Taking wins where we can find them

When you manage development of a big digital news org’s CMS, there aren’t too many out-and-out wins. Most days don’t go well. There are always system or process problems to solve and new ways to push on storytelling, with not nearly enough time or cash to get the work done. Just publishing this post is likely to cause some mind-hurting use case.

So, when a stranger from another company approaches a colleague of yours at the annual Online News Association conference and says the above sentences, and a dev manager — back at the office — hears of the encounter and illustrates it on the wall… getting back to work and seeing the illustration for the first time totally makes your CMS day.

More joy, chaos, anarchy in public radio — yes

Jad Abumrad, the co-host of Radiolab and new winner of a MacArthur genius grant, tells Nieman Journalism Lab he feels like an outsider in public radio. How he explains this feeling, I couldn’t agree with more.

As much as I feel like an insider at NPR Digital after the last year and change, I’m still working on feeling — and being able to channel and connect with — the greater NPR voice. I think part of that is me, and part of that is necessary network evolution. We have to work to find ways and moods forward together. Thanks to friend Eliza for the link.

“It needs more joy. It needs more chaos. It needs more anarchy. And it needs more moods. The range of human experiences is covered and reported about on NPR, but it’s not reflected in the tone, and it’s not reflected in the style, and I think that Ira has a point when he says opinion-based journalism, if you even call it that, you know, punditizing is gaining attraction because it sounds like life. I do think that if public radio is guilty of anything, it’s that its very musical DNA has ceased to sound like life. That’s actually, on paper, a small problem, but actually, in the real world, the way it hits you when it comes out of the box, that’s a cataclysmic problem,” he said.

“Like I’m going to this conference right now and there will inevitably be two panels about, ‘How do we broaden our sound?’ and this kind of thing. And it’s always talked about as, like, Let’s dress up in our mother’s clothes,” he said. “We have gotten trapped in a certain sense of esteem, and we have a great deal of esteemed journalists and reporters and hosts. But equally important to esteem is currency and relevance, and we do need to think about that. I don’t have the answer, exactly. But I think in this day and age, that is almost as important as integrity and esteem.”

‘NPR fits with the future of media’

I was fortunate enough a couple weeks ago to get to talk to students at the National Student Leadership Conference. The 75 high schoolers were in the NSLC Journalism and Mass Communication track, hosted at American U. I had a great time. They asked a bunch of good questions, stayed engaged and, blowing away stereotypes, didn’t bounce all over the room while texting. Did I reference Justin Bieber or Farmville? Yes.

If you’re a digital journalist looking for a little inspiration to start your day, here’s a video of NSLC students visiting NPR earlier this summer.

Thanks very much to Laki Eassey for having me and to the awesome students for being interested in what news storytelling means now.

If you’re looking for some light (CMS) reading

Colleague and all-around good guy Matt Thompson has a terrific piece on Poynter about the news industry’s CMS evolution, and he talks to myself, buddy Marc Lavallee and Al Jazeera’s Andrew Fitzgerald in it.

Matt interviewed me and Marc together at work. While we build very different systems serving different users in different ways, we couldn’t have agreed on more. And our systems, through the beautiful NPR API, have been doing the same — one of Matt’s major points in the article.

Glad to see so many reader comments and tweets supportive of how we’re changing the content systems and the ways we work with them.

In related news, no one has stolen Marc’s Card Case identity. Yet.

Some job news

The news has come out at work today, so I should note it here too.

After a month of conversations, I’m assuming product development responsibilities for NPR.org, in addition to those I’ve held in the last nine months for our storytelling tools/CMS. I’m looking forward to it.

Our initial project to improve those story tools and flows has turned out well, and that project has been deeply collaborative. We’ve been able to build on groundbreaking changes in our blog tools, overhaul significant parts of our digital news systems — stories, aggregations, photos, URLs, and much more — and start to talk in a broader fashion about how we want to work in the future. The conversations involve everyone. Topics run the gamut as well. But there’s intriguing focus.

NPR has a separation of content and presentation like you would not believe. It’s skilled. Between API power and design prowess, you can ride a bus between our data layers and never know it. This capacity has allowed our editorial, design, development, and product staffs to push hard into different story approaches and platforms, even with limited resources. So, outward we’ve gone. Funny where that leads.

The more you press out, toward product diversity, content dispersion and story variation, the more you recognize the need to look inward.

What is the core of your production? Of your news identity? How does your core supply energy to the edge, allowing identity and product to travel? When your product is news, when your content is news, your core matters so much. I’m lucky to work with people who believe that. Wherever in digital they may stand, our people contribute to the core.

They put their arms around an idea (editorially or technically), pull it in, determine a potential, build toward that end, and then let it loose. The release of energy does what it does, and they observe the waves race away. Then they do it again. The observations of building and release come out in meetings, emails, analytics, assigned work tickets, formal and informal timings, and the variation of subsequent efforts because, again, we’re talking about stories and news and reality here. Process is sometimes bullshit, but when reality is within sight, you take it on. I am glad and surprised daily to see that act happen, readily, efficiently. NPR.org has thrived as a result, and it’s going to be fun to contribute.

I’ve gone on too long. What I mean to say is the responsibility is nice and sounds good, but it’s the universe in whole that blows me away.

Not letting our desks contain us

One of the things I like most about NPR is the diversity of interests my coworkers have. They like gourmet meals and food trucks. They make art and zines. They watch on-demand cycling and build fantasy football systems. They play in bands and look for birds. They blog and unplug.

Their dedication to their interests changes the way they work. They’re willing to approach complex problems by different routes, in solutions and, just as importantly, the processes of problem-solving. The picture below is a fantastic example of it. Out for drinks one night this month, colleague Wright mentioned a number of digital NPR staffers who did blogs outside of work, including colleague David G. Googling, I found David had blogged his whiteboarding of the toughest challenge our team encountered this fall — to match NPR Music data with workflow.

Music stories tied to music lists to items in music lists to songs (inside albums) to song rights, and I’m only giving you the simple version.

The lesson of the picture below has nothing to do with the solution to the problem, and it has everything to do with the process of problem-solving. Frustrated working at his machine, David stood up, grabbed a marker, took over a whiteboard on a nearby wall, sketched the flow’s data elements, and brought other developers to the board to discuss the issues. The sketch and conversations led to good answers. While the problem was virtual, the solution came largely by physical means.

work in progress

In coding, multiple inputs can be used to create multiple outputs. Life, the same. I find this picture of David’s inspirational that way. I got up from the conference tables in a couple meetings recently and used the whiteboards. I felt more like myself than I had at work in a long time. I used to whiteboard all the time but lost my touch while changing jobs and adding new tasks. One of my goals for 2011 is to get that creative outlet going again. Glad to have good people around to remind me.

Previously in the blog:
-June 2010: Habit fields
-December 2009: On a closed campus, facades don’t matter
-August 2008:  The stand-up desk experiment