Called the “new favorite tool of newsrooms” by Digiday and “email killer” by The Verge, Slack is described as “a virtual meeting room and water cooler” tool that “somehow encourages members of a distributed work force to socialize and get to know each other while also getting work done,” wrote Laura Hazard Owen of Harvard’s Niemen Lab.
With a simple interface that allows you to easily create group and one-on-one chat rooms, Slack is a cloud-based communications application that automatically archives all interactions, provides a full search function and work across all platforms such as laptops, iPads and smartphones. The fact that Slack can integrate emails, google calendar, Twitter, Dropbox, GitHub and more than 80 applications also reduces workplace clutter and distractions.
For example, if you were covering the Syrian refugee crisis and you shared your draft article from DropBox to your team on Slack and an ongoing discussion ensued with the photographer also throwing in a few photos, the video editor pitching in a citizen captured footage (uncompressed too!) and the social editor sharing some Twitter feeds, everything becomes indexed and archived on Slack. If one of the team were to catch a cold and could not be online, instead of searching through messy emails or Dropbox folders or Twitter, typing in “Syrian refugee crisis” would generate everything that has been shared, posted and reviewed on Slack. In fact, Al Jazeera used just that in the Ferguson, Missouri news reporting in the United States last year.
“If you can integrate Slack as a workflow tool, it become an extension of the newsroom content management system,” Andrew Trench, Editor-in-Chief of News24 in South Africa told the World Editors Forum. “The overall advantage of having something like this is to have an enormous number of people newsgathering in real time.”
By centrally sharing information and tracking all previous postings, Slack retains important cultural and institutional knowledge. Fluent users have even extended the use of Slack into their social and personal lives, roping in their loved ones and friends so that they could communicate all at once. More importantly, Slack seems to reduce unnecessary meetings and enhance cross departmental communications.
“Meetings stopped happening because people felt more aware and conscious of what’s happening,” Matthew Taylor, product editor at The Times of London said in an interview. Before, his team used to have stand-up meetings every morning to understand the status of projects that could sometimes stretch to 45 minutes. Now, with the use of Slack, meetings are reduced to twice a week, a 60 percent drop.
Slack is also more than just a communication application because of its customization capability with bots, software that performs automated task. Al Jazeera has designed a bot that track breaking news. The New York Times has developed one that determines which article will do well on social media and another that feeds external election data to internal editorial platforms. The Times of London built one that pulls schedules from everyone so that you can check on someone’s schedule before even asking for a meeting.
Such a level of heightened efficiency and collaborative communications is particularly attractive to newsrooms, at a time when the industry is seeking new business models and cost cutting is of concern. While many are trying out Slack, its adaptation seems uneven across the industry, with some quickly embracing the technology, such as young media startups or digital teams, and others evolving over time, such as the larger legacy media companies.
“It is not as easy with editors and reporters, to get them to try new product because they are always so busy with deadlines,” said Taylor. “We have trouble explaining the benefits to them beyond sounding like it’s another thing you have to check.” At The Times, only about a core team of 30 in the web development, social media and digital projects use Slack. Al Jazeera’s digital and English online team and Wall Street Journal’s audience engagement team and graphic team are on Slack while Vox has hundreds of active Slack users and Time Inc. and The New York Times both have thousands.
The company’s pay-as-you-go billing system has allowed companies to slowly adapt its application over time. You can sign up for free and use almost all of Slack’s functionalities. You only need to pay when you begin to need larger memory storage and search for chats, usage statistics and greater team functionalities. If you are inactive for 10 days consecutively, you will be deactivated and not charged.
“We never have to create a need for people, because people know they have to communicate and the more efficient they communicate, the better they work,” said James Sherrett, Slack’s head for accounts based in Dublin, Ireland. Users have reported an average of 32 percent lift in productivity and it leads to an extremely high level retention rate of 93 percent. Most of corporate communication works like a dark room with flashlights, described Sherrett, while working in Slack is like turning on the lights.
Indeed, transparency is the hallmark of Slack. Its CEO, Steward Butterfield has said that the basic philosophy behind Slack is “open by default” and that there should be no expectation of privacy at work and as far as collaboration goes, “there is nothing else that really works in the end.”
For The Times, Taylor noticed that 40 percent of his team’s Slack chats are happening in public channels, conversations that would otherwise have been in held in private. Such percentage, though, is not standard across the board, for example Slate only has 4 percent of their chats in the open and the rest are either held in private or one-on-one chat rooms.
Openness, while works for small team, may not necessarily work for bigger teams. Alaa Batayneh, producer and data analyst at Al Jazeera English’s online department, was frustrated when he tried to disable certain functions on Slack which was turned back on by other team members. “It’s ok for a small team but if it really wants to go to a corporate level, it has to be bundled or wrapped in a more professional, microsofty ways such as having controls and logs.”
For most companies, the biggest worry might be information security, especially for media companies that rely on it as a content management tool. So far, Slack has suffered a database breach this February and last year Gawker first reported a bug that leaks corporate chat room names. Both have since been addressed with additional protection.
Such concerns aside, the young San Francisco company has been tremendously successful. Sherrett said Slack had 8,000 customers in the first 24 hours of product launch and the number doubled in the first week. In less than two years, Slack has 1.25 million daily active users and more than 200,000 paying accounts. This is done without even having a marketing budget. With the opening of its Dublin office in May and the plan to hire 100 staff in the next two years, Slack is going global. Sherrett said its clients now come from 200 countries.
Medium was the first media platform on board while the application was still in testing, many more have since signed on including BuzzFeed, Gawker, Quartz, NBC Universal and Dow Jones. It’s not just media companies that are finding Slack useful, Harvard University, NASA, Expedia, eBay, HBO, WordPress, Sony and SurveyMonkey are all paying customers.
Better known for creating Flickr, Slack founder Butterfield predicted in a New York Times article that by the end of next year, two to three million people will be using Slack. The startup has been valued at $2.8 billion in April and has already raised a total of $340 million in venture capital.
At the trend it is going, Slack seems to be on track to be the next newsroom tool but whether or not it is here to stay may be too soon to tell. There were many that came before Slack and there is no guarantee that there won’t be ones that pop up after Slack.