A couple of years ago, I had what might have been the coolest newspaper job on the planet. My paper, the News & Record in Greensboro, NC, began to remake its Web site as what we ended up calling the Town Square.
We intended to use interactive tools such as blogs and reader comments on stories, and to greatly enrich the appearance and usability of our site, to engage our readers more directly and collaboratively than the newspaper industry historically had done. And we wanted our readers involved as contributors. I was asked to report on how we might do it, and after I turned the report in I was assigned to begin acting on those recommendations.
We gathered suggestions from all over the country as I prepared the report. More started pouring in once I posted the report on my N&R blog. What we said we were going to do got a lot of attention – from our readers, from trade publications such as Editor & Publisher, on journalism blogs and in such general-interest publications as The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.
I'd love to say we made it all happen. We didn't. We did, however, learn some lessons. A lot of what we learned is specific to newspaper Web sites, but some of it could be valuable to people in other lines of work, particularly with respect to major projects that involve interacting with customers.
Leadership starts at the top - To get anywhere, the top person must buy into the project and take an active, visible role in making it happen. In particular, he or she needs to be blogging. The N&R's top editor, John Robinson, began blogging months before the Town Square project began, and even though some commenters argued with him, the fact that he was already blogging, and publicly approved my report, gave our plans some instant credibility both within the industry and within the already well-developed Greensboro blogging community.
… but it only starts there: Reward early adapters/adopters and, irrespective of their positions in the formal chain of command, channel their leadership in ways that recognize their value. Send them to training seminars with the understanding that when they return they'll be 1) using their skills and 2) teaching others what they have learned.
Invest. Baby steps aren't going to get you much here. Web guru Rob Curley has said that a project like this isn't about doing more with less, it's about doing more with more. Most newspaper Web sites need dramatic transformations, and adding a single position here or buying a single video camera for an entire newsroom won't cut it. Put the equipment in people's hands and train them.
Cast a wide net from the start. Make sure that everyone planning, executing and benefiting from the project has input from the beginning all the way through. Seek feedback every step of the way, particularly from readers. Doing that can build customer loyalty and can temper the tone of the (inevitable) criticism, making it easier for everyone involved to focus on the substance.
It also can help avoid costly delays. When we began our effort, a number of tech-knowledgeable people in our readership suggested we run our site with the open-source Drupal program. Instead, we went with a proprietary system that wouldn't do some of the most important things we wanted, like allowing reader comments on stories. We ended up switching to Drupal a couple of years later, but that time lost was time we couldn't make up.
Be nimble: Start small. Work fast. Fix things on the fly. Try something. If it works, scale it and, if you can, use feedback to perfect it. If it doesn't work, ditch it and move on.
Doing a lot of little things quickly, and making sure your audience knows you've done them, will buy you the time and, more importantly, the audience confidence you'll need during the long period between deciding to do big things and completing them. And audiences will forgive mistakes as long as you show you're learning from them.
Own the means of production: Programming and design; audio/video capture and editing capability; Flash expertise; posting capability – do not allow any of them to be controlled by anyone but News or your mission will bog down quickly.
If you're offered help, take it. No one will ever mistake Greensboro for Silicon Valley, but we nevertheless received offers of technical help in a variety of areas. Accepting that kind of offer will not only head off mistakes but also reinforce the notion that building a community Web site takes a community effort.
Measure as much as you can. Track story and blog page views. Don't let your news judgment be compromised by these numbers, but try to have something out front aimed at satisfying audience demand.
Find a way to say yes and to meet people where they are. You want to tell your community's stories. Your community wants its stories told. You're on the same side. Make it easy for people to post their news – whether text or multimedia – on your site. Offer training to people in the community who want to contribute but feel they lack the skills.
Underpromise and overdeliver. Anything involving computers always takes longer than you think it will.
When I left the paper earlier this month, we still had not completed some of the ambitious goals we set for ourselves four years ago. But our Web site was a different and much better place, and the work continues today.