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The case for making good internet, together

Supreme for Racked, HRC Interview for Vox.com, Trump Tax for Vox.com
Vox Media

If you know me at all you’re probably thinking, Kainaz is the last person to write something like this. Documentation was a four-letter word to me. It felt overly obsessive and impersonal. But, in the short time I’ve been at Vox Media, I can say, I’ve been converted. And not through persuasion or coercion but through experience.

We recently remixed our team, our team’s mission, and our team’s priorities. In doing so, we needed to communicate this change. And, as with so many things, it’s not until you have to make a case for something that you really start to understand your point of view.

Which is why I’m sharing this with a wider audience, because I know there are folks out there making cases for good internet every day — perhaps there is something in here that might help you get that win.

*This letter was addressed to all our Editors in Chief at Vox Media, and then opened to anyone interested in understanding the Storytelling Studio.*

Our origin story

Hey, hi, hello,

I know what you are thinking, another remix of the same folks. This is just another reshuffle. But, no, wait, read on — this is different. I promise, so bear with me.

We were originally incubated within the product organizational structure, tasked with making features look good and building usable tools for our journalists, which worked and has served its purpose. But, there were always things we knew we could do that went beyond the scope we were working in.

Basically we needed to get closer to our stories in order to create high-impact journalism.

That’s why we are now on Melissa Bell’s Growth & Development team — tasked with finding new ways to blow up and rethink our storytelling. If that sounds vague, it is, because we know that there is no formula for what we do. Stories are like people. They each have individual needs. So think of this as a guideline on how we think about our work and how you can work with us.

TL;DR - we are not in the business of making bad internet. What do we mean by BAD INTERNET? It’s internet that doesn’t care about the audience AT ALL. So, two words you’ll hear us saying all the time: STORY & AUDIENCE.

We make things for our audience, not for ourselves. So we’ll be talking about our users and their needs. We can make anything on the internet, which is a blessing and a curse. The more focused we are, the more we’ll make something that matters.

That’s where the shift from the name Editorial Products Team to Storytelling Studio comes into play. Language is important and we’d love to be seen as equal collaborators in helping to create and craft the story. I know that’s a bit of a mental shift but we thrive on change, right?

Our priorities

I began this section by calling it, “What makes a story a good candidate for collaboration?” But after thinking about it, that framing felt like I was trying to create a template or checklist on what is good enough for the studio to work on. We do NOT want to make value judgements on your ideas or stories you feel are important.

So, let’s flip it. Rather than telling you what to bring to us, I’ll tell you what we have to offer. Our talent. Our firepower.

TL;DR - We are a team of developers, engineers, data journalists, designers, UX experts, visual leaders, and ONE INCREDIBLY badass project manager. You can see everyone’s expertise here.

The Storytelling Studio, Chicago, Illinois, July 2016.
The Storytelling Studio, Chicago, Illinois, July 2016.
Vox Media

In the short time that I’ve been at Vox Media, I’ve had in-depth conversations about a wide range of topics with this team, including story narratives, user experience, accessibility, design, data, engagement, sharing, off-platform, on-platform, video, graphics, typefaces, load time, good bots, bad bots, APIs, user generated content, revenue, smart sponsorship, building for scale … I can go on and on.

This team is thoughtful in ways that humble me. They are artful journalists and storytellers.

Here they are in their own words:

Ryan Mark — (Well, okay, these aren’t his words as he’s on vacation, but Ryan is an amazing data/developer/collaborator/journalist/thinker.)

Katie O’Dowd — I enjoy facilitating collaboration and trying new processes to help foster a happy team and make our work more efficient. I appreciate a good to-do list.

Kelsey Scherer — I enjoy collaborating to identify and solve problems with clear and simple designs. I think about design beyond just colors and fonts. I will probably change process at least one time during a project to better fit the needs of a story.

Casey Miller — I love creating unique, polished, and enthralling experiences for users. If those experiences happen to have a data component to them (whether that means using a dataset we already have, pulling data from an API, or dealing with user-generated content) all the better. As an incredibly visual person myself, I enjoy finding elegant ways to display data and strive to engage the user as much as possible.

Kavya Sukumar — I love strong coffee, clean code, and rapid experimentation with new ways of telling stories. I enjoy finding stories in large and unwieldy datasets.

Aidan Feay — When I’m not building Lego castles, I build immersive data and story-driven experiences.

Brittany Holloway-Brown — When I graduated from art school with a degree in illustration, the last place I saw myself was working as a designer for a newsroom, but the skills I learned in school inform my new role perfectly. Human connection is something I’ve always been interested in and I love creating beautiful stories and experiences. I always want to bring a human touch to the web. I’m a romantic.

Tyson Whiting — I am a designer and artist who is usually getting my hands dirty, outside with grease and slime and inside with glue and paint. Art and journalism are two ends of a rope that I love to tie together because connections between readers and stories emotionally, visually, and logically is truly what makes the world go around. Making things beautiful and fun is all I ever want to do in life.

Yuri Victor — I build stuff. (Okay, these are my words now, he’s a badass.)

Lauren Rabaino — I help when we need to think about how our stories connect to all the other parts of our business: product, revenue, growth, brand development. I connect the dots to the rest of the company when it’s not clear how those dots should be connected, and am thinking longterm about the direction and strategy for the team.

(Take a break, breathe, I know it’s exciting and we want to work with you all. Even though we seem like a huge team there are a lot more of you than us.)

What types of stories should include the Storytelling Studio?

We add the most value when we look at our work as being at the intersection of content, design, and product. And that doesn’t mean we are only making blow-out-big-holy-shit pieces.

