The other day I did a Skype session with students at my alma mater Chico State to discuss what a web producer does as well as my path from college to where I am now.
It was a productive conversation that allowed me to break down what still is an mystifying position for much of the public. It’s not anyone’s fault they don’t know, the job is dramatically different from one shop to another. And it’s kind of nice to explain it to at least a few graduating seniors who will quite likely have their first opportunity in the business as a digital producer, given the way hiring is happening nowadays. And of course, I love the questions students ask. They’re varied and well thought out, ranging from how I could pull off moving to the east coast and what it was like covering the Patriots. But then I got hit with a question that I think I’m going to continue to ponder for quite awhile, which is what I want to explore here.
I was asked, and I’m paraphrasing, “what are some of the tools that I’m seeing out there that are really going to change the game for digital journalists going forward, and what can those going into the job market do to prepare themselves for the inevitable changes?” In the moment of the conversation, I deferred to a couple of fairly new search tools and devices, including Geofeedia and Banjo, both of which allow users to find social media posts in specific locations as they relate to news events. They’re both on our radar at my news outlet. Large scale news events (at least large in the sense that they draw a ton of people) definitely require greater attention and resources, which is why tools like these two can be immensely helpful in tracking down images and video. (Just take a look at our Keene State coverage from Saturday, which includes photos scrounged up from users on the ground using Banjo.) Other than that, I told the students storytelling is the most important factor of any new digital tool and how that storytelling is woven into the digital space matters. But I almost feel like those two shiny items and my thoughts on storytelling really aren’t sufficient for what news organizations really need going forward.
Later on, when I really thought about it, I kept circling back to this crazy idea of an elections tool. That would be cool. And useful for news orgs without the dev resources to build their own. Unfortunately though, that wouldn’t really fix some of the intrinsic problems for digital journalists. For instance, how would a massive data oriented tool, like one for elections, be implemented on different websites? The question is what drives me to write this.
Of all the things that come to mind, the bellyaching seems to unnaturally revolve around the content management system in place. And while most CMSs do an outstanding job of compiling stories, wire feeds, video, etc., all while making the stew appear presentable, there are consistent deficiencies for front-end users that keep popping up. You know it’s a sad state of affairs when some organizations are in a battle over rich text editors within their CMS that won’t allow for easily embedded HTML. Or woe is the org that decides to compile some data, in table format or otherwise, and there is no means of displaying it on the site because the CMS doesn’t support it. Don’t even think about inserting a table of data within the body of a story. The headaches can be endless, especially for those who want to be creative.
These are things that web producers deal with on a regular basis. Finding solutions for these problems has become an integral part of the job. Support is often barely in place. That’s a frustration I think many individuals in my position have because you end up wasting time figuring out what you can do vs. figuring how to make awesome content. And if you can, is it easy to do? (Working in Methode while at Boston.com, the process for dropping embeds into stories was a lengthy one.)
The CMS, the most basic and often complicated tool for digital journalists, is where the disruption is needed in the industry. It’s where the advancement is both called for and necessary. It’s where news orgs can win back disillusioned digital natives, who often have to muster along with early 2000s technology. And it’s where, in its most basic form, the creativity can either thrive or die.