Dreams of digital journalism don’t have to be dreams. Saying goodbye to Ophan’s dad
“Whether due to fear or conservatism, legacy news organisations tend to lack the vision, ambition or courage to invest in harnessing technology to build the future, instead of attempting to perpetuate the past.”
This week two things happened that finally persuaded me to put fingers to keyboard and write something about a topic that’s become my key obsession in 10 years of working at the Guardian.
Firstly I read Sébastien Cevey’s thoughtful and in many ways damning indictment of his experience of working at the Guardian and his reasons for leaving. I saw many people I know and trust endorse his view more generally about legacy news organisations.
Secondly, and more profoundly, today Graham Tackley left the Guardian.
I have the greatest respect for Sébastien and I sympathise with many of his frustrations. But it took me back to a moment four and a half years ago when, shortly after starting in my new, glamorous role as SEO editorial executive, I found that I was unable to do the job.
It’s an old story, and now fairly well known. To change the culture of the Guardian in terms of valuing the digital medium, even just by making sure that we were writing headlines that suited it rather than fetishising print headlines, I needed to be able to not only change people’s minds but also ask them to do more work in the process. And the only way I could think to do that was by providing data that proved what I was suggesting wasn’t just a matter of opinion. Getting that data easily and at speed was the problem.
With a bit of help from the wonderful Dan Catt, and after several disastrous attempts to do a bit of coding myself, I was able to set up a mini-hack day. Standing up in front of a room full of developers who I barely knew and explaining what my job involved was nerve wracking. Telling them that I couldn’t do that job was terrifying.
It was the moment that kickstarted the most rewarding professional relationship of my career.
It was the catalyst for a cultural change right across the Guardian that’s still in place today and continues to evolve.
So I’m here to say, even at the moment that Graham is leaving the Guardian, that change — radical and meaningful change that supports journalism and journalists— is entirely possible within a legacy news organisation. It might not happen enough. But all of us — developers, editors, commercial teams — have a responsibility to make it work.
And the key starting point is to find someone within one of these other teams who has skills that complement yours and who shares your frustrations. Then you just need to start doing something about it.
Not everything will take off like Ophan. But try. Hack. Do something stupid. Do something without permission. Find a small problem. Got a problem that’s big? Make it smaller. Or solve it in a small section of your organisation. Be honest about whether it works. Be honest about whether what you’re suggesting is actually a solution to anything or just something you can do because technology. Be humble. Make sure you take the time to understand the problem you’re trying to solve. You might be attempting to impose a solution on something that’s not really the problem. Start finding other interesting people who agree and disagree with you. Solve a problem for one of the people who disagree with you. There’s nothing more galvanising and positive than helping someone out.
Four and a half years ago most editorial staff at the Guardian felt that data wasn’t part of their job. Nearly a year ago our new editor-in-chief Kath Viner began her first morning conference by saying “I was looking at Ophan over the weekend…” Last month more than 1,000 people at the Guardian logged in to use Ophan and find out more about how our journalism was being read.
I know that this could be described as overly simple or maybe naive. You might argue that Ophan is an intimidating model. But it started small. And it happened here. We did it. It can and will happen again.
In the words of Ophan’s new dad, Matt O’Brien:
“To understand the impact Graham has had, imagine The Guardian without Ophan.”