Becoming an online-first publication

February 12, 2013

My journalism students have been publishing an online edition for five years now, and it’s only in the last two years that they’ve really figured out how to do it right.  When we first launched our website, it was a novelty, an afterthought, a place where we deposited our stories after they were printed, hoping they might get a few more readers.  Even after several years, the print edition’s needs continued to dominate almost every aspect of our work and production. 

It makes sense that the print edition maintained this central role––it offers a tangible, real experience that can’t be replaced by a website.  There’s a physical presence to the newspaper: students feel its heft in their hands as they walk around the school, handing it to their readers and seeing their immediate reactions.  They return from distribution with ink-stained hands and begin to flip through the final product themselves with a sense of accomplishment and pride.

Compared to that experience, the online version just seems so much more, well, utilitarian.  With the click a button, a story is published.  There’s no fanfare, no ritual, no late-night meetings, no agony, no pizza breaks; the story just floats out there in cyberspace, and they’re not really sure when anyone is reading it.  They don’t get that instant feedback like when they see a classmate sitting in the back row in math class paging through the paper and not paying attention to the day’s lesson on trigonometry.

The logistics of running a print edition also made it hard to focus on the online edition.  The editors were so engrained in all the coordination the print edition required that they often forgot about, changed, or shrugged off online deadlines.  If a writer were to miss a deadline for a print edition story, it could jeopardize the entire issue and the work of the entire staff, but if a writer missed a deadline for a story slated to go online, it was just too easy to extend the deadline another day, and suddenly we’d go days or even a full week without posting anything.

My students finally became an online-first news staff last year when they had a real news event to cover, a news event that spanned several months and became a series of more than 40 stories and briefs, a news event that mattered on a very deep and personal level to everyone in the class.  Morning staff meetings were transformed with a sense of urgency, and deadlines were set for the same day stories were assigned, sometimes within the hour.  Even though there was a print edition just two weeks away, they completely put it on hold and decided to figure it out later.  And when that print edition did come out, it wasn’t about breaking news; rather, it was about adding a layer of context to what had already been published and read online.

Back when we only ran a print publication, we were all doing the same thing together every day.  We’d take a day or two to brainstorm and plan the upcoming issue.  Students would have a week or so to interview and gather information and write a first draft, and then there would be three days for editing and revising before taking another three days to put the paper together in InDesign.  There was a slow, steady rhythm to our work, and we always knew exactly what the task at hand was.  

But now that we’re an online-first publication, it means that we brainstorm ideas, start stories, interview sources, and finish drafts every single day.  Editors and writers now post available stories to the Facebook group throughout the day, and if editors see something happening, they dispatch a writer and photographer even if class has already met for the day. Editors set deadlines by asking when something can realistically be finished and when it needs to be published to maintain relevance for their audience.  There’s still a rhythm, but it’s greatly compressed and syncopated, and learning to maintain that rhythm has been the key to becoming an online-first publication.