Form ever follows function, eventually

Our online editor, Will Davis, has been explaining how we flowed text from Google Docs to WordPress to print and created a low-cost, portable front-end system for our newsroom at Bangor Daily News. I wanted to tell you a little about why we did it.

If you read what Jeff Jarvis, Chuck Peters and Clay Shirky have been writing about decaying newsrooms and the need for new models, it’s hard to believe they weren’t taking notes in some darkened corner of ours, perhaps in Sports behind the stacks of old game results and Mountain Dew cans.

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.

As we lost staff to cutbacks over the years, assembling our content into finished products was taking a larger and larger percentage of our time. Simply processing press releases seemed to suck up significant portions of editors’ days. No one wanted to be in this situation, but our infrastructure for moving content demanded it. We were trapped.

We needed reporters to get out of the tools they had been using for more than a decade to drive toward single shift-end deadlines. We needed to simplify the connections between what reporters wrote and what the public saw. We needed to link our bureaus so that they were much more a part of the daily news flow; mobility, so that any staff member with a cell phone could file from anywhere; web archiving that allowed us to expand on stories and retrieve content below the level of a story — in brief, we needed to match the way our audience now acquires information. Also, we didn’t have any money for this project.

Then along came JRC’s Ben Franklin Project, pointing the way. We had begun using Google Docs in our new media department in 2007, when the department was created and we suddenly had to keep and share records on web development, ad sales and commissions, good ideas and meeting minutes. Docs as front-end newsroom system became apparent as Google improved its product and we needed a place for reporters to store notes, interviews, story ideas and all the rest in a place they could organize. The WordPress CMS, as good as it is, didn’t seem like the place to do that.

As the newsroom has grown comfortable with Docs, it is becoming more efficient (links and headlines, for instance, travel from Docs to WordPress) and we are shifting staff members from production to content creation. We knew we had a winner in Docs when we had a major election story with two reporters in the field and an editor in the newsroom, all working simultaneously on the same breaking story, adding content, seeing in real time what each was adding, talking to each other through the chat function and responding with updated information. Fast, simple, low cost.

We’re a long way from done. We’re still working on ways to present data and extract pieces of story content to create a coherent, useful whole; and we are just beginning the process of providing our audience a range of tools to contribute their own content. But in the newsroom, 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.

5 thoughts on “Form ever follows function, eventually”

  1. I think you are onto something good here. One idea I was trying independently was to use Posterous’ ability to publish via email to my WordPress site (since Posterous can publish to WordPress). Basically, since Posterous allows you to create a group blog, that can be run by email, you can use email to publish content. WordPress has a publish by email option, but it is based on a “secret” email address. This is not very useful since all users would need to use the “secret” email. However, Posterous is setup the other way round, so the group blog can receive emails from specific accounts. This then lets you publish by the easiest and most familiar tool around, email. You can also publish to social media in the same way.

    The only drawback is that Posterous works on a tag system. So you can tag posts, but not categories. Maybe your plugin could use a similar system in terms of setting up tags and categories further down the line.

    If one could create Google docs by sending an email, then your plugin would work perfectly, allowing writers to publish via email if necessary, since not everyone uses Google docs. (I see that Google docs used to have a similar secret email address feature like WordPress, but I am not sure it still exists, and still, it would have the same flaws as the WordPress email option.)

    Anyway, I think between the Posterous route and your G-Docs publishing there are options to making the CMS ‘invisible’ to the writers so they can focus on content and not on how to use WordPress.

    Great work!

  2. I came over to your site after watching Will Davis’ demo video on You guys are doing fabulous work! I’m always interested in reading about better ways to work by taking advantage of technology, and you guys have really done that.

    You’ve taken existing tools and married them in ways their creators couldn’t have imagined. Fascinating on how scarcity and necessity can spark innovation.

    Your generosity in open-sourcing your plugin is admirable as well. Keep up the great work.

  3. This is excellent.

    We just released a Google Docs to InDesign live linking tool, DocsFlow, a few weeks ago, and are looking at also hooking up InDesign to WordPress. (See, if you don’t mind the commercial reference here.)

    Your workflow stories are very inspiring, and we hope to be able to help others achieve this kind of low-cost solution.

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