How to Plan an Online News Project

If I had to pick only one difference between the mindset of print and online journalists, it’s the way they plan. Online journalists are more likely to have to collaborate with a large group, they are often working on longer time horizons on products that has longer shelf-lives. They are dealing with lots of smaller moving pieces and have to try to get management approval using static words and images to represent a project that will have a lot of animation and user-driven customization.

So, if you want to work online doing something other than breaking news you have to learn how to plan. In my experience, any online project — from an election returns database to a deadline explainer on the capture of Saddam Hussein — needs six things:

  1. A product concept
  2. A storyboard
  3. Asset management
  4. A clear workflow
  5. A financial budget
  6. A testing and quality assurance procedure

1. The Product Concept

“Oh, oh! What if we made, like, an AJAX page using Flash to create an interactive tag cloud of multimedia with a Twitter feed like they did that one time on The New York Times?”

If you’ve heard this sentence spoken by one of your online colleagues but have no idea what it means, don’t worry. Neither do I.

Unfortunately, this is the way that too many online projects are defined. And they get made because too many managers are afraid to sound stupid and ask questions. My advice to newsroom managers, which I learned from my former boss and mentor Mark Stencel, is this: “Manage like a reporter. Ask questions.”

All good online news projects start with a good question. What do I mean by “good” question? A question that the audience wouldn’t think about asking, but one to which it would want to know the answer. You can’t do this if you don’t know your audience. I encourage all journalists to get to know your audience demographic and information consumption behaviors as well as you possibly can — not because we care what kind of information is popular, but because we want to know how we can serve their unmet information needs better than anyone else.

This is what the Newspaper Next report — borrowing an idea from The Innovator’s Solution — calls the concept of “jobs to be done.” The idea is that people don’t really buy products, they hire them to do a job. When you’re conceptualizing a project, think about what job the audience needs to get done and how your solution is going be hired over all the other job candidates.

(Of course, real innovation happens when companies create solutions for problems the consumers don’t yet know they have. Nobody knew they needed a fax machine until about 150 years after it was invented. Nobody knew they needed to know who was behind the burglary of the Democratic National headquarters in the Watergate. Nobody knew they needed to keep track of every human being they’ve ever met since high school. Nobody knew they needed to broadcast 140 character text messages.)

In 1957, Anthony Downs outlined four basic types of jobs that news consumers are trying to get done. The four types of information needs are: producer, consumer, voter and entertainment.

  • Producer information helps you make money.
  • Consumer information helps you spend money wisely.
  • Voter information helps you choose between Candidate A and Candidate B.
  • Entertainment information isn’t for anything. It’s just things that make you go hmmm.

But going back to the idea that good project managers are good reporters, I like to go with a who, what, when, where, how and why approach to conceptualizing the right story or news tool for the right audience.

  • Who is the audience? Be very specific.
  • What type of job are they trying to get done?
  • When will they consume the information? Day? Time?
  • Where will they be when they consume it? At work? At home? In the car? In the subway?
  • How will they use it? On a desktop computer? Mobile phone? Television?
  • Why will choose your solution over all the other similar choices?

I literally try to picture a person using the project. If there are several types of audiences, I try to draw out the use cases.

By now, I’ve probably lost or revolted many of the best “newspapermen” out there. I’ve made gumshoe reporting, hard-hitting interviews and beautiful prose in to just another widget to be marketed like a rotten little Twinkie. Fair enough, but at least I have put the audience in its proper place.

Now we can ask the next set of questions that any good public affairs reporting piece should ask. You have to be able to answer at least one of the following questions.

  • How will this piece hold powerful people accountable?
  • How will it explain an increasingly complex world?
  • How will it shine light in a dark place?
  • How will it give voice to the voiceless?

If I know my audience, and I do the kind of reporting that helps them hold powerful people accountable, then I know I’ve got a good project on my hand.

But, wait, Ryan. Didn’t you mention something up there in the headline about “online?” When are we going to talk about that?

How about now?

You’ve identified the audience. You’ve clarified how your piece will make the world a better place. Now, why not just write some nice paragraphs and be done with it? Well, that’s exactly what you should do if you can’t answer at least one (and preferably all) of these questions:

  • What audio or visual elements would be appropriate for this story?
  • What opportunities does this story give you to interact with the audience?
  • How can the content, format or delivery of this story be customized to an individual user?

By now, we’ve asked questions about the audience, the impact and the execution of the piece. But most journalists don’t have time to read through all of this each time they plan a story. For the students in my classes, I’ve boiled this all down to a one page “pitch sheet” that is designed to help them do more planning at the front end and less salvaging at the back end.

2. Storyboarding

Just like writing a newspaper article is a process, so is producing an online news project. And just like all good writers start with an outline, all good online journalists start with a storyboard.

The purpose of a storyboard can simply be to plan out the orderly flow from one visual “scene” to the next in an animated graphic. But it’s real power lies in its ability to get you thinking about non-linear storytelling — stories through which each consumer can choose his or her own path.

