How the News Media Uses Scrum

By Mark C. Layton, David Morrow

Scrum has applications in many different industries. The news media has experienced a seismic shift all its own. Print has gone online, advertising changes with every new medium (such as print, radio, TV, online, social, and mobile), and readers’ news-gathering experience has metamorphosed. For example, many people no longer get a daily newspaper delivered to their homes.

But in scrum, change is good. At least, scrum helps you harness change for improvement.

What the industry is experiencing is disruption. Clayton Christensen coined the concept of “disruptive innovation,” which can be described as what happens when a new product or service enters an existing market and relentlessly gains share until it uproots well established rivals.

The biggest challenges for traditional print media organizations are finding ways to monetize their current product offerings and going digital. Print and digital are different beasts. Smart media companies that have both a print and digital presence have separated the two sides of their businesses to allow them to do what they do best. The digital side of these companies implement scrum. But what about the traditional sides?

Brady Mortensen, a newsroom veteran and senior director (product owner) of publishing systems at Deseret Digital Media, said,

In reality, news organizations have probably been practicing a lot of scrum techniques for many years without realizing it. Daily scrum meetings are not uncommon. With local TV stations or daily papers, the “sprint” length is one day, and the end product is a collection of newscasts and a paper. There is also a usable product created at the end of each cycle. Newsrooms live and die by these practices. What would help traditional news organizations is to recognize that what they already do is scrum-like, but to embrace the techniques even more.

The companies that are flourishing in this new environment are those that have proved to be nimble — and especially those that have adopted scrum to identify their highest-risk areas at regular intervals and pivot (inspection and adaptation).

Organizations such as The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and National Public Radio use aspects of scrum in their newsrooms. Some specific techniques are as follows.

  • Chicago Tribune: Teams begin by asking who the users are, what they need, and what features can be included to fulfill those needs. Teams then prioritize features in piles labeled Must, Want, Nice, and Meh. The teams toss out the bottom two piles and work from feature to feature. When the deadline arrives, iteration stops.

The assigning editor is usually the product owner. The development team consists of journalists, designers, photographers, editors, and others related to developing content.

Scrum reduces the number of meetings, which can be overwhelming, especially in digital media.

  • NPR: NPR uses a two-week sprint cycle, with a two-hour-long sprint planning meeting at the start.

Stand-up daily scrums last for 15 minutes. Teams coordinate who’s working on what stories, and impediments are identified and removed.

  • Washington Post: The paper has a specific agile technique for developing content for its live-blogging platform.

The team begins with a vision: What is the effect it wants to have on the user?

In the daily scrum meetings, the team decide what they are working on for that day. Journalists pair up for work, which is a process The Post had used since long before scrum was implemented. Two journalists sit at the same desk and finish the project. This intensifies the work and limits distractions.

The goal is to go live with the news as soon as possible, and then get feedback from the users and the group. Based on the feedback, the team adapts and adjusts for the next cycle.

Defining done for content

Using scrum to develop nonsoftware products and services, such as content for publication, is quite similar to using scrum for software. The definition of done for content development teams should clearly outline what it means to consider content ready for prime time.

Going back toy our roadmap to value, a publishing scrum team should have a vision statement that states what readers’ needs are, how the publication meets the needs of those readers and is differentiated in its market and industry, and how the vision ties in to the corporate strategy.

The roadmap reflects this vision by outlining the areas of editorial emphasis to be covered by the publication, including any seasonal considerations. The product backlog is a prioritized and ordered list of proposed features, series, and stories to be researched, developed, edited, and published.

The vision is the framework for defining what it means to have done content, one story or article at a time. The definition of done might look something like this:

With each article, we have succeeded in fulfilling our vision to [statement of how the need is met and differentiated] after we have

  • Addressed the who, what, when, where, and why in the lead. Those elements are not buried.
  • Ensured balance, making sure that both sides of an issue are represented.
  • Ensured that search engine optimization standards and requirements are met in article elements such as headline, tags, and body.
  • Cited at least one source for each side of the issue.
  • Checked twice for accuracy to avoid embellishing and bias.
  • Prepared accompanying content for social media posts.
  • Verified that line edits and copyedits are completed.

A newsroom in which these criteria are front and center for content curators, editors, and producers to see at all times provides consistency and clarity on what is expected and what success looks like.

The news-media scrum team

A content team director for a major regional news site identified the following scrum implementation. This team’s role was to curate, edit, and post daily content to the site. Scrum is still applied, but the team wasn’t developing code. The site’s adoption of scrum covered the following issues:

  • What is the product? (News content customers want to read)
  • What is the product backlog? (Potential news stories and associated media posts, which were constantly changing)
  • What is the release? (Continuous delivery; content is delivered as soon as it is edited and approved)
  • What is the sprint duration? (The 24-hour news cycle)
  • When is sprint planning? (First thing every morning; backlog stories that have received editing approval are discussed)
  • When is the sprint review? (End of each day or before sprint planning each morning, which includes a review of the articles published and resulting analytics for inspection and adaptation for the next sprint’s articles)
  • Who is on the development team? (Content curators, reporters, photographers, editors, graphic artists, and videographers)
  • Who is the product owner? (The managing editor)
  • Who is the scrum master? (A member of the development team who understands and has experience with scrum, and has the organizational clout to remove impediments for the team)
  • Who does backlog refinement, and when? (The entire development team and the product owner throughout each day, curating and evaluating proposed stories, including breaking news)

When these basic questions are asked and answered, the broader picture comes to light. Each role, artifact, and event can be identified and assigned.

Sprint flexibility

Daily sprints in a news organization often provide the flexibility needed for daily news feeds. You can’t plan the news five days from now, but you can plan a day of story time — most of the time. Breaking and unexpected news stories can be dealt with during the sprint by direct communication among team members.

Media with longer content cycles, such as magazines (online and/or in print form), can have longer sprint cycles for content. Each feature — a section, article, chapter, or other segment — can be broken into requirements and tasks when appropriate.