How a hackathon & impact journalism can go hand in hand

Mere weeks before we were in the thick of reporting for our final assignments, three of my J-School peers entered the Editors Lab. On April 8–9, the Global Editors Network (GEN), The Huffington Post and brought together a variety of publications and posed this question:

“How can news organizations develop innovative and interactive ways to create impact by connecting audiences with issues they care about?”

By definition, the Editor’s lab was a hackathon (strongly advocated for by Jue in a previous post) for which my classmates created a protoype for Vybe. Below Kathryn Casteel, Nicole Lewis and Kazi Awal share a bit of what they experienced.

What was it like preparing for the hackathon?

N: It was really hard at first because the concept was a little vague. We were looking for ways to connect readers to the issues they care about. In a word the theme was “impact.” So the goal was to come up with a tool that would facilitate this connection. And at the same time, our tool needed to be prototype-able within the two days of the hackathon. We are all journalists who code not full fledged developers, so it puts a limit on what we can make in two days!

After throwing around some ideas, Kazi came up with one that we all felt great about. Together we just fleshed out the concept until we had something that we thought boosted impact and had a clear value.

KC: We didn’t prepare too much beforehand. Like Nicole said, Kazi came up with a great idea that we all were really interested in. We did a little bit of research before and spoke with Jue about ways to execute the idea, but other than that we didn’t really know what to expect.

KA: Preparation was minimal. There was some brief discussion prior to the event among our group and our school’s technologist-in-residence about what we might propose. But being a grad student made it so that the hackathon was relatively low on the totem pole of priorities. Top priority was maintaining some semblance of sanity.

What was the hackathon culture like?

N: This hackathon felt really laid back to me. Since we are journalists I think people were more interested in making something of service rather than proving their coding prowess. In many cases the teams only had one developer, and the other teammates were designers or journalists. Aside from the hard brain work over two days to bring our idea to life — it was fun!

KC: It was fun, which I don’t know if people typically use the word fun for a hackathon. For me personally, it felt kind of empowering to work alongside all of these professional newsrooms and build something useful for journalists.

KA: The culture was inclusive and respectful.

Skip to about 17 minutes in to see Kazi, Kathryn and Nicole!

Did the teams interact with other teams? Did it ever feel competitive?

N: We spent most of our two days working in our groups. It takes a lot of time and focus to iterate an idea from start to finish. You have to name it, pitch it, code it, present it. So there is not a lot of time to spend with other teams. I felt a healthy sense of friendly competition. When we were working ppl would get up for snacks and you could see them trying to peek at your screen and see what you were up to! I think it is just healthy curiosity. And, I think I can speak for all of us: we had an idea that we felt strongly about and we wanted to win!

KC: It didn’t feel competitive at all really. It seemed like everyone just wanted to create their best work, regardless of whether or not they could win. The organization did a few “meet and geek” ice breaker type sessions the first day, so it was nice meeting all the other teams and discussing the work environment of their newsrooms.

KA: During the first day there was some interaction between teams during a speed-dating-esque get to know each other session. After that most of the interacting occurred after the days ended and there were drinks to be had. It never really felt competitive. The space was so beautiful and the vibe so pleasant that it felt like a zenned out coding retreat.

Overall learning experience?

N: Yes, definitely a learning experience. I got a good sense of how skilled you need to be to get something functional in two days! But, I would definitely do a hackathon again. I think one of the places I excel is in communicating concepts, which means clearly explaining the value or purpose behind new tools or other things we might develop. So if I can bring my coding knowledge up to par with that skill I think we could make something cool and useful.

KC: The biggest take away I got from doing the hackathon was learning how to work effectively with a group. Nicole, Kazi, and I all worked really well together and were able to really build off of each other’s ideas to develop an awesome product. I think it was valuable to learn how to work cooperatively in a group this way because it’s good practice for how these type of developers and designers work together in professional newsrooms. It’s cliche, but two heads really are better than one, or in this case three. :)

KA: It was cool to see how much can be achieved when you dedicate a couple of days solely to accomplishing one thing. In that way it was a nice reprieve from the CUNY J routine of having a million things to do every waking moment. Working with Nicole and Katie was also great. Together, we were able to really expand and solidify a fun new take on audience engagement. Focus + Teamwork -> Success is the takeaway for me.

Participants of the Editors Lab included the New York Times, Mic, BuzzFeed, AP, Huffington Post and other schools and publications