Back in 2012, The Times held a two-day coding and journalism event for students at a warehouse in East London. This was the culmination of several months of work my colleagues and I had spent identifying how we could use such an event to highlight and further some of our core business goals.
Fast-forward to 2016, and we’ve now held four of these “Build the News” events, hosted more than 200 journalism and computer science students, embarked on a wealth of digital projects that started as weekend concepts, and made several new hires into our digital strategy team.
From the beginning, our goals for the event were to:
Expose journalists from The Times & The Sunday Times to new ways of working and the possibilities of digital tools.
Gain access to a wealth of young, digitally savvy talent accustomed to building new ways of storytelling, which would allow us to act as hosts to innovative idea creation and scout potential future hires.
Promote our titles further among students.
Open up the brand and enhance our reputation as a place for collaboration.
Our typical schedule for the event begins with an initial briefing for students to give them guidance around potential projects they could build over the two-day period.
Students with skills in design, development, and journalism then work in teams to build digital editorial projects. We give them feedback and support by checking in on their teams every so often, and through our “Dragon’s Den” (a BBC reality television show) style pitch session.
This allows for a very honest feedback loop between staff and students, and makes sure the projects presented at the end of the second day are of the highest quality.
For the judging, we bring in a range of staff from across the business with different interests and strengths. These staff members sit in on the final presentations and ask questions of the student teams. After deliberating, we award prizes to the overall winners, as well as some runners-up.
Previous projects have included new ways of commenting, ways to build a campaign around a news story, social media verification, and tackling new approaches to narrative journalism. The scope, quality, and scale of project we see from all teams is consistently impressive and inspiring.
The main intent here is collaboration — bringing together student journalists and student developers to work together. This remains a critically underserved area of UK journalism education and an example of where academia is far behind the industry.
The Times & The Sunday Times have a central digital team where this type of working is encouraged, and many other organisations have similar teams. While some students are unaccustomed to this, they are never short of ideas and new ways to approach storytelling. This allows the beneficial relationship between students and our staff to be two-way.
It’s easy to get weighed down by process, systems, and particular ways of doing things when you’re engaging in the day-to-day at a news organisation. We’ve found the Build the News weekend is a way of freeing up thinking among our staff, encouraging open discussion of ideas without the usual barriers.
This annual event has not only been of great benefit to the current and next generation of journalists, but has helped our business identify key areas for growth and fostered the idea of bringing start-up culture into a modern newsroom.