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October 13 2010

18:00

Behind-the-scenes innovation: How NPR’s Project Argo is making life more efficient for its bloggers

Remember the days before the roundup post existed? Neither do I. [Laura's making me feel old. —Ed.] The roundup is a longstanding staple of the blogosphere, an expected post for loyal readers who want a rundown of the best new stuff around the web on a given topic. But can a staple still have room for innovation? Over at Argo Network, the new blog network at NPR, the leadership team is giving it a shot on the back end. They’ve designed a workflow that makes it easier for their bloggers to cull through links and produce a roundup post. The result: a simpler process for the blogger, and added benefit for the reader. It’s no technological revolution, but an example of the kind of small improvement that can make it easier to share work with the audience.

“We realized the workflow inefficiency of how a blogger would create a link roundup — copying and pasting URLs from places,” Matt Thompson, Argo editorial project manager, told me. “We were thinking about workflow and how can we make this as easy as possible. How do we take an action the blogger is making regularly and make it more efficient?”

Thompson puts workflow innovation in the broader context of the Argo Project, which NPR see as an experiment in form. The Argo team sees blogging — or online serial storytelling, as Thompson put it — as a medium still in its infancy. There’s still time, they say, to think about how it can be improved, including how to do it more efficiently. And they plan to release the new tools that come out of their experimentation to the general public. The team’s developer, Marc Lavallee, said they’re trying to create tools that fit the workflow of the lone blogger. “Most of what we build will be the type of thing a person running a solo site would find useful,” Lavallee said. “When you’re thinking about a product, it’s so much easier to say: ‘One person is behind this blog. Would I do that every day? No? Then let’s not build that.’”

The roundup tool is a good example of the Argo team’s thinking. As bloggers go through their links each day, scrolling through stories and posts looking for the most interesting stuff on their beat, they tag the links using Delicious. Their Delicious accounts are synced up with the Argo’s backend (WordPress modified using Django) to match up the tags. The backend pulls in the links, letting bloggers quickly put together a nice-looking post without all the copy/pasting and formatting. Thompson made a screen-capture video of the whole process, which you can check out below. Here’s a sample of what the roundup would look like published.

Using Delicious as a link-post builder isn’t new, of course, but Argo’s version integrates specifically into their sidebar, a special WordPress post type, and Lavallee’s code.

The tagging tool also feeds into the sites’ topic pages. Those of us who spend all day on the Internet encounter great links all the time that aren’t right for a full post, or maybe even for a spot in a roundup post — but for people interested in a particular topic, it could still be valuable. The Argo process lets bloggers make use of those links with the same tagging function, making the site’s content pages a bit better than a purely automated feed. Check out the ocean acidification page over at the Argo blog Climatide (covering issues related to climate change and the ocean on Cape Cod) — in the sidebar, “Latest Ocean Acidification Links” contains (at this writing, at least) links pulled in through the Delicious tagging process. Others are drawn from Daylife or handmade Twitter lists around certain topics.

Thompson is passionate about contextual news, so I asked him if his topic pages might serve, perhaps, a more noble function than driving search traffic, which is arguably why most news organizations have topic pages at all. Thompson was quick to point out that the Argo topic pages are still new; he’s working with bloggers on their “tagging hygiene,” he says. And he admits that others at Argo is a bit “skeptical of topics pages,” which “is probably a good thing.” But the pages have potential, when built out, to let readers drill down into narrow-but-important topics in line with the goal of the blog. “These pages aren’t just sort of random machine driven pages,” Thompson said. The humanized topic pages help Argo bloggers get their sites, as Thompson puts it, to be “an extension of their mind and their thinking.”

Photo by Benny Mazur used under a Creative Commons license.

September 10 2010

14:00

August 26 2010

14:00

Project Argo blog is for participants, but an interesting read for outsiders

In the run-up to the launch of the D.C. local site TBD, the editors let future readers peek behind the curtain through a placeholder blog that teased new hires and plans for the project. The blog also did a great job of generating buzz; we tweeted quite a few links to the site.

So when Megan pointed me to a blog from another not-yet-launched project, NPR’s Argo Project, I assumed it would serve a similar marketing end. But this one’s different: The blog’s lead writer, editorial project manager Matt Thompson, is writing directly to the new Argo bloggers at 12 NPR member stations. Argo is a new cross-country network of reported blogs, and many of the journalists hired to run them need some tactical training in how to run a successful Argo site.

Think of it as an in-house blog that just happens to be open to the public; even though the blog is meant for NPR staff, it’s a useful read for anyone interested in the future of news or in best practices for launching a news blog. Here are a few of Thompson’s lessons:

1. You need a plan

One of the best posts on Thompson’s blog is a pre-launch checklist. (He’s since posted a revised version of the checklist on Argo’s impressive and useful docs site.) Thompson lays out a step-by-step guide for Argo participants, but it’s generally useful for anyone about to launch a new site could use (particularly if you’re using WordPress, which Argo is).

