Linking and journalism: The Workflow issue

There was an interesting discussion about linking and journalism amongst a number of journalists in North America. Mathew Ingram of GigaOm and  Alex Byers, a web producer for Politico in Washington, both collected the conversation using Storify. It covers a lot of well worn territory in this debate, and I’m not going to rehash it.

However, one issue in this debate focused on the workflow and content management systems. New York Times editor Patrick LaForge said:

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/palafo/status/70668697051725824″]

Workflow and how that is coded into the CMS is a huge issue for newspapers. For two years when I was at The Guardian, most of my work was on our blogging platform, Movable Type. Movable Type had scaling issues, as did almost every blogging platform back in 2006 when I started at The Guardian. However, Movable Type and other blogging platforms also make it ridiculously easy easy to create content – rich, heavily linked multimedia content. It was so much easier than anything I had ever used, especially when coupled with easy to use production tools such as Ecto and MarsEdit.

However, due to the scaling problems with Movable Type, The Guardian moved its blogging onto its main content management system. We didn’t have a choice. We had outgrown Movable Type. However, I’m being diplomatic in the extreme when I say that the new CMS lacked the ease of content creation and publishing that I had grown accustomed to with Movable Type and WordPress. Furthermore, there was an internal conflict over whether to use the web tools or the print tools to create content, and in the end, the print tools won out. The politics of print versus the web played out even in the tools we used to create content. That was an even more jarring move. It was like trying to create a web story with movable type, and I’m not talking about the blogging platform.

Most newspaper CMSes are more WordPerfect from the 1980s than WordPress. That’s why you have journalism outfits setting up blogs on Tumblr. Creating content on tools like Tumblr is like falling off a bike instead of trying to write caligraphy with a telephone pole. You can build a robust, advanced content management system without making the tools to create content so piggishly ugly, bewilderingly confusing and user surly. However, newspapers code their workflows into their CMSes. The problem is that their workflows aren’t fit for modern purpose.

Newspaper newsroom workflow is still print-centric, apart from a very few exceptions. The rhythm of the day, the focus of the tools and much of the thinking is still for that one deadline every day, when the newspaper goes to the presses. From this post by Doc Searls on news organisations linking to sources (or not linking as the case may be), see this comment from Brian Boyer about his shop, The Chicago Tribune:

At the Chicago Tribune, workflows and CMSs are print-centric. In our newsroom, a reporter writes in Microsoft Word that’s got some fancy hooks to a publishing workflow. It goes to an editor, then copy, etc., and finally to the pagination system for flowing into the paper.

Only after that process is complete does a web producer see the content. They’ve got so many things to wrangle that it would be unfair to expect the producer to read and grok each and every story published to the web to add links.

When I got here a couple years ago, a fresh-faced web native, I assumed many of the similar ideas proposed above. “Why don’t they link?? It’s so *easy* to link!”

I’m not saying this isn’t broken. It is terribly broken, but it’s the way things are. Until newspapers adopt web-first systems, we’re stuck.

Wow, that’s a really effed up workflow by 2011 standards, but a lot of newspaper newsrooms operate on some variation of that theme. It’s an industrial workflow operating in a digital age. It’s really only down to ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’ thinking that allows such a patently inefficient process to persist. Seriously, has no one really thought that it’s easier to export plain text from HTML than to bolt on a bunch of links, images and the odd YouTube video to a text story destined for a dead tree? Want to cut some costs and increase the quality of your product? Sort out your outdated industrial workflow, save a lot of money, hire more journalists and improve your web and print products. Simples. (Well, after sorting out your workflow, hire a digital sales team, and then you can hire even more journalists. That’s a post for another time.)

Murdoch shifts from sites to ‘digitally delivered editions’

Following The Times and The Sunday Times going behind their Fortress of Solitude paywalls, Rupert Murdoch continues his new digital strategy by moving the tabloid News of the World to an online subscription model. Dominic Ponsford of the Press Gazette sums up the move nicely:

Both are examples of the fact that, for Rupert Murdoch the internet is so over. Without any inbound or outbound links, and invisible to Google and other search engines, the NotW, Times and Sunday Times don’t really have internet sites – but digitally delivered editions.

I suppose that if you’re a true, blue believer in the apps versus open web idea, I guess this makes some amount of sense.

