Newsrooms are eager to wipe out the flood of email they receive by any means necessary. Increasingly taking its place is Slack, the two year-old group chat app that, despite being made with developers in mind, is having a major moment among publishers as well.
The New York Times, which has hundreds of daily users posting thousands of messages a day on Slack, has created around 200 Slack “channels” for various groups in its organization. Many of those are for its product teams, while on editorial side it’s created channels dedicated for coverage areas, foreign bureaus and even editorial products such as NYT Now.
“We’ve always been very chat heavy, so that’s not new,” said New York Times newsroom strategy editor Tyson Evans. “But Slack has made it easy to know where the conversations are going to be happening — which is to say not in email or instant messages. It’s become the new destination that people start with.”
Publishers’ increased Slack adoption comes as the borders between sales, editorial and product continue to break down, forcing collaboration between departments that previously didn’t work together. For Quartz, where 40 percent of its 126 employees work remotely, Slack has helped retain the feeling of a small newsroom, where every conversation is in earshot and there are plenty of opportunities for collaboration.
“Once you get to a certain size, not everyone can sit together, so having a public channel stands in for that,” said Quartz vp of product Zach Seward. “The more opportunities to communicate directly with people, the better.”
Publishers say that Slack usage has also increased transparency between employees and management. Vox Media, for example, created “#vox-media-ceo-ama”, a Slack channel where Vox employees can ask Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff directly about the future of the business. “It’s become a healthy place for the company as a whole to talk about strategy and debate ideas,” said Vox Media editorial director Lockhart Steele.
Some uses have been particularly creative. Quartz, for example, has created Slack channels that automatically update when new stories are published, or when readers leave annotations on its articles. The New York Times has hooked its CMS into Slack, which pulls in synopses of article drafts and posts snapshots of section pages. Time Inc connected Slack to its troubleshooting ticketing system.
For most publishers Slack adoption has emerged organically. Usage of the app first made its way into Time Inc, Quartz and Vox Media via their product teams, who preached the Slack gospel to editorial, which tended to be more receptive than sales teams.
“I’m a big fan of seductive adoption,” said Colin Bodell CTO of Time Inc, which has 1200 Slack users across roughly 150 channels. “If you tell people to use certain tools some will get on and find them valuable while others won’t. With Slack, we just let things grow by word of mouth.”
Publishers are similarly lax with their Slack channel strategies. For Vox, which has 656 active Slack users and hundreds of channels, channel creation is an ad hoc process based around projects, events and off-topic discussions (it’s created a Slack channel dedicated to Serial, for example). “We don’t try to manage that process. We spin up and shut down channels all the time,” said Vox Media’s Steele.
But Slack isn’t without its drawbacks. For one, while Slack can stand in for email in some cases, it can’t quite stand on its own. As a result, it becomes just another more thing people have to check throughout the day, Quartz’s Seward said. Bodell at Time Inc said there’s also a constant fear about what an extended Slack outage could do to Time Inc as a whole, which is why the company’s working on a business continuity plan in case that happens. There’s also the fear that overuse of Slack could cut into worker productivity.
In other words, while there’s a lot of love for publisher for Slack, there’s a hint of aversion as well.
“Slack can be monstrous. We love it but at times it feels like, ‘Oh God, we should take this thing down’,” said Steele. “Any tool that giveth, taketh away.”
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