Innovate, Experiment, Evaluate, Repeat

Sharon Machlis, the online managing editor for Computerworld, shares why it’s important to constantly innovate, experiment and evaluate when it comes to improving communication among editorial staff or readers.

There’s well-deserved emphasis these days on new technologies to engage with our readers — social networks for conversations, wikis for collaborative content creation and interactive databases to display compelling data. But we shouldn’t forget that these types of platforms can also be extremely useful inside newsrooms, helping journalists to communicate with each other.

At Computerworld, for example, we started with a wiki to keep track of our online story planning so that everyone could see and comment upon others’ entries. It worked well for quite awhile, but we found it didn’t scale as more people began using the system and wanted easier ways of keeping up with who was doing what — without being notified every time someone made a minor edit.

Story Planning Tool. I launched an experiment with a database on the Zoho Creator platform; that’s evolved into a customized story planning tool being used by dozens of IDG reporters and editors on three continents.

People can sign up for e-mail alerts about entries by specific reporters or by keyword (“Microsoft,” “mobile,” etc.), tag which stories should be included in our twice-daily e-mail newsletter headlines and quickly view information about upcoming stories sorted by date, status, topic, writer and more.

We still use wikis for other newsroom information that doesn’t change by the minute, such as “how-to” internal procedures and training guides where anyone can add useful information about cool tools or new processes.

Decline and Fall of Ning. For the past couple of years, we’ve also been using our own internal social network, running on the Ning platform, for informal communications. It began as a useful way to share information, especially with our colleagues who are not based in the main office. It was an especially useful platform for brainstorming story ideas.

Eventually, though, it became One More Thing to Log Into and Check, and usage dropped among much of our newsroom as participation rose in other social networks. Unfortunately, there was no way to securely integrate posts from a private Ning network into any other social networking software the way, say, Twitter and Facebook streams both appear within TweetDeck. So we’ll probably be dropping Ning soon — and that’s fine. With minimal time needed for start-up and development, it was worth setting up and using during the time writers and editors found it helpful.

Social Networks. We’re still on popular social networks to communicate with readers; most of us also try to leverage those external-facing platforms for internal use as well, such as signing up for each other’s Twitter feeds as another way to keep up with what our colleagues around newsroom are up to.

Whether for our readers or for internal use, the plan is the same: constantly innovate, experiment and evaluate. In other words, try new ideas and platforms from time to time, keep what works and end what doesn’t. Some ground rules that have worked for us:

  • Look at what communication/information issues most need an upgrade in your newsroom and then seek out technology that might help you solve it. That often ends up more useful within the enterprise than discovering slick technology and trying to figure out how to use it.
  • Bring users in early. You’ll have more success if you seek advice from colleagues from the outset and are flexible about adding or modifying features.
  • Keep an eye on cool new tools, whether at trade shows, by following some key information streams online or checking in with cutting-edge tech users. While tracking every new startup would be more than a full-time job, adding a few well-chosen tools to your arsenal from time to time can pay big dividends in your newsroom.

Sharon Machlis is online managing editor at Computerworld. Her e-mail address is You can follow her on Twitter at @sharon000, on Facebook or by following her Computerworld article and blog RSS feeds..

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