My learnings from SRCCON 2016

What I learned from my session on on-boarding & off-boarding processes and a quick recap

Sandhya Kambhampati
Aug 4, 2016 · 7 min read

Last week (July 28 & July 29), OpenNews had their annual conference around newsroom culture, journalism, code and processes called SRCCON in Portland. This was my third time attending the conference. As always, I came away from the two days with inspiration, questions and answers about my day-to-day work in data journalism. Because the conference is structured to have more participatory conversations rather than having sessions where people show off their work and don’t explain anything, it really made me think a lot about my work and challenge my thoughts I have about the processes we all are working through in our newsrooms.

It’s a conference where people are actually genuinely interested in helping each other and honest about the issues that they are facing in their own newsrooms. And it’s refreshing to have a space for this. The conference reminds me that I’m not alone with my problems as there are people who are currently experiencing similar challenges or have experienced them in the past and want to think through ways to overcome them. In many ways, the conference doesn’t feel like a conference, but rather a conversation with friends, new and old. Some sessions are like group therapy. It’s a safe space to honestly talk about the challenges and successes we face as a community on a daily basis. I really like that people aren’t bragging about their work or stories, but rather teaching and helping others think through ways we can all do fantastic work. Because in the end of the day, we’re a community and we’re all interested in telling people’s stories.

I was also really surprised this year about how many people I knew, largely in part because of my fellowship and the connections I’ve made in the last few months. And of course, I was really excited to be reunited with my fellow fellows!

Fellows having breakfast at Mother’s (which is fantastic, btw) ❤

The conference this year also had a lot more POC and folks who I haven’t met in this space and it made me really happy that OpenNews made the outreach to reach new communities. I also really liked that there were more people from non-journalism backgrounds at the conference than in prior years (or at least it seemed that way to me from the people I met).

OpenNews is really thoughtful about their documentation and whole process of the conference: from being open about the way they chose the sessions, having transcription, having a code of conduct accessible, having a hotline for people to call in case there’s an issue, having pronoun pins, and food for vegetarians and others with different dietary needs. And my personal favorite, they had an ice cream truck!

Let’s be real, I could go on how amazing SRCCON and OpenNews is, but I wanted to write this post for those who couldn’t attend and might want to know what some key takeaways were. I’m mostly going to focus on my session on on-boarding and off-boarding, but I’ve also highlighted some things that really stuck out to me.

My session on day 1: The good and bad of newsroom on-boarding processes (and how can we make them better).

The notes from the session are here.

Previously, I wrote about my research on newsroom on-boarding and off-boarding processes, or in other words, the process that happens when a person starts and ends a job. I’m really interested in the institutional knowledge that is lost when a person leaves a job and I wanted to have this conversation at SRCCON to see what others are doing in their newsrooms.

For my research, I’m doing a survey, which you can take here. I’ve already heard from ~115 newsrooms and am looking to hear more, especially from video and photo journalists.

In the session, we had about 13 people (myself included) and a mix of data reporters, developers, editors and managers. I talked openly about my previous jobs and how I documented my job throughout the job and put together a list of links, wrote down contact information about organizations I often contacted, basics of the data we use, issues with certain projects that were known, and other things that the person who is starting the role should know.

Originally, I had planned for the session to break up into tables and use sticky notes to do a brainstorm on on-boarding and off-boarding docs. But since our group was small enough, it turned out that we could have a nice roundtable discussion.

Here are some of the questions I posed:

  • What was useful in your newsrooms on-boarding and off-boarding processes?
  • What are the problem areas for these processes in newsrooms?
  • What do you wish was better in your on-boarding/off-boarding?
  • What’s the worst/best experience with on-boarding you’ve had?
  • What would your ideal on-boarding/off-boarding include?

The issues: it’s really difficult to know how to write something so that someone else can read it later and understand it and how to deal with time constraints people have with writing documentation.

