One-on-one with a Texas Tribune developer
The Texas Tribune, an innovative news start-up located in Austin, is a non-profit that seeks to cover news in the entire state using features like extensive databases, blogs, calendar, an elected officials directory (and an iPhone app for it), a state newswire, a slick mobile site and much more.
There’s a lot student media can learn from the web-centric setup of the Texas Tribune newsroom, from its use of open source software, to its strong development team, to its depth and excess of useful content.
Yesterday I spoke with Brandon Taylor, the lead developer for the Texas Tribune. He said the Texas Tribune development team built the entire site in four weeks, during which time Brandon pulled a few all-nighters in the newsroom and even broke a keyboard because he was typing incessantly — in other words, it was an intense turnaround.
Here’s what Brandon had to say about their development logistics (the audio of the interview is posted below):
Texas Tribune in numbers:
25: Percentage of the staff that are web developers
4: Number of weeks it took to build the entire front-end of the site
80: Percentage of desired features that were complete by the launch date
400: Hours of work Brandon put into the site in a single month
On the development workflow
Because the site launched a week ago, there haven’t been too many new projects to plan. Brandon referred to the current state of development as the “bug-squashing” phase. But in general, specific steps of the workflow process are assigned based on skillset and priority. Brandon said the general categories are “get it done now,” “like to haves,” and “maybe someday” projects.
On hiring a development team
Brandon’s advice for hiring web staff is to choose the person best fit for the job, even if that means choosing someone outside of the journalism department. Taylor’s personal background is in graphic design, meaning a lot of his work was done in ad agencies. But switching to news has been equally as high-pressured and fast-paced.
“The most important thing to keep in mind when you’re hiring is, ‘Do I have the personnel that has the skills to pull off this project?’” he said.
On the editorial/development relationship
Brandon said projects dealing with site functionality are primarily lead by the development team. But because he’s new the news world, editors lend a guiding hand on editorial features that should be built into the site, and he figures out a way to make it happen.
What College Media can learn from it
Brandon encourages the use of open source software. He’s a strong advocate of Django, which the Texas Tribune is built on:
“Because it’s open source, it’s free basically, it’s extremely cheap to host — you can host a Django site for $10/month — it’s fast, it’s flexible. . . it’s got a very low barrier to entry,” he said.
For students thinking about learning Django, he recommends a few key steps:
As an easier but less flexible starting point, Brandon recommends students should get started with WordPress (which CoPress is a huge advocate of) because it’ll give you a fully functional “blog on steroids” that is themeable and will get you started on the basics of a CMS.
“There’s really nothing stopping somebody from learning this stuff,” he said. “Frankly, if it wasn’t easy, I couldn’t do it.”