Passion drives great newspaper Web productions

On Tuesday, I had the pleasure of leading a session at the American Press Institute‘s seminar “Multi-Platform News: The How-To Guide for Frontline Editors,” in Pomona, Calif.

The API invited the two dozen participants to e-mail me examples of their newspapers’ best recent online work for a 90-minute roundtable discussion. I chose to focus on three projects, which I thought illustrated important lessons for editors.

The Fight for Sugar Hill

Lessons learned:

  • make a strong initial impression
  • embed your interactivity, don’t just link to it
  • get everyone involved, early

    The “>Dallas Morning News’ feature grabs your attention right away, with a powerful visual/verbal combination. The headline promises action, but the image clarifies that this “fight” will be internal. Thus, the stage is set for the News’ three-part series on a pastor’s struggle to turn around a poor housing development in one of Texas’ wealthiest counties.

    Unlike other packages I saw, the News’ presentation embeds interactivity on the main project page. Click the thumbnails below the main art, and each feature loads in the main art’s space. No loading new pages.

    Yes, putting a project together this way is a bear for some shop’s metrics, but I think this design serves the YouTube generation well. Why frustrate a reader by making him or her make an extra click to get to the functionality that a graphic promises?

    Of course, you have to have a wealth of multimedia elements to make such a project deliver for its audience. Eric Nelson, general assignments department head at the Dallas Morning News, wrote that early staff involvement was the key.

    “Everybody had a seat at the table on Day One … reporter, editors, photo, web, videographer, etc. The result was an online package where video, graphics, documents and photos were smoothly integrated.”

    Habs Inside Out

    Lessons learned:

  • You can do much with a simple blog format
  • Overwrite entries for live game blogging
  • Engage the community

    Stu Cowan, sports editor of the Montreal Gazette, credits the Tacoma (Wash.) News Tribune’s Seahawks Insider as the inspiration for Habs Inside Out.

    The Gazette’s blog about the Montreal Canadiens hockey team illustrates the what a newspaper can do with even the relatively simple blog format. The Gazette’s thrown significant staff resources against the project, including a city desk columnist who live-blogs the Habs’ games.

    Unlike many sites’ live game blogs, Habs Inside Out does not post a new entry with each update, creating a reverse chronological mess for a reader who joins the blog mid-game. Instead, Habs Inside Out overwrites the game summary on each update, promoting just as many page reloads, but without the confusion for readers who don’t stay on the site for the whole game. Or the clutter on the site after the game is done.

    Habs Inside Out is connecting with readers, who have begun organizing meets at Canadiens’ games, Cowan said at the API session. He also said that the site links aggressively to others, including junior teams that provide current (and future) NHL players.

    “It is by far the most successful web project we’ve attempted,” wrote Doug Sweet, Gazette national editor. “Montreal is hockey-mad and we’ve managed to fill a void in the local community with this. Fans can argue with our sportswriters and with each other, they can keep up to date with the latest in how the Habs’ world turns and they can become part of a community sharing a group experience. The hits just keep on coming.”

    The Green Guide

    Lessons learned

  • Give the reader a strong, unifying design
  • Use Q&As, second person and web-friendly formats
  • Let your staff follow their passions

    The Calgary Herald’s Green Guide provides readers with news-you-can-use about recycling, conservation and the environment, packaged in a strong, unifying Web design.

    Real Life Editor Valerie Berenyi of the Calgary Herald explained: “Because people are bombarded with conflicting information about how to take action, we seek to break down complex problems into simple steps and suggest practical and innovative ways of incorporating greener living into one’s life — all from a local angle.

    Throughout, the project uses second-person and Q&As to make the site read like a Web-friendly conversation, instead of the dry, textbook-like lecture that it could have become.

    Berenyi credited Herald copy editor Emma Gilchrist with much of the work on the section, explaining at the API session that Gilchrist has a passion for the environment that drove her to go beyond her normal, assigned duties to take on the website responsibilities.

    To that point, in each of these cases, it was staffers’ interest in and passion for their subjects that helped set the stage for the projects’ success. It drove these journalists to fully report their projects and to find and develop skills in the Web tools most appropriate to tell these stories.

    Passion does not equate to shilling. Indeed, the truly passionate can be the most critical of a source, as they care about holding people and institutions to high standards. (Including themselves.)

    Newspapers can compete and win on the Web only when readers perceive that the newsroom’s passion for the communities they cover exceeds that of their online competition. After all, if we journalists do not seem to care about something, why should we expect our readers to?

  • About Robert Niles

    Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at