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Provide the tools to support better workflows and broader roles

Two essential tools are key to digital transformation: a universal budget and a communications app for messaging, coordination and file access. In addition, a key role (for an individual or team) is the ‘tool master’ who continually identifies tools that work.

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

In the course of the Table Stakes effort, two essential tools emerged as key to digital transformation: a universal budget plus a communications app for messaging, coordination and file access. In addition, a key role emerged (for an individual or team) related to being the ‘tool master’ who continually identifies tools that work and oversees the shared repository folks use to access and learn how to use the tools in that repository.

Create a complete and universally shared “budget” covering all digital publishing

The term “budget” is part of the print legacy’s lexicon that, while still actively used, nonetheless has entirely different purposes, meanings and dimensions in digital publishing. Rather than allocating physical space within a daily print product, the digital budget is key to coordinating content publishing throughout the hours of the day and across multiple platforms on a continuous basis.

However, too few newsrooms have a universal budget that can do these jobs. Instead, newsrooms evolve a hodge podge of workaround efforts that too rarely get used by everyone or in similar ways. In some newsrooms, the digital budget remains a loose, after the fact plan made once the print budget is set (i.e., curating digital from print). Other newsrooms attempt to use the budget system of the print CMS even though it may only include content that will appear in print and has deadlines only by the day instead of hour. Perhaps most commonly, the digital budget exists in multiple spreadsheets, word documents and Google docs kept by different groups and individuals across the newsroom with no shared access or integrated view. One newsroom, for example, admitted to 24 different such efforts.

What’s required is a “digital-native” budget system that’s suited to achieving this Table Stake of matching your flow of publishing to the times when audiences are seeking content, a system that meets these requirements:

  • Basic data: inclusion of all the data points needed to profile and track digital content across platforms, including but not limited to print (reporter, editor, slug, digital headline, visuals, deadline, status, publishing platforms, publishing time by platform, etc.);
  • Complete entry and continuous updating: clear roles and responsibilities across the newsroom for entering all content items along with clear expectations for keeping the status as current as possible;
  • Universal access: open access by everyone in the newsroom to the entire budget;
  • Easy access: availability not just on desktop but also on mobile and via coordination tools (e.g. Slack);
  • Multiple publishing views: the ability to sort and report the content in progress from key digital publishing perspectives: platform, time window, status, reporter, etc.;
  • Lead times and views: inclusion of lead times for story elements where needed (e.g. complex graphics) and the display of those lead time dates within the time-based views;
  • Forward view: the ability to go out a year in advance to forward plan date-pegged content (e.g. calendared events such as major holidays), major reporting initiatives, etc.

Such systems are available commercially, though they should be considered only once your requirements and selections criteria are clearly defined. Because such systems are essentially just a database, you can also get started with something as basic as a Google Sheet shared to everyone in the newsroom. This simple start can also be a cheap and easy way to test and refine your data needs and prototype entry and report formats before purchasing a system or developing one in-house.

The Dallas Morning News was considering a commercial system when in-house developers decided they could take on the project and quickly developed a version that the newsroom started using immediately. The system has continued to be refined and adapted to their digital publishing needs and Dallas has now licensed it to another newsroom and is sharing further development costs with them.

Adopt a readily available messaging, collaboration and file access app to coordinate continuous digital publishing

Hand-in hand with the a universal budget is the need for a common tool for managing the cross-newsroom communications and coordination needed to produce the content in the budget. The all-too-common shortfall in newsrooms arise from a hodge podge of different messaging apps used in different ways by different groups to connect with one another and with stories/content under way. This multitude of email distribution lists and clutter of uncategorized emails generates ever more cumbersome sending, retrieving and organizing story assets that are nearly unmanageable – and make cross-newsroom collaboration nightmarish.

It’s no surprise then that as the four initial Table Stakes newsrooms moved to digital first publishing across the day, they also adopted an integrated communications, coordination and file access app. Slack* was their favored choice as it is with many news organizations, though there are alternatives to consider (e.g., Azendoo, Bitrix24). Besides the expected uses for editorial planning, story development, breaking news coordination and the like, they also used Slack to support/advance other digital production uses such as headline workshopping.

Just as with the universal budget system, it’s important to clearly define your requirments and selection criteria up front (e.g. full mobile functionality, integration with existing email and file storage systems, etc.). It’s also essential to think how to introduce the tool, provide basic training, enforce universal usage, promote active use, and manage the tool going forward. For example, Slack channel proliferation is a common byproduct of success – and must be managed if frustration is not to set in**.

Identify and create a shared repository of tools you expect newsroom folks to use to speed and ease continuous publishing tasks

Having easy access to the right tool for the right task dramatically increases the odds that folks in busy newsrooms use that tool. Even if a reporter, for example, recalls hearing about some tool someone else used, the odds of that reporter taking advantage drop like a rock if the reporter has to hunt down the tool. In contrast, if the right tool is available and the tasks take, say, 15 minutes, it’s much more likely to happen. Of course, if the reporter has never even heard of the tool, she won’t use it.

There’s an ever expanding range of digital storytelling and production tasks and tools – a range that spans photo and video editing (on both desktop and mobile), chart building and other data visualization, video storytelling, interactive storytelling, social media searching, audio transcription, language translation and more. Fortunately, after more than 20 years of digital production there are many such tools optimized for defined functions, easy to learn, quick to use and often available for free or modest cost. And information, reviews and training webinars on such tools are readily available from various journalism support organizations and sites, including the Digital Tool Catalog developed by the Poynter Institute and API with Knight Foundation support, or by directly contacting Amy Kovac-Ashley, API’s Senior Newsroom Learning Program Manager.

Given the ready availability and number of such tools, newsrooms need to designate one or more folks to play the role of tool masters who not only look out for new and/or better tools but also create, maintain and manage a repository where folks can access, learn about and share successes with the tools themselves. These tool masters should treat the repository as a product they manage – and the rest of the newsroom as their customers. They are responsible for identifying needed tools, finding the right tools, working with others to get them deployed, learned and used across the newsroom, being the resident expert on tool questions, and staying apprised of upgrades and better replacements. And they must continuously ‘market’ the repository to others.

In the course of its work to broaden digital production skills across the newsroom, the Philadelphia Media Network started building its own on-line “Knowledge Base” described as “a living interactive checklist for common publishing tasks.” Along with basic guidance, this repository provides links to how-to articles and training materials. Philadelphia continuously updates the repository as workflows and practices change.

Creating such a “front-end” knowledge base for your own newsroom has the advantage of providing navigation based on your particular situation and then linking, as needed, to the wealth of outside articles and training resources that are available (e.g. the Philly Knowledge Base has top-line navigation based on the CMS and such choices as “Quick! Breaking News,” “Standard toolkit” and “The works”).

There is an upfront investment in time and basic tech development to create repositories that then are built out over time. The return on this investment comes from a blend of time, resources and money saved and better used along the faster, more engaging digital content that attracts, retains and monetizes users, advertising and other revenue opportunities.


* The American Press Institute (API) offers a helpful introduction and detailed guide to using Slack, along with other resource materials based on news organizations that have adopted it.

** Background information, a training module, documentation and interviews with several news organizations on adopting and using Slack are available from API.