We're running a new series on Ars over the next few weeks about the future of work, which will involve (among other things) some predictions about how folks in and out of offices will do their future officing. To start, let's take a tour of the fabled Ars Orbiting HQbecause we've learned a lot about how work works in the future, and we'd love to share some details about how we do what we do.
Ars bucks the trend of most digital newsrooms in that we truly are an all-digital newsroom. While we have mail stops at the Cond Nast mothership in New York, there is no physical Ars Technica editorial office. Instead, Ars Technica's 30-ish editorial staff work from their homes in locations scattered across the country. Weve got folks in all US time zones and even a few contributors in far-flung locations across the Atlantic.
Marshaling this many remote staffers into a news-and-feature-writing machine can have its challenges, but Ars has operated this way for more than twenty years. Weve gotten pretty good at it, all things considered. The main way to make it work is to hire self-sufficient, knowledge-hungry people, but another major part of our remote work philosophy is flexibility. Not everyone works the same way, and remote work should never be treated like a one-size-fits-all, time-clocked job. Also, tools matteryou cant expect people to do collaborative jobs like writing and editing without giving them the right hardware and software.
Ars Technica has been around for a whilethe site was started in 1998, which is several epochs ago in computer time. As founder & Editor-in-Chief Ken Fisher added writers to the staff, the model he followed was to treat Ars almost like an institution of academia, with "professors" (the writers) functioning as dedicated subject-matter experts who undertook their own research and story development. This is a model the site retains to this day; while there is obviously central oversight, writers generally are expected to be the experts in their areas, to find most of their stories, and to manage their own output.
Much of the early Ars staff had academic backgrounds not in technology or even in journalism, but in the humanitiesand this influenced what has become the traditional "Ars style." "It was not an MBA-driven place with ideas about 'productivity' and 'management,'" says Deputy Editor Nate Anderson of those early years. "It was something that smart people loved doing, and they went out and did it DIY-style, pursuing their own interests and finding places where those overlapped with reader interest. I'd like to think that this produced some of the 'humanity' present in Ars, even as it produced good results for a site that survived many ad-driven downturns and industry shakeouts."
After operating independently for a decade, Ars Technica was acquired by Cond Nast in 2008, marking a major change to the business side of the site. Editorially, our culture and practices remain largely unchanged, but sales, marketing, HR, and legal are now handled by Cond Nast teams. They're passionate about the things we are not passionate about, which works out really well for both of us.
For our sister publications, Cond manages the technology choices for its brands, including everything from the publishing system to the OS and browser versions sitting on someone's desk, but Ars maintains our own publishing system, hardware, and communications. We do this because we believe the experience translates to a degree of expertise and because we love to tweak, optimize, and then tweak some more.
For editorial staff, our technology choices cater to employee preference. In days gone by, that might have meant Thinkpads and Palm Trios (shudder), but these days the majority of the staff are on Macbooks of one flavor or another. (Of course, if a staffer wanted to use their self-built God Box, that would be fine, too, as long as they follow some basic security best practices). But, Ars has no official operating systemSenior Space Editor Eric Berger rocks out with his Chromebook, and if I told networkmaster Jim Salter that he had to use nothing but a Mac, Im pretty sure hed sneak into my house and murder me in my sleep. Our only concern with the hardware we use is that it be secure and up to date.
Heres a brief run-down of the tools and applications Ars uses to get work done.
For official communications, where its important to have a record, Ars relies on good-old email. Email absolutely has a place in the modern office, and attempts to work without it are often based on bogglingly wrong-headed misunderstandings of what email is for and why one might use it, as seen in comments like this:
Slack affords levels of inclusion and transparency email simply doesnt. With email the original author gets to pick who is included in the conversation and whose voices wont be heard. Thats not the company we want.
