Flash back to the 1990s. The internet was a gleaming new tool. ISPs like AOL and Netscape were making mainstream access to it possible, though they were charged exorbitant hourly rates to do so.
At print and publishing conference around the United States, publishers of all genres gathered in big halls and listened to panels of tech experts about what the internet could mean for their future business models. And while there was a certain amount of fear that digital would one day destroy the print model, the vibe was mostly upbeat and excited. It was a dynamic time, rife with opportunity to publish in new ways and reach new audiences.
The challenges to multi-channel publishing were quickly realized, however. The most formidable one was how to manage content that was purely digital but intended for different output media and specifications. Take, for example, images. How would a single photo file be parsed to print in high-resolution format while also being down-sampled on the fly to a lower-resolution version for publishing on the web? Today, that’s even more of a challenge as publishers level mobile and social media, too.
Two decades ago, publishers hoped for help from developers who would create centralized, output-platform independent and highly automated solutions that would help them do just that.
Catalogers took the lead. That industry quickly realized that customers would soon expect to browse inventory online and initiate their transactions electronically, so they went to work creating behemoth content management systems that would act as a “living” repository of images, product information, and pricing. A single change to content made to the repository would immediately be reflected online and in a future print output. But the systems they built were expensive and required a lot of tailoring and engineering to make them do what they needed them to do.
There have been many developers in the years since that have afforded newspapers the technology to publish digitally. They not only push content to the web or mobile apps but they are adept at measuring the reach and popularity of that content as well.
When social media flourished in the past five years, again, developers stepped up and created low-cost applications that allowed publishers to “publish once, output many.”
But there remains a disconnect between the print and digital workflows at many newspapers across the nation—so much so that it has impacted the organizational structure. There are print teams and digital teams, working side-by-side yet redundantly in many cases. This can mean two teams for newsrooms, two teams for production, even two teams for sales, all dependent on the output medium. And while there is an argument to be made that content should be optimized for output medium—perhaps long-form reporting is better suited to print, for example—this two-pronged approach seems inefficient at a time when newspaper organizations need efficiency more than ever.
Patrick O’Lone is the director of software development for TownNews.com, one of the developers that have been diligently working to create that seamless, platform-independent workflow that publishers need.
“Newspapers’ attitudes towards multi-channel content has been a work-in-progress for years, but is now starting to ramp up,” O’Lone said. “I am seeing more and more newspapers starting to adopt an online-first workflow where content is first posted online and then pulled into the print product as the deadline approaches.”
Still, there are the perpetual challenges of standardized output files, which are perpetually changing in the digital space, particularly with digital images and now video.
“The technology mostly exists to make print and digital co-exist in a seamless workflow,” O’Lone said. “For a lot of newspapers, as revenue continues to decline, keeping up with modern equipment, web browsers, software, and tools is becoming challenging.
“A lot of tools are provided by companies like TownNews.com, which can help newspapers better push content to multi-channel (output)— print, web, and mobile—consolidate page design and layout workflow, and provide automation of updates to content.”
With investment in not only the technology but also skilled IT staff, publishers may finally leap the hurdle and move one step closer to that Utopian workflow imagined all those years ago.
O’Lone added, “In the long run, I think that web and newsroom teams will be consolidated for most organizations.”
A Workflow in Transition
“We’re in the middle of a content management transition,” said Matt Leclercq, managing editor and head of audience strategies at The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer. The formerly family-owned publication was acquired by GateHouse Media last fall and currently is in the process of adopting the parent company’s workflow: a new front-end system for print and a new web content management system developed by NEWSCYCLE Solutions. Prior to the acquisition, the publisher had two systems—one for web, one for print—and Leclercq noted that it was imperfect but workable.
“Our front-end system is fairly antiquated and not used by anyone else in North America anymore, I believe,” he said. “We originate most articles in this system, and then export them to our web CMS. Most articles are exported multiple times as the stories develop. Once the articles import into the CMS, usually within five minutes, we have web producers who layer on digital content, including photos, related stories, slideshows, embedded tweets or videos, etcetera, and give the article appropriate play on the homepage.
“The system has been imperfect because we have had to operate in these two different systems—a web team that focuses their time in the CMS, and much of the rest of the room that is operating in the front-end system,” he said.
Their current solution also served as the newspaper’s mobile platform, but post-transition, Leclercq predicts that the new mobile strategy may include a native application.
One of the most significant ways in which the content management structure impacted the news organization in Fayetteville was in staff and training. Prior to 2013, the web team worked exclusively in the web CMS. That was deemed inefficient, too, and more of a cross-functional approach was adopted. Increasingly, staff outside of the web team were trained to use the web CMS, so that they could also manage content, blog and create photo galleries, for example.
“Today, almost everyone has exposure to the CMS, and at least understands how it works and can speak the language,” Leclercq said. “We work much more as a team, in terms of a shared sense of urgency in reporting the news online and our awareness of how content should play on the web and on social (media).”
The transition to the new content management workflow designed by GateHouse Media carries on, but the ripples of the changes can always be sensed.
“In terms of managing content for different channels, I would say that we’ve largely streamlined it to one main flow,” Leclercq said. “Most content originates in the front-end system, and our newsroom editors promptly read it and export it to the web. The editors ensure the stories remain updated for the web throughout the day, and do the final edit for print before moving the files to the print copy desk.
“Our morning editor meetings are focused almost entirely on digital—what we have on the site now, what our competitors have, and what’s coming in during day and how it will be played. That’s much different from, say, four years ago when most of the room focused on the print channel, except for that web team that would passively take the content online when it was ready.”
While the Fayetteville Observer is quite literally in the midst of transforming its editorial content workflow, that sense of transformation is likely felt at thousands of other newspapers across the nation, too, as the multi-platform workflow of the future is, at last, within reach.
Gretchen A. Peck is an independent journalist who has reported on publishing and printing for more than two decades. She has contributed to Editor and Publisher since 2010 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.