Some of the best: Do a “photowalk” for your beat (“try to capture images of things you’ll be posting about frequently”); build our your metadata beforehand (defining tags and categories before launch to straighten up your taxonomy); and reaching out to the best Creative Commons photographers on your beat (to ensure a happy group of free content providers).

2. Follow by example, steal from others

Blogging isn’t new, and Argo isn’t pretending it’s creating a new format. In fact, Thompson is urging bloggers to follow the examples of their best predecessors. He points readers to the work of trailblazers like Marc Ambinder, Nick Denton, and Andrew Sullivan. Ambinder gets a nod for his thoughts on journalism as an industry. A Nick Denton memo pushes for context (one of Thompson’s longstanding interests). And Andrew Sullivan gets praise for his pacing. The three writers certainly have different styles, different content focuses, and different missions, but Thompson has plucked out valuable advice for all of his bloggers.

3. Tactics are teachable

Thompson has a running series of posts called “dark secrets” that offer insight into how successful blogs engage an audience. Use photos. Watch your headlines. Where should you place that hyperlink? He’s got a good post on that. They’re the kinds of insights newspapers, magazines, and radio stations have compiled about their own media over time. But for this new-to-many platform, they make for helpful tips.

4. Blogging is a craft

The category Thompson posts to most frequently is “blogging technique.” His points are great: Find your morning routine, your rhythms, and your pace. Check out his post on “The blogger’s first month.” Blogging isn’t journalism for dummies — it’s a craft with its own set of practices and ways to excel.

August 25 2010

16:45

NPR’s Argo Project becomes the Argo Network, mixing the local and the national on reported blogs

NPR’s Argo Project (or Project Argo — it seems to vary) is starting to take shape — launch is set for one week from today, September 1. Argo is the network’s $3 million effort (with Knight and CPB money) to ramp up the online presence and reporting capacity of member stations by building a network of reported blogs grounded in topics of both national and local interest. As project director Joel Sucherman puts it, describing the now-christened Argo Network:

Each Argo site is run by a different member station, but all of them cover news that resonates nationally. While KPLU’s ‘Humanosphere’ covers the development of a burgeoning global health industry in Seattle, for example, it will also be a worthy bookmark for anyone interested in the worldwide mission to end poverty and improve health.

The sites promote each other, as in this box of “Network Highlights” that appears on article pages. It’s that network functionality that’s one of the most interesting things about Argo; NPR is made up of its member stations, and there’s long been tension between the growth of the national organization and the health of the individual stations who comprise its membership and rely on the network for much of their programming. For the mothership to be supporting local programming — even if just on the web — could smooth over what has at times been a contentious relationship. But it also raises challenges of how to make sure the content is useful to both a local and a national audience.

We’ve got the full list of Argo sites below — go check them out. Some have already softlaunched and look to be in full flower, while others are still on the Argo staging server. NPR officials declined to talk for this post, saying they’re not quite ready.

Name: On Campus, based at Minnesota Public Radio
Blogger: Alex Friedrich
Tagline: Everything higher education in Minnesota.

Name: Ecotrope, based at Oregon Public Broadcasting
Blogger: Cassandra Profita
Tagline: Covering the Northwest’s environment.

Name: Multi-American, based at Southern California Public Radio
Blogger: Leslie Berestein Rojas
Tagline: Immigration and cultural fusion in the new Southern California.

Name: Humanosphere, based at KPLU (Seattle)
Blogger: Tom Paulson
Tagline: Covering the fight to reduce poverty and improve global health.

Name: The Informant, based at KALW (San Francisco)
Blogger: Rina Palta and Ali Winston
Tagline: Cops, courts and communities in the Bay Area.

Name: The Empire, based at WNYC (New York)
Blogger: Azi Paybarah
Tagline: Everything you need to know about New York state politics and governance.

Name: The Key, based at WXPN (Philadelphia)
Blogger: Bruce Warren and Matthew Borlik
Tagline: Discover Philly’s best local music.

Name: MindShift, based at KQED (San Francisco)
Blogger: Tina Barseghian
Tagline: How we will learn.

Name: Home Post, based at KPBS (San Diego)
Blogger: Jamie Reno
Tagline: The military in San Diego.

Name: DCentric, based at WAMU (Washington)
Blogger: Anna John
Tagline: Gentrification w/o representation.

Name: CommonHealth, based at WBUR (Boston)
Blogger: Carey Goldberg and Rachel Zimmerman
Tagline: Where reform meets reality [in health care].
[Note: Still hosted on beta server.]

Name: Climatide, based at WGBH (Boston)
Blogger: Heather Goldstone
Tagline: Oceans, coasts, and climate change on Cape Cod.
[Note: Still hosted on beta server.]

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