Though ancient in Internet terms, email has yet to be dethroned as the most accessible and extensible way to send on-record communications between folks in the same office. It functions the same way as memos did in the old days (though you may be forgiven if you've never actually seen a paper office memoI'm 41 and I've never seen an actual paper memo in my whole career, unless you count an emailed memo that someone printed out). Unlike instant messaging or hosted platforms like Slack, email is the one piece of messaging technology that you can reasonably expect to work pretty much anywhere and under pretty much any circumstances. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it's an asymmetric tool that you can deal with when you have timethere's no mental pressure to deal with an email the instant it comes in. It's perfect for compartmentalized discussions that don't need to happen live.
We used a locally hosted Exchange SBS and then managed Office 365 email for a number of years, but with so many staffers preferring Macs, and with Outlook for Mac being what it was, we eventually decided to save money and migrate to GSuite. Cond Nast as a whole followed suit about a year later, and the jury is still out on whether or not everyone in the building thinks Gmail is utterly terrible or amazingly great. The answer to that seems to depend on how much one likes Outlook. GSuite provides a bunch of other collaborative tools that we use, toomost notably Sheets, which Ill get to in a moment.
For our primary office environment, we (along with most other media companies in the world) use Slack, the collaborative work tool that everyone loves to hate. Slack is where we discuss story ideas, workshop headlines, ask for help or a quick edit, and dodge work by sharing dumb gifs with each other.
Because theres no substitute for talking to your coworkers, Ars staffers also all have Polycom voice-over-IP phones that support 3-digit extension dialing via OnSIP. We also have a couple of conference bridges that we can dial into and use, both for meetings between staffers and also for conferencing with outside sources.
Obviously none of us would have a job for very long if we didnt actually, you know, write stuff, and thats where the content management system (CMS) comes in. Every news site uses some manner of CMSits the thing that you put stories into so those stories can be published. Since 2012, Ars has used WordPress as its CMS. Its not terribly obvious, since weve done a fair bit of customization, but you are indeed reading a WordPress site right now.
Finally, a word on security. Ars Security Editor Dan Goodin is a staunch advocate for two-factor authentication ("2FA" for short) everywhere you can get it, and we believe in practicing what we preach. Ars mandates the use of 2FA on every system we use where it's available. Our preferred 2FA solution is Duo, which provides push notifications for 2FA prompts and also supports hardware tokens like Yubikeys, if you've got them. Duo has a very good WordPress plugin and can also be used to provide 2FA for ssh logins and sudo on a variety of Linux distros. (Duo is priced per user account, and it's free if you need fewer than ten accounts. I've been using the free tier to protect my own servers at home for years, and I'm very happy with the service.)
Making a remote office feel like a remote office requires a sense of presence. For most people, feeling like you’re at work, even if your bedroom is just down the hall, makes a big mental difference.
From its inception up until 2014 or 2015, the Ars virtual office was plain-jane IRC—that's Internet Relay Chat for you whippersnappers. Staffers would log on to the Ars IRC server in the morning and head to a staff-only channel. You’d see your coworkers gradually come online every day much in the same way as you’d see folks stagger into the office, but rather than stick your head over their cube wall to kibbutz, you’d type at them.
Private conversations would go over IRC private messages or be done via a whole mess of instant messaging applications. Everyone had their favorite, so running a multi-protocol client like Adium or Trillium was critical. (Ars EIC Ken Fisher notoriously refused to give up his beloved ICQ, feeling that his six-digit User ID was a status symbol—endlessly annoying to the rest of us GTalk-favoring folks.)
Feeling like you’re at work, even if your bedroom is just down the hall, makes a big mental difference.
Alas, though it perhaps tarnishes our geek cred, the days of Ars IRC are long gone. It got harder and harder for newer staff members to deal with IRC’s arcane silliness. So about five years ago, we made the mass exodus from IRC to Slack.
It was a rocky transition, but the benefits were enormous. Collaborative apps like Slack bundle together a whole bunch of functionality that we didn't get with IRC, no matter how many Eggdrop scripts we wrote. File sharing, quick voice conferencing, reminders, and easy integration with analytics tools—the pull of a modern platform was just too much to resist. Plus, everyone knows how Slack works, and not having to train new employees on IRC commands has saved on-boarding time.