There should be a person or people who reads through the documents that a person writes and when they’re done reading through the documentation they should add their comments and changes to the documents. It’s also really helpful to have a buddy system for both processes and to shadow other peoples’ jobs in the newsroom to understand their job in the first few weeks on the job. Also, you should be documenting as you go along in the job, so that you’re not scrambling in the last minute & forgetting things. It can also be helpful to have documentation days where the sole focus is on creating really good documentation.

Some key things to document:

  • installation guide & wiki: including but not limited to: tools, websites to bookmark, glossary of terms to know, guide to common data sets that are used, projects previously worked on & expectations of the job
  • project path: timeline, who are the key people in the process/order of this process
  • styleguide
  • newsroom organization chart (& include photos and what people do and not just their titles, which may not actually describe their job) & a map of the newsroom
  • rolodex of newsroom contacts & any notes on when they are good to contact, other quirks
  • FOI status: what data you have, clean version, messy version, key contacts, follow-ups

Off-boarding suggestions:

  • checklists: can include removing people from accounts (such as Facebook, Twitter), handing off email, Google Docs hand-off
  • newsroom exit interview with team, what went wrong, what went well, etc. & a time to answer any questions about what anyone in the newsroom wonders about your job (similar to office hours)

Something that didn’t occur to me or was brought up in my survey responses, but was mentioned in the session was those people who go on a leave from the newsroom either for sabbatical or maternity leave. It’s important to also think about keeping a checklist so that these people are in loop with the newsroom and leaving the proper contact information for these folks.

A resource that was suggested was this piece from Harvard Business Review.

Overall, it was a really great session. I think it allowed people to talk openly about their frustrations and successes. I hope my research will be able to help newsrooms with their templates and documentation. More on that later!

Since I’m interested in documentation and process, most of the sessions I went to were focused on those areas. Here are some of the sessions I attended & my key takeaways (note: I included the links here to the sessions too, which include notes/live transcription if it was transcribed):

DAY 1:

You want to teach a reporter to do what?: We should be teaching our newsrooms best practices (ex: when to use certain charts), explain what we do with code & graphics/the time it takes for projects, basics of spreadsheets/Excel. It’s also really helpful to teach reporters and editors who have an interest in the subject/tool and show them the use-case for a tool rather than showing them something abstract.

How can we peer review our data stories?: Some ideas for reviews: a) have someone check over your work by reproducing your work using your scripts/notes or b) two people do the analyses independently with different methods and think about what analysis you need to do answer the questions you’re posing. You can also talk to people who focus on your beat or present the method and not your conclusion and see if people come to the same conclusion you do. Resource:

Day 2:

Open Sourcing and You: No one is looking at your code! Seriously, you should just open source the project that has been sitting on your computer figuratively getting dusty. Common qualms about open-sourcing: someone is going to laugh at my code, someone is going to steal colors of my site and make a new site, and someone is going to scoop us if we code in the open. You should open source more because your problems aren’t unique and it’s also a great thing to have for recruiting.

Every day I’m juggling: Managing managers, peer expectations, and your own project ideas: If you have micromanagers, you can try sending all of them into one office to fight it out and then one person comes back to the reporter/developer with feedback. It’s really helpful to teach your newsroom/show your editor what you actually do → create an impact report and show them what worked and what didn’t. Use slack for more communication!

Lunch conversation: Professional development in the digital age: How to get started, how to keep going: We all have fears (ex: imposter syndrome, asking wrong questions, overwhelmed by new tools, hitting a plateau, etc.). Solutions: find a mentor, go to tech meet-ups, always ask questions, talk to people in the OpenNews community!

They don’t want you to lead: Major keys to success as an underrepresented manager: Woof, this session. It made me really sad that we still have to have these kind of sessions because of the awful people that somehow still do and make these terrible comments in newsrooms. I think the notes that were taken on this session pretty much summed it up. But, in general, build a community of people who are dealing with similar issues as you and reach out to them when you need help and need support.

If you have questions about my session or anything of my notes, please reach out → tweet @sandhya__k.

Sandhya Kambhampati

Written by

Data reporter @ProPublicaIL.

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