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:

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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.)

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