Learn / Multimedia views / Websites

Getting to the web-first mentality – start with the Content Management System

A couple of conversations recently reminded me of one of my main points of contention: until college newspapers start using the web in their copy workflow, their efforts at practicing a “web-first” publishing mentality are going to be decidedly uneven.

The tragedy is that there are many tools already available to make that happen.

Check below the fold to see what I’m talking about and read a few objections.

First, let’s look at a simplified description of how most stories work their way through the college news editorial structure:

A student reporter goes out, gathers information, and writes the information up in a MS Word document. The reporter then e-mails that story .doc to an editor (or puts the .doc on the newspaper server for editing). The editor looks at the .doc, then passes it along to the copy editor, who looks at the .doc and passes it on to a page designer, who takes the copy out of the .doc and pastes it onto a page in InDesign. After it’s laid out and printed, (ideally) it gets a final read through by another editor and further corrections are made. Finally, the pages are sent to the printer and the web staff gets their hands on the InDesign (Quark) files and begins putting the info on the web site.

Sound familiar? I’ve spoken to several folks from student newspapers, and their workflow is very similar to this system (although some will use InCopy or another expensive workflow system). To get something on the web before it appears in print requires an extraordinary effort to break that chain of copy.

So I’m pushing a radical re-thinking of how you do business. Start putting the web content management system into the workflow at the front end. This could be as simple as using Google Docs as a word processor instead of the bloatware that we know as MS Word. You could try WriteWith, which allows collaboration on documents, or you could go whole hog and just have the reporters type their stories into the web site content management system. If you’re on College Publisher, that’s what it was designed to do. Other content management systems (even the WordPress system that runs this blog) allow you to set up levels of permissions, so everything a writer types into the system doesn’t immediately appear on the site. As long as the writer has internet access, they should be able to type the content into one of these places and e-mail a link to the editor.

Then – another radical thought – give your senior editors permission to publish material to the web site. That’s right. There’s no good reason every story should have to funnel through an overworked and underappreciated web staff. Those senior editors are (hopefully) chosen because of their experience and seniority. They approve stories to appear in the print edition, they should be approving stories to appear on the web as well.

One immediate positive effect this would have is freeing up your online staff to devote time to doing things specific to the web – like creating multimedia content, for instance.

Objections? I’ve heard a few:

Reporters need to meet face-to-face with editors when they turn their copy in: Okay, so require them to meet with an editor when they finish the story. That’s not a function of a Word document or a printed copy of the story. Here’s a thought: tell the reporter, “if you don’t meet with an editor after finishing your story, it doesn’t get printed.” Tough love, right?

We find lots of mistakes on the finished layout: I’ve heard this response several times. My somewhat cynical reply is: “So?” Expect more. Demand more. I realize that’s somewhat idealistic, to expect most copy errors to be caught before they’re laid out on the page and printed in 75 percent size. So, an alternative is to put the content in the CMS and then hold the final “publish” button until the layouts are corrected. But on breaking news stories, or really important news, the option is still available to publish the story to the web before that print edition is finished.

But won’t that keep people from reading the print edition? No. Your online audience isn’t generally the same audience as your print edition. Students pick up the print edition on their way to class. Faculty, staff, alumni, prospective students, and interested outsiders read the online edition (and a few students read as well). So “scooping” the print edition shouldn’t affect your readership one bit.

Our editor reads every story before it appears in print: And you can make sure they read most stories before they appear on the web. That can remain the same, if you (and your student staff) wish. But what if breaking news happens and your editor is out of town? Or incommunicado? What if the web editor is nowhere to be found? Do your senior editors have permission to access the web content management system and publish a story to the web – a story that could be updated and changed later? Would they know what to do if they did? If they don’t, why not?

Do you have other objections? Let me know. I honestly think this will help college newspapers move forward with their Web sites. If I’m wrong, please let me know.

Is it going to take extra effort to get staffers to change a system that’s been in place for years? Sure. But the end result – an integrated print/web presence – will be well worth the effort.