Swapping IRC for Slack trades one set of security issues for another different-but-also-bad set of security issues, but we think the trade went the right way. A managed platform gives us centralized control over setting data retention rules, which is a pretty big infosec win. On the other hand, a managed platform also creates the risk that the employees of that platform might read your data. You pays your money, you takes your chances.
Privacy issues aside, our main complaint is that the Slack developers can be dismissive—almost to the point of parody—of requests for improvements or features that they aren’t already planning to implement. (The typical Slack response to any feature request is a cheery “Thanks for the suggestion!” and three random emoji, followed by permanent silence). However, self-hosted Slack alternatives like Mattermost and Rocket.Chat aren’t quite there yet—so we soldier on.
Because we’re a remote office and don’t have the benefit of seeing each other as we work, having routines and procedures is important to keep the workday on track. That said, Ars has a pretty loose operating structure. Writers are expected to know their beats, to be aware of the goings-on in their fields, and to be proactive in hunting down stories. This is one of the reasons we tend to hire only people with considerable experience; we've never been a shop where all coverage is dictated from on high.
A typical day for an Ars writer or editor starts with logging on to Slack. For writers covering a specific beat—folks like Jon Brodkin for telecom news or Dan Goodin with infosec, for example—they begin their daily hunt for news to write up, searching through press releases, following up on tips, or firing off emails to potential sources. Sometimes, an editor will wait in the appropriate Slack channel with an assignment; sometimes a writer will want to discuss story pitches with an editor.
As the staffers caffeinate and start researching, interviewing, and writing, they’ll drop a note in a dedicated Slack channel called
#dailyupdates to indicate what they’re working on. This helps avoid duplication, gives editors a sense of what's coming throughout the day, and can kick off other production-related issues (like a search for a good thumbnail image—a "listing image," in the vernacular).
Actual publication of a piece to the front page is delegated to a group of editors collectively referred to as the “newsdesk.” Staffers in that group rotate places on a dedicated newsdesk hot seat, and when a writer has a story that’s ready to run, the writer pass the story via the
#readyforedits Slack channel to the newsdesk staffer on duty. If it’s a regular news story, the newsdesk staffer gives the story a full line edit, then schedules the story for the front page and passes the story to a copyeditor. The copyeditor applies the grammar hammer and fixes anything the main newsdesk line edit may have missed; the story appears on the front page shortly thereafter. (Lengthy feature stories pass through a separate edit pipeline involving our Features Editor, Nathan Matisse.)
For pieces that require some specialized knowledge to edit and check, an editor with relevant domain knowledge may also be called on for a "sanity check." Opinionated or highly analytical pieces also get a once-over from an available senior editor (like me). As you can see, our edit flow isn't the quickest process in the world, but our approach has always been to aim for accuracy and illumination over speed. Still, typos and mistakes slip through—but we do our best to prevent them.
While Slack is important, we also lean heavily on a handful of collaborative spreadsheets that we maintain via Google Sheets. In spite of years of discussion about alternatives and a few abortive attempts to move to some other system, the humble spreadsheet remains the easiest way for everyone here to keep track of their stuff.
Every staffer makes inputs several times a day on a big sheet called, simply, “The Dashboard.” The Dashboard contains the list of stories that have been published for the day, along with some details about the story (who wrote it, when it was published, what section it went up in, who took edit passes on it, etc.).
Before a writer passes their story to newsdesk for edit, they’re expected to create a row for the story in the Dashboard, in the “Ready for edits” area. The newsdesker in the hot seat will then grab the row and move it up into the main list of stories for the day, like an air traffic controller moving a flight progress strip around. Each morning, Managing Editor Eric Bangeman (who rides shotgun over the newsdesk) archives the previous day’s list of stories and we start fresh.
The Dashboard is our high-level overview of everything that goes on at Ars. It contains links to pieces (both long and short) currently in the works, lists of upcoming freelancer stories, and the day's publication history. More often than not, it’s a one-stop-shop for questions about what’s going on today and what went on yesterday. (Eagle-eyed readers might spot an apparent bit of duplication between the Dashboard and the
#readyforedits Slack channel, but the Slack channel is for quick communication between writers and the newsdesker on duty. The Dashboard is the canonical record.)
