The Hackers Who Keep the Washington Post Running

Dan Drinkard and his fellow programmers are constantly juggling projects that add value to the paper's reporting on the web


Development of a tool that would allow visitors to read tweets written in Russian came after an offhand comment from Cory Haik. In fact, when I interviewed the deputy editor of universal news in her office last week, she couldn't quite remember how her idea had been relayed to one of the news producers on the Washington Post team. All she knows is that a few hours later, the app was finished and had launched on the site.

It was late January when news broke of a Moscow airport explosion that killed dozens of people and injured hundreds more. Haik was at the Post's news hub, and as the AP reports streamed in and the paper's own coverage began to take shape, one of the correspondents mentioned to the editor all the information flooding through social media channels. "All of the stuff we were looking at was in Russian," Haik told me. "So it was sort of a no-brainer for me to say: 'I really wish there was some way to automatically translate this and we could run that live on our site. That would be really helpful.'"

That task initially fell on James Buck, a web producer for the Post. He first searched the web for a Twitter widget that utilized translation software. When he couldn't find one, Buck set out to create one himself. The idea was simple: Take a basic Twitter blog widget and drop Google Translate code into it. But the first attempt didn't work properly. "The problem was initially the JavaScript for the Google Translate was trying to render before the JavaScript for the Twitter widget, so the order of operations was wrong," he explained. In other words, Google Translate was trying to translate the tweets before they were even loaded into the stream.

That's where Dan Drinkard came in. Drinkard, a senior web developer for the Post, is part of what he calls "an embedded developer group in the newsroom." His main tasks are to build news apps and tools to help the journalists do their jobs. For this particular project, he set about creating a delay so that the Twitter widget had enough time to load the Twitter stream before Google tried to translate it, and the end result was about "maybe 15 lines of code." (You can see the completed code over here.)

Meanwhile, Washington Post reporter Melissa Bell had been liveblogging news about the Moscow bombing, and it was in one of her blog posts that the developers dropped the widget. The stream monitored mentions of the word "Moscow" in both Russian and English and users could translate the tweets with a small drop-down menu provided by Google Translate. "Obviously Google Translate is not going to translate everything correctly all the time and people are going to use slang and you're going to get the gist of the conversation often, not exactly word for word," Buck said. "But it was still pretty amazing to hit publish and see all these previously indecipherable letters and words transform into meaningful reaction. There was real emotion there to what they were seeing and what was happening. There was this sort of feeling of an opening to another place."

Of course, by the time this widget was put in place, it was five hours after the news had broken, a fact that diminished its value somewhat. But Drinkard said that once a developer has built a tool, it's easier for the team to cue it up for future breaking events. "You tend to deal with things as they come up," he said. "There are a lot of short-term needs but you find common problems over time and you try to predict the things that you can. From there the one-off stuff isn't going to be relevant every time; you don't want to take this hammer and treat everything like a nail and make the conversation or the story into what you already have, so it's better to try to pull in systems that can back it and do what the right thing is for every project."

With dozens of stories appearing in the Washington Post every day and only so many web developers, there's only so many ideas the team can deploy. Deciding which ideas are acted upon comes down to what Drinkard described as "level of effort versus perceived value and impact." His job is to balance long term projects that center around a news event they know is coming -- a major debate or election, for instance -- with these short one-offs. "It's sort of split three ways," he explained. "There's the big stuff initiatives that you know you're going to spend the next six months working on. There's the little stuff that you spend one or two months on, or even a matter of weeks, and there's the little stuff that comes up every day so you can help unstick something."

Some of these projects include an interactive map allowing readers to follow the movement of Middle East protests, a Google Maps tool to allow Marine Corps Marathon attendees to geo-tag their photos, and QR codes in the print edition of the paper that aim to drive readers to further coverage online.

"People have a lot of energy here," Buck said. "Even when we're on lunch break, they're talking about what cool thing they want to make. Some come to fruition, others rightfully die off."

Producers like Buck work on creating these big ideas and then feed them through developers to thread the needle. "I'm frequently isolated from the idea-generating portion of it," Drinkard said. "People will come to me with technical requirements and if it reminds me of something that I think is a good idea, I'll say, 'How about we mix this in?' I sort a lot of the randomness and try to extract patterns from the randomness to make processes the most streamlined."

Haik said that not every interactive item the Post launches has news value -- some, like the Charlie Sheen quote randomizer, are mainly for fun. When the Washington Post ran a front-page photo of a shooting of the next Transformers installment, it invited readers to submit their own Photoshop version of the image. While I'm sure a serious foreign policy enthusiast would enjoy a Twitter aggregation of a Pakistani governor's tweets, sometimes you have to feed your Reddit readers with some sad Keanu Reeves.

Image: Washington Post.