In search of the Renaissance Web person
Several weeks ago, Adrian Holovaty observed to me that the staffs of news Web sites are clearly divided into developers and editors. The developers, Adrian said, focus on site improvements while the editors focus on putting up new content.
I certainly agree in a positive sense — everywhere I’ve interned and worked there has been that clear division of labor. But the more and more I think about that comment, the more I disagree normatively. Rather than isolating editors and developers on different branches of an organizational chart, news sites should make every effort to bring them together collaboratively and to build technical and journalistic skills in every staff member.
I aspire to be one of those “Renaissance Web people” who have good news judgment and headline writing skills but who are also decent programmers and interface designers. So probably part of this is personal; I just wish I knew more people with those kinds of combined talents. But even if few people enjoy overlapping the way I do, news sites would benefit simply from better communication between the two groups. Generalizing from the sites where I’ve worked, here are some problems that happen when the editorial and development teams don’t collaborate enough:
- Developers, who take responsibility for overall site design and “functions” like searching or e-mailing stories, rarely ask for input from editors, who have the unique perspective of using the site the most and thinking of things that ought to be improved.
- Editors are generally the ones answering user e-mails pointing out usability problems that only the developers can solve.
- The two groups work on different timetables, and editors too rarely ask developers to drop a long-term project for an little bit and build something interactive to enhance a breaking news story — which developers might be flattered and excited to do.
- Editors don’t have enough time or insight to discover ways to speed their workflow, something the developers could do if they knew more about the day-to-day jobs.
- Developers get annoyed when editors make “obvious” technical errors, and editors get annoyed when developers make “obvious” journalistic errors.
- Each team underestimates how busy the other is.
But by far the biggest problem is this: Separating editors and developers leads them to work on completely separate areas of the site. Editors handle front pages and article pages, while developers build database projects and automated feeds like movie listings or events calendars. After a while the journalist may give up caring about the misspelling the developer made on a page the journalist can’t modify, and the developer may give up fixing the bloated, invalid HTML the journalist creates anew each day.
News sites ought to bridge this gap, increasing communication between the two groups and getting more people comfortable in both worlds. All they have to lose are the limitations of each group’s expertise.