Plenty of other GSuite spreadsheets get referenced throughout the day. Features Editor Nathan Mattise keeps the Feature Calendar (“features” are those fancy long-form stories that appear at the top of the homepage in the “Featured Story” slot), while science section editor Dr. John Timmer maintains his section’s calendar in its own document.
But there’s no hard-and-fast rule about using spreadsheets—reviews section editor Samuel Axon (whose Slack handle is “@axonaxoff,” because that’s awesome) prefers to keep his section's stuff pinned to a private Trello board, for example. Whatever works.
It's hard to overemphasize how important good analytics are to keeping Ars running smoothly and keeping our focus on the core audience. We have several analytics tools that run across the site, but by far the most important to the staff is Parse.ly, which primarily provides live site analytics.
Most Ars staffers keep a Parse.ly tab open during the day, because it's the easiest way to keep track of how popular your stories are and where visitors are coming from. If there's a sudden spike in traffic to a story, Parse.ly's live data lets staffers check the visitor referral data and see where the story has been linked to. Having instant access to analytics data is huge, since it lets us immediately see how well pieces are performing and if a story has been picked up by a huge referral source like Reddit or a major news outlet. Parse.ly also aggregates data on social media performance of stories—great for seeing who's tweeting what about which stories.
We also use one of Parse.ly's API hooks to display live page view and unique visitor counter overlays on the Ars homepage for folks who are logged in with staff accounts. The numbers are color-coded so that staffers can get a heatmap-style view of how everything on the homepage is currently performing.
One of the most valuable things Parse.ly's live feedback provides is the opportunity to adjust headlines that aren't working. If a staffer publishes a story that we know from experience should have pretty strong reader interest, but traffic on the story isn't where it ought to be, it's a good bet that the headline isn't a good fit and needs to be tweaked. Live data in Parse.ly lets us figure this kind of stuff out very quickly, without having to run reports or deal with the complex mess that is Google Analytics or Adobe Omniture (or whatever Omniture is called these days).
Ars wouldn’t be Ars without a place to store and publish our writing and photographs—a content management system, or CMS. As mentioned above, Ars is based around a self-hosted WordPress deployment for the homepage and stories, and we couple that with a phpBB forum (the same phpBB instance that powers the Ars OpenForum, in fact) to provide front page comments.
The CMS is the heart of Ars Technica, and WordPress provides a straightforward and familiar writing environment that also gives our two-person tech team an extensible platform onto which they can bolt customizations.
Individual authors are free to use whatever writing tools they like to actually create their stories; I'm writing this in an outdated, non-cloud version of Ulysses. A few brave staffers like Ars Android expert Ron Amadeo write directly in the CMS, which is perfectly fine (usually!) but which has in the past resulted in lost work if there’s a system hiccup that catches you between autosaves. (Ron doesn’t care. His middle name is “Danger.” He is Ron “Danger” Amadeo, and he rides alone.)
Regardless of where it's written, authors are responsible for ultimately stuffing their work into the CMS; authors are also responsible for creating or locating their own images for stories (and the captions to go with them). In fact, unlike at some other publications with more edit staffers, Ars authors are typically responsible for the layout of their stories. They fit the words to the page, write the subheads, arrange images, add pullquotes and other little flourishes, and decide what gets linked to where. Editors may add or tweak, but pieces should come in looking ready for the site.
(For reference, this is a pullquote.)
While authors provide their own images for most stories, any story with special image needs gets some attention from Ars Creative Director Aurich Lawson. Aurich takes fever-dream descriptions of proposed listing images (“I want a picture of a unicorn flying through space shooting rainbows out of its ass except instead of rainbows it’s microwaves”) and quickly turns them into brilliantly executed works of art. Like these:
Staffers are expected to submit stories to newsdesk in a completed state—that is, with two headline choices, a sub-headline (called a “lower dek” in Ars-speak), and the green bit of "flavor text” that accompanies every piece (called an “upper dek”).
