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June 30 2011

How one newspaper rebooted its workflow with Google Docs and WordPress

Bangor Daily News Google DocsDigital media not only forces newsrooms to face economic challenges, but also workflow issues. In a recent post, Todd Benoit, director of news and new media at the Bangor Daily News addressed the root of the workflow problem in his newsroom:

Like many newsrooms, until very recently we were production heavy because we had to be. Moving stories to the web was a copy-and-paste affair, but that's not where the trouble started. If you begin with a print-directed front-end system, as we did, how does that system accommodate a story being updated from the field? Or how would the full possibility of story assets land online, to be chosen among for print? Even simpler: When do reporters add links? The answers, as countless journalists know, are: It can't; they won't; they don't. From there, it's all production, not creation.

The Bangor Daily News attacked the problem head on, incorporating Google Docs and WordPress into a new front-end system that handles the flow of news in the digital era. As Benoit describes the solution:

... the guiding ideas we have put into practice are to match the tool to the job we need done (rather than the reverse), reduce the number of steps required and anticipate how our audience will want the information next. And the cost should be next to nothing.

To find out more about how the project came about and how it works in practice, I reached out to William Davis (@williampd), the online editor at the Bangor Daily News and the architect of the new system.

Our interview follows.

How did you end up gravitating toward a Google Docs / WordPress / InDesign system?

William-P-Davis.pngWilliam Davis: My boss [Todd Benoit] has a great post on our dev blog on the topic, and I talk about it a bit on one of my blog posts as well.

We picked Google Docs purely for its ease of use and its collaboration tools. We wanted a place where reporters could work on their articles easily from wherever they are — we have quite a few bureaus, and our reporters often file from events. The collaboration tools are terrific and have really proved useful, for example, when we're editing articles on tight deadlines or when reporters are working on stories together. On Election Day we had three reporters at different campaign headquarters all working in one doc, and it went very smoothly.

We chose WordPress because we wanted a content management system (CMS) that allowed us to develop components quickly and easily. WordPress has a great API and it's very extendable — we've been able to easily change pretty much any part of the CMS without hacking the core, which allows us to maintain the integrity of the system.

Both systems are quickly evolving and pushing boundaries in their fields, without any prodding from us. WordPress has frequent updates that push the platform to a new level, and Google Docs' collaboration tools, for example, are second to none.

Finally, we chose InDesign because it is the industry leader in page design software.

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What was involved in developing the system?

William Davis: We started development in August [2010] or so, and it's still ongoing. We launched things on a rolling basis by department, and started with sports, which turned out to be the hardest because it's the most complex. We then rolled out politics in time for the elections. We got the entire newsroom using Google Docs early this year.

The display desk transitioned to InDesign in April, and then earlier this month we finished the website transition and turned off our old systems. As we developed the components needed for each department, we would move them over, test and tweak things, and then move on to the next department.

What are some of the major challenges you've encountered?

William Davis: We've had a few instances where Google has changed the way they structure their content in Google Docs or changed the way a part of the API works and we've had to adapt. We've also faced the usual technical problems that come with hosting any large website, but we haven't really encountered any challenges that we weren't able to solve fairly quickly.

Some components we've rebuilt a few different ways and will probably rebuild again. The wire feeds are an example. Those were originally running directly into WordPress. We decided we didn't want to put the strain of tens of thousands daily stories and photos on our website and so we tried running the wires directly into Google Docs. We encountered problems there, as well. I`n the third iteration, which we're using now, we have a separate script that ingests the wires and provides a way to browse them, then sends the stories we want into Google Docs. That's worked pretty well, though that's not to say we won't rebuild that component or others in the future as needed.

The great thing about building our own system is that we can tailor it to our needs. Because we're doing it all in-house, we can change quickly, rather than waiting for a corporation to adapt with us.

Was it difficult for people to adapt to the new system?

William Davis: With a transition to any new system, there are of course going to be problems, but I think the ones we've encountered have been pretty minimal. Reporters seem to have had a pretty easy time adapting to writing in Google Docs — many of them, especially bureau reporters, were already using the system to write their articles. They understand why it's important to move content quickly through the system so their articles have the best chance to succeed online.

Can you give us a walk-through of the publishing steps involved — from story idea to final web and print versions?

William Davis: Reporters start their stories in Google Docs, and when they're finished, they drop them in a folder for their section — Metro, State, Business, etc. Editors read the story and move it on to a copy editing queue, where a digital desk editor reads it before sending it to WordPress.

In WordPress, the digital desk editors will categorize it, attach media such as photos and video, and then they will publish the story. This is done throughout the day — we have digital desk staff on from 5 a.m. until midnight. When the display desk comes in to lay out the paper, all they have to do is find the story in the InDesign plugin we built and bring it onto the page.

Everything comes onto the page fully formatted, though the digital desk is responsible for writing their own headlines for print. They can do this either on the page or in a module I built for WordPress that provides a WYSIWYG headline-writing interface.

Davis offers a tour of the new system in this screencast:

How many people actually touch the copy before it's published?

William Davis: As is the case in any newsroom, that varies by article. The digital desk editors, in addition to being copy editors, sometimes act as backfield editors, such as on the weekend. Other articles are seen by four or five editors before they're published. In general, though, articles go from reporter to assignment editor to at least one digital desk editor before being published.

How much manual labor is involved?