I have a feeling that as we move forward, digital editions will actually be a bundle of apps that work on the desktop, a tablet and even on flat screens via Google TV, Apple TV and alternative set-top box software like Boxee. Two years ago, Nick Bilton at The New York Times showed Suw and I a concept of the Times’ content following you through the day. As you moved from desktop to mobile to couch, New York Times followed you seamlessly, completely enveloped you. Sure, it was content from a single site, but the ease of use meant that it was effortless, frictionless. Of course, it helps to have the depth and quality of content of the New York Times. That was compelling. That is something I would pay for, but we’re still in the early days of constructing such a vision.

When I’m feeling really generous, I might think that News International’s strategy might be a step in that direction, but mostly, I still think that Murdoch’s paywall experiments are more for News International’s benefit than a bold step to create a compelling new digital offering.

Innovation: Focusing on finding “The Next Big Thing” leads to performance pressure

This cross-posted from The Media Briefing, a new site in the UK for media professionals. ?I like the cut of their jib. They are not only creating content, but they are also adding value to their content using semantic technologies to make it easier for busy professionals content relevant to them.

You want innovation? You can’t handle innovation.

Seriously though, once they’re established, most companies are geared toward stability, not disrupting their own operations. Newspaper and magazine companies are no different.

And print media had no real impetus to change radically until recently. Newspapers and magazines took the challenge from television and radio in its stride – but it took the combined impact of multi-channel television, video games and the internet to challenge print media’s dominance. But if you thought the last five years were disruptive, brace yourself for the next five.

The change in media economics has been a shift from scarcity – with few sources of information and entertainment – to more content choices than the human brain can possibly process. In this super-saturated media market, it’s about to get even more crowded.

AOL and Yahoo have decided to focus their strategies on content, although Yahoo in particular has tried this before and failed. Even if AOL fails, its efforts will put additional pressure on print media. AOL launched a local news service, Patch, in the US: Warren Webster, Patch’s president, recently told Ken Doctor in the that he can match the content production of a like-sized newspaper for 4.1 percent of the cost. As Ken wrote:

“Patch can produce the same volume of content… for 1/25 the cost of the old Big Iron newspaper company, given its centralized technology and finance and zero investment in presses and local office space. (Staffers work out of their homes.)”

Demand Media is already operating in the UK, bringing its model of consistent work for freelancers at ridiculously low rates. They march to the beat of Google‘s drum, commissioning content based on popular search terms. The content may be easy to parody, but Demand is preparing for what many are predicting will be a US$1.5bn floatation on the market.

So how will you turn staid institutions into nimble players in the new media environment?

One strategy that won’t work is locking a bunch of smart people in a room to come up with The Next Big Thing. The Economist, as successful it is, tried to do that with Project Red Stripe. It didn’t work, leading to a kind of performance anxiety and creative paralysis.

The industry has spent a lot of time hiring innovation officers and investing innovation in a few positions. In the not-so-distant past, the people in these positions have had no budget, no staff, an ill-defined role and, therefore, little impact. Clay Shirky in his seminal blog post, Newspapers: Thinking the Unthinkable, said that these people saw what was happening and simply described it to their colleagues. Clay says:

When reality is labelled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en bloc.

Innovation is about creating a culture of constant of improvement. If you could do one thing that would save every single journalist in your organisation ten minutes on every story – it might not be sexy – but these cost savings are necessary to compete with someone who does what you do for a fraction of the cost.

Steve Yelvington, a digital content pioneer in the US, worked on the NewspaperNext Project, and he’s been working on digital projects long before most media execs even knew what a computer was.

The NewspaperNext project looked at disruptive innovationthrough the lens of Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma. The basic question was this: “How and why (did) simple, low-end, inadequate, ‘junk’ products and services so often topple the big guy?”

These insurgents do it by starting with a product that is “good enough” and then constantly improve it. Insurgents start out “beneath” the incumbents, but then move upmarket. Recent hires by the Huffington Post, Yahoo and The Daily Beast show how pure digital companies are now starting to lure top talent away from the once imperious names of US journalism.

Wracking your brains for the next Big Thing is not the answer. The rules of the media market have already changed and it’s time to listen to the people you once thought were barking mad. Your survival might just depend on it.

New Statesman – Welcome to the fifth estate

Kevin: Laurie Penny writes in the New Statesmen about the continued prejudice shown by mainstream commentators towards political bloggers in the UK: "Cosy members of the established commentariat eye bloggers suspiciously, as if beneath our funny clothes and unruly hair we might actually be strapped with information bombs ready to explode their cultural paradigms and destroy their livelihoods.

This sort of prejudice is deeply anodyne.

Bloggers aren't out to take away the jobs of highly-paid columnists: we're more ambitious than that. We're out for a complete revolution in the way media and politics are done."