2016 Gannett Foundation Award for Technical Innovation in the Service of Digital Journalism finalist


About the Project

On July 8, 2015, Vox Media’s product team, Vox Product, publicly introduced Autotune, an application built from the ground up to address the problem of reusability in the digital media space. The tool is open source, available to everyone, and it successfully met its goal of empowering editors to enhance their own work by creating a one-off website, data set, or project-specific interactive graphic. Just across Vox Media’s eight brands — which see more than 170 million people on its platforms each month — the company has gone from producing approximately three bespoke projects a month, to providing its editorial teams with what they need to build out hundreds each month.

As a digital media company that employs hundreds of journalists, Vox Media — and our industry peers — relies on maps, charts, quizzes, story packages, brackets, and more tools to tell unique multimedia and interactive stories that live only in the digital space. But one of the most difficult messages that Vox Product must communicate to its non-developer colleagues is how tricky “reusability” is. The common misconception is that once software is built, it can be reused for future projects. In reality, software is almost always built to accomplish a very specific task in a specific context with no thought to how it might be reused.

This is not a lack of foresight or a rookie mistake, but almost always a need when working under a deadline: it is difficult to anticipate how, why, and where the code will be used in the future. But in July of 2015, it was clear that we needed a solution to enhance the production of what makes digital journalism unlike anything else — and to make this tool available to the industry at large.

In simple tech jargon, Autotune is a web interface for static site generators. When utilized at Vox Media, it allows us to keep the Middleman static site we use as a core piece of our technology stack while leaning on a new reusable project blueprint. For everyone who doesn’t work at Vox Media, Autotune is agnostic about how one builds projects: it supports any language, any framework, and it currently supports Ruby, Node.js, and Python blueprints.

Today, any newsroom can implement Autotune and use it to start building their own reusable toolset as well. The Vox Media product team has already seen companies including NBC start to engage with the tool.