Staffers have various methods for coming up with headlines. I prefer to think of my headlines first after researching but before writing the piece—not only does this mean I’m attacking the headline with my creative batteries fully charged, but the act of figuring out the headline helps also give the piece some shape in my head.
Other folks have other methods, and we keep a
#headlines Slack channel running for staffers to help workshop ideas. If you’re having trouble with a headline—or you can’t quite think of the right approach—everyone available lends a hand.
Getting a headline right is difficult because it’s not just a matter of writing some words. Headlines (and lower deks) must be under a certain number of characters in order to not break the homepage layout; they also must balance being informative with being interesting. Length limitations are especially challenging when you’ve got a certain word that must be in the headline (like the name of someone important to the story), gobbling up precious characters.
The overall objective is to whittle the choices down to a pair of punchy but informative headlines that give readers a reason to click without being clickbait. The two headlines then both run on the front page in an A/B test, which shows different headlines to different visitors. The software uses statistical math to pick a headline "winner" based on which headline is selected more often by the visitors who see it in the first few minutes. A/B testing headlines gives us some idea of what types of headlines resonate best with different kinds of pieces; we use what the A/B test tells us along with a number of other data points to help us write better headlines.
Having two "real" headlines also means that your lower dek—the "subheadline" below the main one—has to work with either headline choice. This ends up being a lot harder than it sounds since the lower dek is often the best place to squeeze in additional details that don't fit in the headline. If the headlines are substantially different, writing a lower dek that works with both can sometimes be challenging.
Working full-time from home is a major perk of being an Ars employee, but it also has challenges that you can’t overcome with software or hardware. Probably the biggest is that everyone who works at Ars is awesome, and we just don’t get to spend enough time actually hanging out. Screwing around in Slack is fun, but there’s just no substitute for being able to interact with your coworkers in meatspace.
What about video chat? We experimented a few years back with doing some meetings via Google Hangouts to help staff feel more connected, but the attempts were quickly abandoned. It didn’t really help, and meetings usually devolved into seeing who could wear the silliest hat. And that's assuming everyone could get their cameras and microphones all working at the same time. Unless you have a few thousand dollars to spend on a real solution, video chat is unworkable for anything more serious than casual conversation. And it's worth noting that this seems true outside of Ars, too. It's common to be invited to a corporate video Zoom meeting, or a Microsoft Teams meeting, and have no one on video anyway; everyone still insists on dialing in.
We do have a semi-yearly all-hands meeting nicknamed "Technicon," where all the staffers gather in New York City and spend a couple of days doing meetings and a couple of evenings singing karaoke. Unfortunately, it costs a lot to fly and host 30+ people to Manhattan, so it's not something we get to do as often as we'd like.
To make this job work, Ars staffers need to be the kind of people who enjoy not going in to the office. "I love working from home," writes Beth Mole, Ars' pun-slinging, goop-stomping science reporter. "It’s an easy, comfortable environment where I’m most efficient. There’s no grueling commute. I never have to worry about being a few minutes late to catch a metro train, or accidentally drizzling coffee down my shirt while navigating a crowded city sidewalk. I can set up my office space with whatever creature comforts I want for the day."
Even so, it can be a challenge to not have co-workers physically nearby. "For your personal wellness, the biggest upside of an office may simply be the human-to-human interaction," explains Features Editor Nathan Mattise. "At best you develop true friendships to enrich your life, but at worst you maintain a baseline competency with social skills. Because when work happens to be entirely remote, some days happen to be devoid of nearly any human interactions."
Policy reporter and fellow Mass Effect fan Kate Cox feels the same way. "The most important thing about working from home full-time is leaving your house," she says. "Even the most dedicated introvert needs to get out of the door sometimes. Since I have young kids, taking them to school/daycare and picking them up again at the end of the day is mandatory, but on top of that I try to get to the gym a few times a week and I also perform in a local wind ensemble, which gets me out of the house at least once a week for rehearsal. I also have my pick of local coffee shops and cafes, both indie and chain, to work from. I try for one morning a week, just for the variety."
