This week marks my fifth month at The Seattle Times, a perfect time for an update about what I’ve been up to. Almost since the minute I walked in the door, Eric Ulken has had me working on an unprecedented project for our newsroom — a WordPress blog.
So here I bring you, The Today File. We soft launched the blog two weeks ago and are now regularly linking to it from the homepage. The slideshow below is the presentation I gave to editors and reporters.
What it is
1. A home for breaking news. Prior to the launch of The Today File, we had a crime blog, weather blog, politics blog and a ton of other niche-topic blogs. If any other random in-between news broke (traffic, education, general metro), there wasn’t a home for it except as a “full story” i.e. something that originates in our print CMS (CCI) and goes through the standard workflow of being published to the web. It could sometimes take 10 or 15 minutes to get an item up on our site, and it could only be done from within the building.
Not only is this a many-step process, but it’s a print-centric one that doesn’t allow us to easily do things like hyperlinking, dropping in maps, sharing on social media, etc. WordPress, of course, changes all of that.
2. A place for us to be more transparent. It’s not as radical as The Guardian opening up its news budget to the world every morning, but it’s a start. Every morning, a metro editor posts a Morning Memo which outlines the day’s weather and morning traffic, stories we’re pursuing and a few items worth reading before you walk out the door.
3. A place for us to be more personal. If you read one of the aforementioned Morning Memos, you’ll see that they’re casual and fun. Everything else we post on The Times’ site is very straight-forward, who, what, where, when, why. This is a place for us to relax a bit and have some fun if it’s appropriate.
4. A way to use modern technology. Our print and web CMSes are old (surprise, surprise). Old technology means old workflows, old workflows mean old mindsets and old mindsets lead to the inability innovate which means we lose relevancy which means we lose readers and attention, so on and so forth. In my mind, changing the technology is the first step at showing people what’s truly possible so they can dream big and adapt.
A quote that I recently read in Stijn Debrouwere’s blog has been ringing in my head for days: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” You connect the dots.
5. A place to freely experiment. Without going through a formal request process and waiting for IT resources to push out something new, we can implement it on a small scale on the blog and quickly rollback if we don’t like the results. For example, we’re trying Facebook comments for a short time to see how our comments are impacted by removing anonymity (I’ll report back later on the findings of this experiment, promise). Because of the vast amount of documentation and array of plugins available for WordPress, we don’t necessarily need developers to roll out new features.
6. A means of disaster publishing. In the event of a huge snowstorm or a fire in our building, all of our web servers would be at jeopardy for our main site. With an off-the-reservation WordPress blog, we now have a place to keep publishing, using software that our editors and reporters are already know and are used to using.
A few details
- Running: WordPress v. 3.2.1
- Hosting: EC2 instance (soon to be load balanced across a few instances)
- Caching: Amazon Cloudfront + memcached
- Metrics tracking: Omniture and Chartbeat
- Commenting: Facebook comments (temporary experiment)
- Internal documentation: Internal wiki
- Training: One-one-one with editors, mostly done my me
- Users: All reporters are authors with the ability to edit others’ posts, editors are editors, special user type for producers (between admin and editor)
- Workflow: EditFlow to notify specific editors when posts are ready to be edited
- Photos: Our photo desk drops in photos via FTP (using Add From Server), reporters/editors also manually upload photos
- Shortcodes: For easily inserting Brightcove videos, Document Cloud embeds, links to Seattle Times photo galleries
- Polls: Polldaddy
- Mapping: Using Google Maps Shortcode plugin for crime bloggers to easily drop-in locations
A huge interdepartmental success
What I really love about working at The Seattle Times is how well all the departments work together. This project has been an example of developers, designers, metro editors, reporters and web producers putting their brains together to create a new product. So here are a few shoutouts:
- Joel Hartshorn, our software development manager, has been a lifesaver for the blog — couldn’t have done it without him. He configured our server, set up all the bells and whistles to make the blog sing under load, helped me during moments of panic, and has generally been excited and open to trying something new. Thanks to his whole team, too.
- Eric Ulken for being the project manager and setting all the pieces in motion. Also for trusting me enough to take on a big chunk of the project.
- Nick Provenza, a metro editor who has been at The Times for 27 years. He is the gatekeeper of the blog who gets to the newsroom at 5:30 a.m. to write the Morning Memo. He’s our newsroom evangelist who encourages other editors to post. His content is the heart of this thing.
- John de Leon and other metro reporters for filling the blog with Blotter crime content.
- Matt Ironside, our technical producer, who spearheaded the integration with our web CMS so we can easily pull blog headlines onto the homepage.
- Suki Dardarian, Mark Higgins, Kathy Best, David Boardman + all senior editors for their support and helping craft the mission.
- + everyone else who will be dragged into this project in the future
The blog is a continually-evolving beast. We’re still trying to figure out which workflows (that word again!) are most efficient, which tools work best, how to integrate with the rest of our site, etc. But the bigger-picture step looking forward will be to institutionalize the blog so that instead of being an off-the-radar side project, we have the right kind of support and resources (yes, that word again, too) to keep it going strong.
People in the newsroom seem to love it. Compared to our outdated version of Moveable Type and our current homegrown web CMS, WordPress is glorious. Even the least-tech-savvy of editors took to the interface with a few minutes’ training.
We recently used it for our week of live “viadoom” coverage (closure of the viaduct, which stretches along a major highway) and we’ll be using it for the Nov. 8 election.
The biggest complaint from within in the newsroom so far: “Why aren’t all our blogs on WordPress?” Not a bad idea. Stay tuned for awesomeness.