The Knight Digital Media Center has a nice description and case study of storyboarding for online news production. The real gem of advice there is to avoid thinking about the “first part, second part, third part” of your story and think about “this part, that part.” In other words, you present the information and your audience members will choose the order in which they consume it.

If you prefer a more traditional journalistic way of storyboarding, you can think of each news element — the whos, whats, whens, wheres, whys and hows of your story — as each being the start of their own inverted pyramids. After you map an inverted pyramid for each news element, draw connections between the points at which two (or more) pyramids have common facts. I need to show you a picture of this, don’t I…?

As you are storyboarding, you’ll also want to note the medium you’ll use to tell that part of the story. Text? What kind? Video? Animation? Charts and graphs? Photos? Photo galleries? With or without sound? A database? A map? A discussion board?

The biggest advantage that storyboarding has over inverted pyramiding (?) is that you can begin to doodle the actual layout of various screens to show how the multiple media fit together. Again, for an example of this, please see the Knight Digital Media Center.

Here’s an idea for an exercise that also came from the Knight Digital Media Center via a learning module it made for NewsU.org: Take a in-depth feature or investigative story from the newspaper and create a storyboard for it. What are the elements it has? What are the audio and visual possibilities? What are the interactive elements? How could it be crafted as a non-linear story?

3. Manage Assets

One of the biggest challenges with managing an online news project is keeping track of the all the pieces once they start moving. Projects often have multiple elements, each of those elements have sub-elements and different people may be working on each of those sub-elements at different times. How do you keep people from stepping on each other’s toes? How do you make sure folks aren’t accidentally overwriting previous work?

Asset management and storyboarding come together when the team members begin to talk about the nuts and bolts of reporting the project. Who will the subjects be? When, where and how will interviews take place? How will we get the data needed for that animation? Does our software support that kind of online discussion?

In newspapers, asset management is done with the daily budget. In television, it is done with the show rundown.

The four tricks for online news asset management are to have a standard file naming convention, implement some sort of version control, and create a stylesheet that can be used across elements. Elizabeth Osder, Erik Ulken and others do a nice job of demonstrating the value of asset management in the case study they did for the Online News Association and NewsU.org.

File Naming Conventions

File naming conventions are not new to traditional journalists. These are the slugs of your story, often a one-word description of the piece. Filenames can also include other information such as the media type, the creator’s name or the date — depending on which is relevant.

For example, a project on the high school dropout rate might have file naming conventions such as:

  • teachers-thornburg-main.html
  • teachers-thornburg-photo1.jpg
  • teachers-thornburg-photo2.jpg
  • teachers-thornburg-audio.wav
  • teachers-thornburg-data.xml

This naming convention would indicate that the story is about teachers, it is being done by Ryan Thornburg and that it has one main story, two photos an audio file and a data file related to it.

Of course, there are almost infinite ways to do file naming conventions. The important thing is that anyone working on your project can tell at a glance what the file contains and how it relates to other files.

Content Management Systems

Along with file name convention, comes asset organization. Your project team should have an agreement about the common location that files will be stored. Whenever possible, it is a good idea to get files loaded in to a content management system as soon as possible. A content management system, or CMS, is essentially a database that stores your content, meta-data about the content (the author, creation date, file type, etc.) and the relationships it has with other data. Some examples of content management systems are Workbench, Ellington, Drupal, WordPress, and Saxotech. You can read even more about content management systems at CMSwatch.com .

But content management systems aren’t always appropriate for projects that are still early in the development and production stage. Early in the process, the best solution is to give team members access to a shared file server where they can save files. And on these file servers, you will want to have folders that reflect both the project workflow as well as its organization. But one of those organizational aspects must take priority.

For example, you might have final versions and draft versions of the teacher story mentioned above. You could either have a directory structure that looks like this:

  • drafts/teacher/
  • final/teacher/

or one that looks like this

  • teacher/drafts
  • teacher/final

but what you don’t want to have is two sibling folders that confuse the workflow, like this

  • teacherdrafts
  • finalteacherfiles

I prefer a file system that prioritizes workflow over content because it makes it easier to simply move entire folders from draft to editing to testing and publication status.

Stylesheets

One of the hallmarks of online publishing is that it separates format from content. This means that you can have the same content (a headline, for example) displayed in several different colors and fonts in several different media. That means that styles are also something you need to standardize across an entire project early in the planning phase.

I’ve never used a stylesheet like Elisabeth Osder did in the University of Southern California example, but I think she has a good idea. Here is her example of what a stylesheet — not to be confused with a Cascading Style Sheet — should look like.

4. Workflow

Assets are just one of the things you will have to manage in an online news project. You also need to manage the people. And it’s especially important to manage how and when each of those various people touch each of the pieces of content. This is called the workflow.