William Davis: We've managed to do away with pretty much all manual labor. Previously, all stories were written in our print CMS, and the web staff was responsible for copying and pasting the story into our web CMS, finding and adding links, writing a web headline and, quite often, doing that multiple times for the same story after it was updated. The copy editing was all print-centric, so at the end of the night, most of the stories would need to be updated. Now there's no copying and pasting — everything flows from one step to the next.


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  • December 14 2010

    Publishers, don't pave that cow path

    As new publishing processes and platforms hit the market at increasing rates, publishers face bewildering choices. Where should they invest their time and money? What are the best technologies?

    Gus Balbontin (@gusbalbontin), global innovation manager at Lonely Planet and a speaker at TOC 2011, has a different take on adaptation. In the following interview, he explains why agility and a willingness to try everything are the keys to digital success.

    Lonely Planet has been transforming into a multi-channel content producer for a couple of years now. What hasn't worked during that transition?

    TOC 2011Gus Balbontin: One issue we had was that we focused first on what we were doing. We needed to get the product right and it needed to look like this, and it needed to fulfill the customer in this way.

    What we realized was that the market and the industry are shifting so quickly that trying to focus on the product too much will get you into the "death wobbles," as we call them in Australia. In traditional publishing we tend to "concrete the cow path" -- if the cow is going from the paddock to the waterhole this way, let's concrete it so the cow goes faster. Then the cow decides there's actually another way that's quicker, and you realize that you've concreted the cow path for no reason whatsoever. Our instinct in publishing is to say: "What is your new pathway? I'll concrete that one."

    The lesson is that you don't want to concrete your cow paths. It is all about how you do things. You need to remain incredibly flexible. You need to intuitively understand your industry and your customer. Focusing on how you do things rather than focusing on exactly what it is that you're doing is something we learned over the last few years.

    What's been your biggest success thus far?

    GB: The biggest success has been focusing on the absolute essence of Lonely Planet, which is our content. Customers are starting not to see the borders between an app, an ebook, and a book. They want to have the same experience across all of these things; not the same features, but definitely the same experience. Have we nailed it yet? Of course not. We're still on the journey.

    What emerging technologies should publishers pay attention to?

    GB: You have to poke your finger at everything that is coming out to actually understand it. It goes back again to how you do things. If you are nimble, you should be able to test everything quickly and cheaply. That's where Lonely Planet is now. We can quickly throw together a prototype, figure out how we're going to do it, and then test the market. That's where you need to be.

    One of the things I always think about is the convergence of all of these technologies. An app is a great little product you can do; an ebook is a great product you can do; a book is a great product you can do; and a game is a great product you can do. But when you bring all of those platforms together, you provide a much richer product experience.

    What would "Harry Potter" look like if you provided an experience that went far beyond the book itself or far beyond the movie? Something that was actually in between those two, plus the game, plus another thing. At the moment, they do put the game out, and they put out the movie, and they put out the book. But it's still not seamless enough for the customer. You can put out a product in each one of those channels, but you cannot seamlessly read the book on a plane, and as you walk off the plane, grab your phone and continue your experience there.

    I look at how Apple focuses on the experience more than the channel. So, if you're sitting at home, and you've got your Mac open in your kitchen, and you've got an Apple TV sitting underneath your telly, all of a sudden, an extra device -- the TV -- has become a valuable part of the experience. Apple didn't publish a product for the TV, a product for your laptop, etc. They just gave you an experience with three or four different channels that allow you to enjoy your content in a different way.

    Publishing across platforms will be discussed at the 2011 Tools of Change for Publishing Conference, Feb. 14-16. Save 15% on registration with the code TOC11RAD.

    How should the structure of publishing organizations change to accomodate the digital shift?

    GB: Most companies, as they evolve, say: "There's a new channel. We'll create a new part of the company." So, all of a sudden, you've got your print business, and then you've got this digital business, or a dot-com business, and then a mobile business. That's one of the key things that needs to change.

    Also, you need to stop the book metaphor from permeating an organization. You need to erase it if you can and try to become horizontal rather than vertical in the way you operate. It is incredibly tricky to break those barriers.

    The essence of what the print people have known for 500 years is still the same in the digital world: you still have to publish great content. Yes, the tone may change a little. Yes, the experience might be slightly different. But at the end of the day, the people creating the content are humans. The people consuming it are also humans. The same humans that consume print consume digital. It's not different.

    Stephen Fry recently released his autobiography across multiple platforms. Is that the new publishing model?

    GB: That's the first step toward experiencing each one of the channels that are valuable to us today. That's fine, but it still doesn't provide a cohesive product or experience to the consumer. There is still a very clear fragmentation between the ebook, the book, and the app. We're all struggling with that.

    The next step is going to be much more cohesive. In the future, you'll actually pump out content in one way, and that content will be consumed in 12 different ways, but it's the same experience across all of those. Publishers won't have to prepare content each time for each of the platforms.

    What will publishing look like in 10-20 years?

    GB: For me, it's going to be about the customers. We have to fulfill needs rather than just push content out that we think is right. It's going to be a seamless world where customers pick a combo of information and platform.

    In terms of technology, I have no idea what's going to happen. I'm hoping that eventually we'll be able to play with our brains a little bit and implant all of those different bits of information that we want, so I can take Spanish into my brain and go to Spain and enjoy it in a much richer way because I can actually speak Spanish. How cool would that be?

    In terms of the next 10 or 20 years, the essence of what publishers are doing won't change at all. This is what should make publishers feel comfortable about the future. The reason why you're there and the problems that you can solve for customers won't change. That's what you need to keep focusing on.

    This interview was edited and condensed.


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