"Even when working outside the house, I try to get back before my kids return from school," says Deputy Editor Nate Anderson. "Yes, it's a limitation on my schedule that I wouldn't face at an office, but I try to look at it as an opportunity to welcome them home, chat a bit about their days, and get them set up with a snack before heading back to work for an hour. It's a good break for all of us."
Founder & Editor-in-Chief Ken Fisher likes to tell new hires that "when you work at home, you really live in your office," which makes it all the more important to find the right balance.
The most important thing about working from home full-time is leaving your house.
If you have the space and the means, creating a dedicated home office and doing work there (and only there) goes a long way. "A dedicated space has been crucial, to the point it's perhaps Rule No. 1 for any remote workers," Nathan Mattise says. "One of the subconscious advantages of commuting into an office is the separation. You simply know when you're in work mode and know when you're out of it because those involve two physically separate situations. Maybe a lot of your life will happen under one roof when working from home, but you can still have lines of delineation."
Having a dedicated routine helps, too. "I try to always get dressed—that is, out of pajamas—for work time," says Beth Mole. "When I first worked from home years ago while interning at a magazine, I was like 'YEEAAASSS, PJS ALL THE TIME!!' But after a few weeks I realized that I just felt slovenly and unprofessional. Now, I nearly always get dressed up. I don’t generally go all out with business attire, but I definitely don’t go with sleepwear."
"If you and a spouse/partner/housemate both work from home full-time, make sure you have separate spaces, both physical and mental," adds Kate Cox. "It can be really easy to get too much in each other's faces if you're both squatting on the same sofa for the day."
If you've got kids around the house, routine becomes even more important. Beth says, "Having a baby about a year ago (I’ll call him 'Little b') has definitely made me more protective of personal time—and setting hard cut-off times for work has been an adjustment."
"One trick I’ve developed since Little b arrived about a year ago is to regulate office time with a lamp—as silly as that sounds," she continues. "There’s a floor lamp by my desk. I turn it on when Little b leaves for daycare—and that signals the start of the workday. The light is on; it’s work time. When Little b gets home, it’s lights out on work. I only leave the lamp on if I want to do work after he goes to bed."
So we chat in Slack, email with GSuite, coordinate with Sheets, write in WordPress, and talk with OnSIP. If that sounds like a basic set of tools—well, it is a basic set of tools.
One of the secrets—perhaps the biggest secret—to getting good work out of good people is figuring out how much oversight is necessary and then getting out of the way. Advanced software tools and fancy hardware can help with that goal, but ultimately the people and policies your organization deploys matter more than the tools themselves. This holds true in traditional workplaces both traditional and remote—and it will be true in the workplace of the future, too.
"When you work at home, you really live in your office."
Is Ars Technica working in the future? We like to think so, even though we're not using augmented reality to edit stories or engaging in other hyper-futuristic craziness. Many of the staff is crusty and curmudgeonly. We don’t have a lot of custom tools—I think the only bespoke application we use on the regular is a little S3 upload wrapper so staffers doing liveblogs can shoot their DSLRs tethered and automatically upload images to the liveblog in progress.
But the overall simplicity of the Ars toolset also means flexibility during the tech news cycle, which can be pretty nuts at times. When you come down to it, we’re all just a bunch of remote workers, each with our areas of expertise. We each write what we know, and we try to each write at least a little bit of new and interesting material every day.
So far, it has worked—for 20 years, you have been coming back. Ars employees tend to hang around for a long time, too, which is especially unusual in the modern job market. I hit my seventh "Arsiversary" last September, and only in the past year or so have I stopped feeling like one of the new guys.
A few of Ars' tips and tricks are applicable to a digital media company first and foremost, but broadly, we feel strongly that the way we do things is a great window into the future of work. Certainly, Ars is different from anywhere else I've been in my career—and, even after seven years, I wouldn't want to work anywhere else.
Our series on the Future of Work will continue next week, when Ars culture maven Sam Machkovech talks through the top trends we expect to see in workplaces over the next five years. Stay tuned!