There’s a lot of software out there than can help you manage a workflow. Basecamp, Microsoft Project and OmniPlan are just three examples. If you have a Mac, I think OmniPlan does the best job balancing features, price and ease of use.

Of course, a simple Excel or Google spreadsheet will often do just fine. That’s basically what they used in the USC case study.

However you organize it, a good workflow should have the following elements:

People: Who are they? For what deliverables are they responsible? What decisions do they have the authority to make.

Tasks: A list of everything that needs to get done. These should be as specific and granular as possible. If more than two people touch a task, think about dividing it in to two tasks.

Deadlines: Giving meaning to the lives of journalists everywhere. Be specific about date and time, even if it seems silly. Journalists like to work around the clock. The end of the day comes at different times for different people.

Also, be hard-nosed and conservative about the amount of time it will take to complete each task. Remember that you will make tradeoffs as deadlines approach — you can make something quickly and cheaply and well. You can get two of those, but never all three. Deadlines will help you determine which one you want to sacrifice when the inevitable snafu arises.

Dependencies: This is where the rubber meets the road in workflows. For every task, what other tasks have to be done first. You can’t edit a video until you shoot the video. You can’t map the data until you acquire the data.

Dependencies will tell you if anyone is creating a bottleneck at any point in the project, and it also helps to prevent all the content from landing on the final editor’s desk too late to make changes.

That gets at another point about the design workflow — be sure to have multiple sign-offs during the process. It is often more difficult to make last minute changes on the Web than it is to make similar changes in print. The design sign-offs should come in the following steps”

  1. Storyboard and wireframes
  2. Black & white comps
  3. Color comps
  4. Functional test site

5. Financial Budget

When I was an editor, I’d often have staffers ask me, “Do you think we should build …?” My answer was always the same: “Depends on what it’s going to cost me.”

Even if you don’t have to worry about the financial costs of building something, it’s important to keep a constant eye on the opportunity costs.

But on the money side, here’s what I want to know:

  • What will be the travel costs?
  • Are you going to have to buy new hardware?
  • Are we going to have to buy new software?
  • Are we going to have to pay for any content — like logos or music?
  • Are we going to have to pay for stringers to cover your daily work while you’re working on this?
  • How much time will we need from other departments, especially IT?

6. Testing/QA

If any job in journalism remains secure, it’s the job of the copyeditor. As readers of this blog can attest, journalist’s can’t spell and often use poor grammar. But the job of the copyreditor is going to change some, too. Copyeditors are going to need to manage workflow across media and in large sets of data, and they will need to be comfortable with letting some style and grammar errors go live before they get fixed (while also demanding that they ALL get fixed ASAP).

Working Across Media

Text for all pieces of a project should be edited as early in the project plan as possible. This includes CHA in animated graphics and titles in videos.

If getting copyeditors the text early in the process isn’t going to work for you, then your multimedia editors are going to have to take responsibility for and understand that they may be re-rendering video the night before launch.

Working With Data

How do you copyedit the election results of every candidate for federal office? That’s the problem we had in 2000 and 2004 at washingtonpost.com. Luckily, we had Tammy Kennon to answer that question for us.

The problem is this…how to check the spelling of more than a thousand candidate names, as well as the party affiliation, as well as making sure that the computer programmers told the Web page to display “1 p.m.” instead of “1 PM” or “1:00 p.m.” or “01:00 p.m.” or “13:00:00” or “JD 2451853.04167.”

The solution we developed was to test a few instances of each possible thing a user could see (“But what if a candidate dies and her name is taken off the ballot?” or “What if the winner of the popular vote doesn’t win the electoral vote?” or “What if Nebraska splits its electoral votes?” or “What if the polls in a state are in two different time zones?” or “What if Nader’s votes all of a sudden end up determining the outcome of the election?” I mean, seriously, you would not believe all the weird things that could happen on election night.

Fixing Errors After They Go Live

Let me be clear, in an ideal world every piece of content would be vetted for fact, spelling, grammar, punctuation and AP style adherence by at least six fact-checkers, line editors, copyeditors and layout chiefs. But the world has never been ideal and we’ve always had to live with some degree of risk that we would accidentally print things that look goofy.

The biggest difference in QA between print and online is that print can’t be fixed once it’s published. Online can be fixed. That means that while I’m no less willing to publish a fact error online, I am willing to tolerate more misplaced commas.

The key thing about this final step in online project planning is that everything must be tested before it goes live. Every link should be clicked on. Every page should be tested in both IE and Firefox browsers, and on both Windows and Macs. The pages should be tested on at least two different screen resolutions — 800×600 and 1024×768.

If you’re dealing with anything other than static HTML, the entire project should be uploaded to a testing server that mimics exactly the live server. It needs to have the same version of PHP, the same load-balancing specifications, the same file structures, etc.

And, getting back to deadlines, the testing needs to be done in time to allow for the inevitable fixing.

ADDITIONAL READING

Site Planning

Storyboarding

Case Studies

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