How do you save a 120-year-old newspaper from extinction? If you’re the Seattle Times, you create a startup right in the middle of your newsroom.

That’s essentially how its news applications team operates, says Lauren Rabaino, who yesterday became the newspaper’s first-ever News Applications Editor. The team is tasked with building tools and platforms that help foster digital storytelling and reader engagement. Examples include the paper’s 2012 Election Guide, which allowed users to plug in their address to find stories related to their district’s races and a medal tracker for Washington state’s Olympians. Broadly defined, news apps can also include data visualizations, internal databases, or anything that exists “of the Web instead of just on the Web,” as the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project’s Dan Sinker puts it.

Rabaino is no outsider to the startup mentality, having worked as a designer at two journalistic startups prior to joining the Seattle Times as homepage producer in June 2011. Even before taking up the mantle of news app editor, Rabaino embraced the tenets of the technology world, working on her own pet data projects like the Election Guide and the the medal tracker an hour or two a day. Or as she tells it, “copying Google’s 20 percent time.”

With one foot in the technology world and one in the oldest of old media, Rabaino has a unique perspective on why so many newspapers have fallen behind in the digital age. She argues that old print behemoths often struggle to stay innovative because they’re too focused on well-worn processes and workflows instead of results. “[Newspapers] approach everything in this very stagnant, document-everything, loop-everyone-in kind of way. But when you’re developing products for a consumer, you need to do it very quickly and with the user in mind.”

Possessing the characteristics of a technology startup — iterating quickly, focusing on user interaction, willfully experimenting — are all crucial for newsrooms to survive, Rabaino argues. Why? Because technology companies have now become journalism’s competitors. “We’re competing not only against other news organizations but also Facebook and Netflix.” To capture the attention span of an audience that won’t even wait two seconds to watch a video, the inverted pyramid may no longer cut it.

But are news apps enough to pry eyes away from viral videos and listicles? Maybe not, but  if the business model for journalism shifts the way Rabaino expects it to, that might not matter. Newspapers, she says, have worshipped at the altar of the almighty pageview to please advertisers for years, but that may not last forever. “The future business model of the newspaper is customers paying for news, not being supported by an ad model.” The argument over whether or not paywalls are the answer is to newspapers’ financial woes is far from settled. That said, what better way to convince readers to pay for your product than to build compelling, interactive, and useful apps that can’t just be quickly rewritten and aggregated away?

So build news apps, save journalism. Sounds simple, right? But there are organizational and technological obstacles to overcome, particularly in newsrooms where the IT department isn’t even on the same floor as the editors and journalists. Barring the daunting prospect of training every journalist to know how to build a Web app from scratch, it takes an enormous amount of collaboration between the editorial, IT, and business departments of a publisher to build great interactives. That’s where the role of news app editor, which Rabaino feels should be a position in every newsroom, can really shine.

“I try to get everyone to row in the same direction,” Rabaino says, from the back-end developer to the beat reporter to the marketing team. At first, it can hard to convince beat reporters that the developers are good for more than just fixing Website bugs. But all Rabaino has to do, for example, is to show the sportswriters how data apps can save hours of time spent manually inputting box scores, and to show the developers how their talents can be put to more creative use than as mere site administrators. That, to Rabaino, is the core of her work. “I’m like an internal PR person for the rest of the company.”

News app editor is a fairly new position in newsrooms, but Rabaino is not alone: There’s Scott Klein at ProPublica, Brian Boyer at NPR, and many others at the Guardian, AP, and Washington Post with different titles, but who are doing the same kind of work. Journalism is currently flush with job titles that didn’t exist a few years ago, from news app editors to data journalists to community managers. “Not very long ago, newspapers were cutting jobs. And now we’re in a place where we can actually create a new department.” It’s definitely a sign that the industry is changing, but it may be a few more years before we see if the new jobs stick around or if they’re merely a stop gap between journalism today and journalism tomorrow. To see how uncertain and in flux roles in newsrooms are, look no further than the emergent “producer” role which can mean anything from a photo editor to a Twitter jockey.

Another thing about these new positions is that it can be hard to evaluate the success or failure of the people who hold them. For now at least, Rabaino says the evaluation metric won’t be how many pageviews her projects get, but how many problems they solve, whether by cutting out internal inefficiencies (like the streamlining of sports score tabulation) or by producing useful tools for readers that they can’t get anywhere else (like the Election Guide). And as aggregation continues to run rampant, that might be the best way for an old school newspaper to stay relevant.

[Image by Hannah Birch]