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Address the technology drags on digital publishing

Technology and tool issues, roles and skills and work and workflow all interrelate. Yet, technology challenges can be the most frustrating because of their drag on effectiveness and efficiency. Some of these issues are easy to deal with; others are brutal.

This is an excerpt from “Table Stakes: A Manual for Getting in the Game of News,” published Nov. 14, 2017. Read more excerpts here.

Technology and tool issues, roles and skills and work and workflow all interrelate. Yet, technology challenges can be the most frustrating because of their drag on effectiveness and efficiency. Some of these issues are easier to deal with than others – for example, replacing underpowered PCs or workstations that don’t support simultaneously opening and working with multiple programs. Others take effort but are doable: for example, building a universal budget tool. But some are brutal – especially those related to large and complex content management systems, the bane of most print-legacy newsrooms versus digital only competitors.

Print-centric CMS drags

If your newsroom has a print-based CMS that exports for digital publishing, then you’re stuck creating digital content in a “non-digital” environment. Such systems were originally designed to collect discrete print story inputs from the newsroom (story text, photos, etc.) for composition into print pages by expert print designers. And though much modified for digital publishing over the years, these print-centric CMSs still aren’t designed for the “one person” workflow described earlier. They don’t easily support all the elements needed for engaging digital posts (e.g., hyperlinks, image galleries, embeds, pull quotes, separate headlines for the main post, social post and SEO, etc.). Nor do they allow anyone to see and experiement with how various elements come together into a digital story (e.g. the placement of multiple photos and embeds within the text of the story or the use of pull quotes). Consequently, they require clean-up and fill-in of missing elements when the content is exported for digital publication.

Dual CMS drags

Using separate CMS’ for print and digital generate another set of headaches that impede digital transformation. First, separate CMSs perpetuate the print versus digital divide separating reporters and editors who persist in using the print CMS as their primary or “originating” CMS from digital producers working in the digital CMS. It increases the likelihood that not all content gets into digital form because the print-oriented reporters and editors rely too heavily on digital producers to do that work for them.   And, it seriously slows the speed at which reporters and editors gain the skills needed for the one person workflow plus the mindset of continuous digital first publishing.

You can improve this situation by flipping to the digital CMS as the “originating” CMS for the entire newsroom. If you do this, you must also explicitly require reporters and editors to work in the digitally native system, first which has an added benefit of expediting their skills and mindset toward the one person workflow. But this perpetuates the possibility of double work on the backend as content is taken from the digital CMS and put into the print CMS.

The costs of addressing and not addressing technology drags

Fully addressing complex technology drags such as those arising from CMS issues is costly – both in terms of hard dollars for cash strapped news enterprises as well as pain-of-change costs related to learning and implementation. There’s a natural reluctance to act because, day-to-day, it’s easier to continue to live with and work around technology limitations.

Too often, though, the costs of not changing go unconsidered. These costs are real and come in two forms. First are the “excuse costs” that arise when technology drags give the newsroom justifications for not moving faster to the one person workflow that empowers reporters to fully own their digital storytelling and audience engagement.

Second are serious inefficiencies – the costs in money and speed arising from added steps to daily work plus errors that arise and must get fixed (reworked). Such costs rise when high value folks do low value work (e.g., a talented and experienced editor reinserting hyperlinks). Too often newsrooms that delay action out of concern for costly new CMSs also fail to quantify and discuss these hidden inefficiencies and costs. For example, say you have a producer spending 2.5 hours a day at an hourly rate of $25 on tasks that would not be required in a good CMS environment. Multiply this by six producers in similar circumstances. Add to this the reporter who spends or loses 45 minutes a day on unproductive CMS-related tasks and other technology problems (again at $25 an hour). And, say, you have 50 folks in the same boat – so multiply by 50. Now add experienced editors who spend two hours a day of CMS-related “clean-up” and “fix-it” work at an hourly rate of $50 (based on a fully load annual salary of $80,000). Multiply this by eight editors. Add all this up and you reach an annual total cost of over $500,000.

The benefits of taking action

The case for action becomes clear when your newsroom accounts for and considers these “excuse” and staff time costs. And, in addition to the costs of not taking action, there are a series of benefits that arise when CMS issues get addressed – though some of these are difficult to see until action Is underway.   For example, Dallas converted to a digital-first CMS (called “Serif”) that they developed with an outside firm for the launch of GuideLive (a standalone entertainment product). As part of the migration, Dallas first scaled the CMS and tested it for sports before expanding it across the entire newsroom.

Amanda Wilkens, Audience Development Editor, described the CMS conversion as a journey from “workflow” to “work with flow.” She made clear “it hurt at first, but then we realized how much better life can be than what it was” which, in turn, she described this way (emphasis added):

Using Serif has been a career-changing experience for our reporters and editors. There are so many ways to quantify the difference between our new way of working and our old way, but the obvious victory for us is this: We are now coaching writers in article design rather than urging, pleading, begging them simply to upload photos or embed tweets.

The ease of embedding rich media is a game-changer; reporters don’t need to know code or screen sizes any more. Add to that the streamlined method for importing photos and building galleries, and the result is a newsroom that is energized in the way it seeks to better integrate all the tools digital storytelling has to offer.

No firewalls, no coding, no wonky display. Now we are empowered by seamless, WYSIWYG interface. Having gone through more than a half-dozen iterations of different systems over 20 years, I can attest that Serif’s user-centric design and simple, elegant focus on building solid, structured content are unmatched in the news industry.

Her remarks go beyond endorsing Serif. They also speak to the great value realized by squarely facing up to and directly addressing the drags of non-digital CMS’s on digital transformation.