A health warning to followers of the Knight News Challenge

I was by turns initially horrified and puzzled when I read Ryan Sholin’s piece on “How to manage technology decisions in 5 easy steps”. Horrified because they seemed at odds with my own experiences of what works and what doesn’t, and then puzzled because Ryan is someone with a great deal of experience in digital media, so I couldn’t understand why he was writing these things. Eventually they made sense, but only when I realised his tips were for entrants of the Knight News Challenge (KNC), which is a very specific competition with very specific demands from an audience being mostly of a particular type.

It became apparent to me that much digital media advice for non-technical people really needs to come with a very strong health warning. Here’s one taken from a prescription medicine I’ve just retrieved from my bathroom. It needed only very light editing and seems quite appropriate:

REMEMBER this advice was prescribed only for you. Only a digital professional can prescribe it. NEVER give it to someone else to use even if you think their project is similar.

Looking at Ryan’s blog the advice is for “dealing with developers and choosing a platform for your [Knight News Challenge] project”. As a previous winner of the KNC he should know what he’s talking about here. Unfortunately in the process of being prepared for the KNC blog its intent seems to have been overstated. It is not, unfortunately, advice on “how to manage technology decisions in 5 easy steps” — which is a shame, because I and a lot people I know could do with easy answers to hard technology decisions. Nor does it provide guidance on “How to hire developers”, as the intro suggests, unless you’re hiring one or two developers specifically for the KNC.

This may sound flippant (perhaps, admittedly, because it is) but there is a serious point here. I suspect there are going to be many more people following the KNC than there are participating, and I think a lot of those followers will be people in the process of embracing digital media projects for the very first time, and will be looking for guidance. Perhaps they are just starting on digital projects within their current traditional media companies. They will need good guidance so they can make a reasonable success of their early projects and so feel confident about getting more involved. The media industry needs those people to be successful.

But taking the right advice for the wrong project will lead to problems. Here are some instances of Ryan’s advice and where your (or a colleague’s) situation might require something different…

1. Learn a little bit about any one Web framework, standard, or programming language

If you’re leading a 2 or 3 person team then it’s a good idea to understand the technologies your team members are using. But you may find yourself in a slightly different position in a larger team. In that case the level of conversation you need to have with people will be different. If the technology being used is fairly complex then deep-diving into a particular web framework or programming language is going to be far less useful than having, say, a good overview of the technologies involved and why they’re important — if only so that you can ask appropriate questions and deal with the answers appropriately.

2. Choose the people you want to work with and spend an ample amount of time telling them what you want.

I’d never disagree with the “ample amount of time” part — if you don’t dedicate a lot time to your project don’t expect it to go the way you want. But the “telling” part will only get you so far. It will probably work very well if you’ve become an expert in a particular web framework which is the basis of your project, and if you’ve hired someone with less experience there. But if your situation is different your approach should be different. For anything ambitious or complex or imaginative the development will be an evolving two-way conversation, not a one-way monologue in which you’re telling someone what to do.

So, lots of good advice on the KNC blog for participants of the Knight News Challenge. But if you’re sitting on the sidelines you should not mistake the demands of the Challenge as being the same as the demands of whichever project you happen to be working on next. Get advice that’s been prescribed specifically for you.

This information has been provided free of charge under the National Digital Health Service.

2 thoughts on “A health warning to followers of the Knight News Challenge

  1. Hi Nik — Thanks for the feedback! I’m glad someone stopped and actually read the post instead of just retweeting it. A lot of that going around.

    First of all, as in all things on the Web, your mileage may vary. But yes, my list at the Knight News Challenge blog was definitely geared toward entrants into that particular blender of funding and ideas.

    In my case, I had some experience working with developers and some experience doing very lightweight development myself. I’m an edge case. But I’ve noticed that a few of my fellow News Challenge winners tend to be edge cases themselves. So that’s the audience I was preaching to in that particular post.

    To your points:

    1. If you’re on a larger team, congratulations. You either know what you’re doing already, or you have enough padding in your grant to make a few mistakes. That’s good! Fail fast, and move on to the next iteration.

    2. You’re absolutely right. In the case of the second version of ReportingOn, I spent somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 hours (over the course of a few meetings) in a room with my development duo, with one of them standing in front of a whiteboard guiding the discussion, figuring out what I had in mind, and all of us having some very vivid conversations about the details. I’ve boiled that down to “telling them what you want” because if you’re not willing to put in the time to make your vision clear to your team, you’re not going to get anything out of the exercise that resembles what you imagined.

    But by all means, don’t mistake what I’ve learned from experience as a general prescription! If your mileage doesn’t vary in one way or another, then something’s gone horribly wrong here.

  2. Hi Ryan. Thanks for the further insight. I do realise it’s impossible to condense all the subtleties down into a few soundbites. But then it’s also always fascinating to hear many of the details of the kind you outline above, especially when it’s on a project which has become public, because then an observer can compare their assumptions with the reality.

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