Choosing a newsroom “decider”: coordinating content for mobile platforms

Aug 01 2012

I really didn’t want to write about campaign finance. I mean, I did, in the abstract, because it’s important and deserves attention, but as far as actually wading into the morass of reporting requirements and donation limits and finding something interesting to say? I really didn’t see how this could possibly be fun. But I found myself acting as one of two producers for a week-long project about it for – and had a pretty good time, after all. I helped figure out the concept and angle and turned a whole wall of information about campaign finance into a manageable amount of information. Carter McCall took over when it was time to flesh out the script and publish the final project.

We had decided that we wanted to make an immersive interactive guide to campaign finance that would take full advantage of mobile browsing—that is to say, users on touch screen devices can swipe and tap their way, bit by bit, through the whole package, learning as they go. But we knew that this would require more deliberate coordination of stories and story angles than anything we had done before. We needed someone to act as a shepherd for all of the individual stories and for the project as a whole.

The campaign finance project was the first time we had assigned anyone to act as a producer. The producer role was born of two problems that we ran into when we sat down to figure out campaign finance: how to make sure the final stories all fit into a package, and to prevent diffusion of responsibility. Tying all these stories into our interactive was going to require that someone sit down and write out the script. Writing the script would require being intimately familiar with campaign finance laws, as well as with all of the individual stories we were writing. If you’re going to be familiar with the overall topic and with all of the individual stories, you’re a great candidate for a producer role. In the past, the nitty-gritty, brass-tacks stuff would get suggested but not necessarily completed, so we wanted to be very deliberate about making it someone’s primary responsibility to deal with the brass tacks — in this case, writing the script and figuring out how everything would ultimately fit together. This has been a valuable lesson for us this summer: If you don’t assign something, it won’t get done.

The problem of tying all of our stories together was something we’d been struggling with all summer. How do you make a digital package? In print, simple physical proximity can help you link things together. When your stories are floating in the ether, you need a way to link them together, and our current site layout doesn’t allow us to make visual, magazine-style pages. When you’ve published half a dozen stories relating to, say, immigration or primary education without explicitly tying them all together in some way, the site can feel like a really out-of-touch, esoteric, odd niche. “Why are they ONLY writing things about education? What gives?” a reader might ask.

Week after week, we would publish our disparate-but-ostensibly-about-the-same-topic stories, and then look back at the week’s coverage and recognize that it didn’t feel tied together. The newly-minted producer role was meant to solve this, and by and large, we feel that it has. The producer makes sure that one thread or angle is consistently present in all of the stories, that the stories refer to one another and are linked to one another. The producer chooses the lens through which we’ll examine a given topic. Campaign finance was a cohesive package, where all of the stories fit into a larger whole.

Working collaboratively and democratically is great—it makes us better by forcing us to clarify our ideas to one another and take new, unexpected suggestions into account. But we’ve found that making someone the decider is what it took to help us solve the problem of making packages in a digital environment.

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