clumsily, as we traipsed along.

I know that the MinnData team will continue to be a leader in our industry, publishing excellent and thoughtful journalism — even if it’s bittersweet to think about it happening without me.

To say I’ll miss working with Alan and Tom, and with all of my colleagues at MinnPost, doesn’t begin to capture how weird it is to imagine a day-to-day life without our Slack conversations and passionate arguments about Star Trek and Corey’s cat GIFs. And for this I’m so thankful — that it’s hard to say goodbye reminds me that I’ve had something really, really good.

The next ___ years

INN’s tech team is relatively new, with big plans to grow. It’s a rare opportunity to help build something from the ground up and I can’t wait to work with Adam, Ryan, Denise, and the whole INN crew to help shape our team’s values, processes, and design philosophy.

The team will do some consulting, some product development (continuing to work on projects like Largo), some news apps (both building capacity for member orgs and working on discrete projects), and some things we probably haven’t thought of yet. I’ll be doing a lot of what I’ve been doing — designing things for the internet, finessing processes, making news apps — just on a broader scale.

INN has been a valued partner to MinnPost for years, which gave me the chance to see how they work and how they’ve helped nonprofit journalism find a stronger foothold. This new role allows me to stay connected to MinnPost, a project I care deeply about, while working with even more of the excellent nonprofit journalism organizations across the country. I hope to apply what I’ve at learned with MP at a network level, and learn from INN members’ wealth of experience. Of course, I remain a proud MinnPost sustaining member (have you joined?).

Our team at INN is remote right now, which means I’ll be staying in Minneapolis (with the flexibility to work anywhere). Keep an eye on https://labs.inn.org/ for updates about our work — and, if you haven’t already, join our book club!

I can’t wait to get started. Here’s to new adventures and all the people who have helped me along the way.