AJR  Features
From AJR,   October/November 2011

As ONA Conference Gets Underway, the Emphasis Is on Agility   

By Tim Ebner
Tim Ebner (tebner86@gmail.com) is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

"Agile" was the word of the day at the kickoff of the Online News Association's 2011 Conference.

ONA 2011 opened Thursday with several field trips, professional workshops, happy hour-style meet-ups and an opening night reception at Microsoft's New England Research and Development Center‎, appropriately nicknamed the NERD Center.

More than 1,200 journalists, Web developers and designers, and students have arrived in Boston to discuss what it means to be agile in a time when media technology is advancing rapidly and newsrooms are faced with tighter budgets.

"Agile means being able to turn on a dime. We like to call it planning while driving," said Brian Boyer, news applications editor for the Chicago Tribune. He presented at a workshop with approximately 40 attendees on Thursday, offering tips on how to plan for and develop software applications for news sites.

His method focuses on several core principles, known to many Web developers as the Agile Manifesto. This planning style can also be applied to newsrooms, especially those operating with reduced staffs.

Being agile means devising a work plan that can be implemented in phases, or iterations, resulting in a series of smaller goals en route to completion of a project. In the process of developing an application for the Tribune, Boyer will challenge his team to meet design, development and testing goals in each phase.

Being agile also means embracing change and relying on collaboration. "It's the belief that anyone can fix any side of a problem," said Ryan Mark, who also led the workshop and works with Boyer on application development at the Tribune.

When faced with a particularly difficult coding problem, Boyer and Mark will use collaborative techniques. For instance, their team meets daily for five minutes, in what they call "scrum sessions." These early-morning meetings allow everyone to give a quick update on their daily progress. And if the team is faced with a larger problem, members will pair off. The belief is that two people working from one computer will achieve greater productivity than two people grappling separately with the same problem.

Adoption of the Agile Manifesto also correlates well with new platforms and tools, which assist online producers. "We can work at a completely different speed than the corporate IT shop ever could," Boyer said.

The idea is that agile is much more than a word; It's a process for how journalists can work together in the world of digital media.