It means that we are leveraging our skill set with your editorial dreams to create something smart. Something that adds value to our audiences lives. Something that isn’t derivative or redundant.

Again, sort of vague, I know, but I’m focused on the way we want everyone to think, not on a formula that we want to prescribe.

Here are some questions or situations that might bring you to us:

  • Do I have exclusive access to a person or story that no one else has?
  • I’ve got this absurd data set that I don’t know what to do with! HELP!
  • I want to create an amazing data set that I know can be done but I don’t know where to start.
  • Is this an original investigation?
  • Is this a story that only we can tell?
  • Is this something that will live beyond a news cycle?
  • Is there a way to include the audience in a new way?
  • Can we use technology to make the story easier to report or research?
  • Can we use data to tell stories that are different for each reader?
  • Can we tell this story with images and minimal text?
  • I’ve got a new audience I want to reach with this story. Can we make it just for them?

I think I know your next question: At what stage in development should I bring a story to you?

Our ideal state of talking about a story:

  • You have a clear idea or direction.
  • You have a lead, but need help with data.
  • How and where you tell the story is ripe for exploration.

Examples:

X : “I have this interview with Hillary Clinton already written, can you help me make it look important?”

✓ : “I have access to Hillary Clinton for a 45-minute interview and I don’t want to do what we did last time. How can we push this story?”

X : “We want to do a tour across the country that has videos, interactive maps, VR, and charts.”

✓ : “We want to tell the story of the common threads that tie Americans together, despite the surface-level differences city to city. We’ll focus on these unifying themes: suburbs vs. city, revitalization vs. gentrification, rising prices vs. low inventory, preservation vs. development. We’ve got writers, we can hire photographers, we are game for anything!”

X : “I want to do something amazing around the Olympics. What should I do?”

✓ : “I think there’s an opportunity to tell a story about how Olympians have evolved, and we have a data set going back to 1986. What can this be?”

X : “We have to do this because we need to win an award and we do it every year.”

✓ : Our audiences expect us to do this every year because it matters to them. Here’s everything we’ve learned from previous iterations. How can we rethink this in a totally different way?”

What is the Storytelling Studio collaboration process like?

Collaborations are hard, especially with new teams, new languages, and new priorities. And we recognize that every project is different. Stories will come to us at different phases, but here’s our overall process for working on a collaboration.

Brainstorm

  • If the idea needs to be fleshed out we will have a project brainstorm — it’s a blue-sky, judgement-free zone where we go wild with possibilities.
  • Okay, it’s not totally unguided — we will be asking three essential questions:
  1. Who is our audience/user?
  2. What are their needs? Why should they care about this?
  3. What are we going to build to meet those needs? What do we want users to do?
  • The Studio’s involvement could end here if we define the story and realize you have everything you need to create this experience for your audience. Better to spot this early then go down the long road of making something our hearts aren’t in.

Project Kickoff

  • We define the story together and create shared expectations. This is really important for transparency and for fostering trust.
  • We will define roles and responsibilities. Everyone has a role in the room and everyone should know exactly what they are accountable for.
  • We will schedule weekly or daily check-ins depending on what works best for the project.
  • We may identify a specific question we want to test and actually test it. We want to learn from every story we produce, so this is very important to our team’s mission. (e.g. What’s the best placement for a newsletter sign-up? Where do people drop off in the story? Why?)

Create, Report, Build The Story

  • Depending on the story this takes different forms, but some methods might include:
  • Define a visual style guide for photography, illustrations or video.
  • Create wireframes/user flow.
  • Review written/visual content early and often.
  • Conduct user testing of the entire experience (including the editorial content).

Learn, Write, Share

  • We write about our collaborations. You can see some examples: here, here and here.
  • We host a retrospective, asking what worked, what didn’t work, and what we can try differently next time. We want to learn from what we make and how we work and iterate from what we learn.

Other ways to work with the Storytelling Studio

While the Studio can’t collaborate with every brand on every story, we do not want to be siloed. Here are other ways to work with us.

1:1 Collaborations

The best stories come from really simple beginnings and awesome mashups.

  • A developer and a culture reporter riff on ideas.
  • A data journalist and a race/identities reporter dream of creating data.
  • An illustrator and tech reporter create a graphic approach to an in-depth profile.
  • A video producer, a designer, and a developer … who knows what can happen!

In addition to larger projects, I want to encourage this type of cross-disciplinary collaboration. While we don’t have a great system for it, we are working on that, it’s important for us to create a culture of collaborative storytelling. So, yes we can and want to take on “smaller” stories that will have an impact.

Visual Literacy Training

In the coming months, the Studio will lead visual literacy, design, and data trainings tailored to each brand’s needs and goals. The idea is to share our expertise and to learn about your storytelling needs and workflow.

#growthdev-storyhelp

We are going to try an experiment. In the past we’ve held office hours and had folks sign up to discuss things. Perhaps that was too formal of an approach. So we created a Slack channel. It’s called #growthdev-storyhelp and it’s a place to bring your daily visual, data, and design questions. This is not a place where we will do the work for you. It’s where you can ask us things like:

  • “My story draft is in Chorus but I could use guidance on picture editing the photos I have.”
  • “Do you know a good photographer in Zimbabwe?”
  • “I have a dataset but I don’t know how to sort it.”
  • “What do you all think of the NYT piece on marbles? I liked it, but don’t know why.”
  • “Help! I have no good ideas for an image for this story and it needs to go up in two hours!”

That was a lot. If you read all this, I heart you. Thank you and let’s make GOOD INTERNET THAT MATTERS, TOGETHER.