Education

A View From the Trenches: What’s Changed Behind the Scenes

July 21, 2005 4 min read
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If you’ve been keeping up with previous installments, you will have read entries from members of edweek.org’s senior management, including our president and publisher, our online executive producer, and our general manager, about how and why we reached the decision to start charging for parts of our site, and the work, research, and general angst that went into making that decision.

I’m here to tell you a bit about how the transition has affected the actual day-to-day production of edweek.org. A view from the trenches, so to speak.

When I started at edweek.org, in 1998, anyone who knew how to write a sentence, had some familiarity with AP style and HTML was pretty much held in awe. Those were the days.

How things have changed.

These days, most news Web operations require some passing familiarity with content management systems, Flash technology, XML, RSS, and a panoply of other initials.

Our world is rapidly changing. The Web team at edweek.org had pretty much been generalists, up until maybe a year or so ago. Any of us could usually do whatever needed doing.

But sensing the changing nature of the online world, I began encouraging my staff to develop specialties, knowing that not all of us could continue to do everything equally well.

So, one became adept at audio production, another at graphic design, and another at Flash.

The first huge change to how we’d been working for the past several years involved how we actually got content online.

With the looming change to a partially subscription-based site, we knew we wanted to offer more value to our online readers. To that end, we decided on several outcomes: 1) Offer daily original content, not just weekly; 2) increase interactivity; 3) enhance our content with video and audio, and 4) offer content in different formats, as dictated by our readers. To meet these objectives, we needed a full-blown content management system.

We spent close to six months refining what we required from such a system, then let the consultants (Really Strategies) loose to come back with recommendations, finally settling on an open-source system called Bricolage.

Learning how to tame Bricolage was a whole new ballgame for the five of us on the Web team. We were all very used to being hands-on, knowing how to fix stuff when it broke, used to hand-coding, and hand-manipulating files as needed. That all had to change as we gave up some very real control over presentation and learned to work with a templating system.

I mentioned consultants. For years we had relied on a part-time contractor to help us with our programming needs, which were never sufficient enough to justify hiring someone full time. Now, in addition to using consultants to help us map out the change to a three-tiered site, we soon realized that Bricolage, written in Perl and HTLM:Mason, was going to need a full-time programmer.

So our first addition to the Web team was a talented fellow (you’ll read his entry in future weeks) with a media background who could plumb the depths of this system and get it to do what we needed.

We also changed the titles of the Web team members. From “online editors,” we all became some variant of “online producers.” It’s a subtle change, and in the online world, titles are somewhat amorphous. But we wanted to signal that these positions would be less editorial and more production-oriented.

The next big change for us involved how we related to the print world of EdWeek.

For years the Web team had been included in weekly print editorial budget meetings, but more as silent partners. That began changing last year as we made the conscious decision to start slowly directing our print readers’ attention online. For instance, edweek.org got its own place in the print table of contents each week, a first for us, where we could alert readers to what’s new this week online, and actively push print readers there.

The next big change came with designating two editors to serve as liaisons to our two flagship print publications Teacher Magazine and Education Week. We christened these two folks “Web Assistant Managing Editors.” The EdWeek Web AME came from a strong editorial background, and had been a print editor at EdWeek for five years. The Teacher Web AME, who is also responsible for generating content for our jobs site, Agent K-12, is a long-time member of the Web staff, a talented editor and writer with a ready understanding of what was needed.

They’re still working out their exact job descriptions. Loosely, their jobs consist of being on the lookout for education stories that shouldn’t wait for the print edition, in the case of Education Week, and in the case of Teacher Magazine, a monthly, to come up with features that will keep that site alive with fresh and frequent online-only content. More broadly, they’re responsible for thinking through such things as topics for blogs, guests for live chats, how best to work with reporters and editors to ferret out stories, new ideas for e-newsletters or other ways of delivering content, and new features for our sites.

We’ve come a long way since I started as part of an online staff of three here, hammering out pages of html code. And we know we’ve got a long way to go. We’re working around the clock trying to implement the million-and-one great ideas we have to make edweek.org not just good, or better, but the best of breed.

Please leave a comment; we welcome your thoughts.

Jeanne McCann
Director of New Media
Edweek.org
http://www.edweek.org

A version of this news article first appeared in the Behind the Scenes blog.

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