EditorsLab in Lisbon

For the first time, the Global Editors Network brought to Portugal the EditorsLab friendly competition, in association with Google and the Portuguese Publishers Association (APImprensa). The competition happened at CENJOR, February 26 and 27th, 2015.

Competing teams comprise a journalist, a designer and a developer. I was invited to participate in the event in order to complete the team of CódigoPro, which was lacking a developer.

Before the event, I talked briefly on the phone with Fátima Ferreira, the journalist. I learned that CódigoPRO is a small team of four (director, journalist, designer, and administrative) based in Oporto, with the occasional freelancer to cover distant events. Fátima sent me a few web links for more information.

About Islam and how to convert (live chat)

I started by looking at ÓpticaPro, the oldest magazine published by CódigoPro. I saw a 68-page magazine with lots of photos, mostly faces and people at events. The online PDF magazine was based on low-resolution JPEG images with visible artifacts, without the ability to search or select text. The PDF also lacked metadata, especially a table of contents. Navigation was therefore limited to turning pages.

ÓpticaPro #141 on Calameo Calameo, the site used to deliver the PDF magazines, surprised me in very negative terms:

  • Navigation controls at the bottom of the page take precious vertical space for viewing a two-page spread.
  • A list of related magazines shows very unrelated magazines and documents, instead of different issues of the same magazine, or different magazines of the same publisher.
  • Random publicity at the bottom invited me to convert to Islam. WTF?

The website publishes links to magazine issues in Calameo, plus some small news. It was not immediately clear whether the small news are also published in the magazine issues.

The Facebook stream linked to site articles and to published issues, but also shared posts from other sources.

Speed Geeking with SIC

We don't know you

Fátima Ferreira (the journalist) and Ana Faria (the designer) flew to Lisbon in the early morning. We met and just sat together through the first presentation. By 9:45 there was a speed geeking session, announced as “just like speed dating, but for geeks”. Each team was paired in turn with every other team for three minutes, so that teams introduced themselves to each other. Surprise! No other team knew about CódigoPro, so my colleagues got to introduce the company and the publications repeatedly.

So that’s your chance today to learn how to work a bit better together.
— Evangeline de Bourgoing, Programme Manager at Global Editors Network

What's not to love from traditional journalism done right?

By 11:00 we sat together around a square table and started to really talk. My respect for CódigoPro kept growing as Fátima and Ana explained the company, their roles, the publications, and the whole ecosystem around them.

The CódigoPro team at work CódigoPro publishes respected magazines to a faithful audience of professionals (including optometrists, dentists, jewelry makers and sellers), since 2004. Each magazine builds a community of practice around it, where the professionals learn from each other. The magazines are paid by advertising, but professionals actually want to see these ads and sponsored articles, to keep track of new products entering their market.

CódigoPro also has a unique advantage: since they mail the magazine issues, they know every reader. How very different this is from a general newspaper!

Do not send mail to Angola

We quickly agreed that our project should draw on the experience of CódigoPro and myself, instead of just being “something fancy”. Considering the theme of the event, the natural problem to tackle was the internationalization of the magazines and the communities themselves. Perhaps optometrists in Portugal and Angola can learn from each other?

It turns out that CódigoPro had actually tried to distribute their magazines in Angola. They had bought a list and tried to mail DentalPro to dentists in Angola. Horror! It just didn't work: in Angola, the magazines just stay at the post office until someone collects them. They had to phone the dentists to let them know they had mail... In summary, the convenient delivery mechanism of Portugal was a terribly inconvenience in Angola.

The digital version of our journal (JoiaPro) increased our publicity contracts.
— Ricardo Flaminio, Director at CódigoPro

Even the limited online presence of the CódigoPro magazines has already led to increased sales, as the director of CódigoPro stated in the portal of the Portuguese regional press.

These magazines have a heart

Looking at the problem as an experienced technical writer, it was clear that CódigoPro needs a better content strategy. Together, we explored the strengths of the paper magazines and the limitations of the current online offering.

In three CódigoPro magazines, the cover interview is the heart of the magazine. Fátima interviews professionals in their own environment. Other professionals love these stories, because they learn insights and details that they can carry to their own practice.

The cover interviews also give a face to professionals, and have a lasting value that is absence from shorter news. For example, the tenth-year edition of ÓpticaPro draws on an interview in the first issues.

OftalPro, DentalPro, ÓpticaPro

Follow your heart

The cornerstone of the project became how to improve the cover interview for online delivery. The challenge was to take what was being done well in paper and make it even better online, but without hindering the experience of the current paper readers.

Video could fuel a YouTube channel and improve the site and the Facebook stream. However, video interviews would alienate paper readers. We settle for a short video summary, perhaps some “final words” recorded by a professional at the end of the interview. Online, this video can pull readers into the article. On paper, the video can just be transcribed.

Since the interview is showing a professional working, perhaps the story could be captured in a more visual way? Perhaps even as a photo novel? Drawing on my background as a technical writer, I proposed an idea of “scene”, similar to the steps in a procedure or a process. For each place of work (or each phase?), the journalist could try to capture several photos, including place-setting, working person, and important details. Back at the newsroom, Ana (the designer) could assemble these photos in elaborate pages with text that explains the photos. The result is visual storytelling of a professional working, enabling the kind of visual pages that you typically associate with fashion or architecture magazines.

So, we propose to turn the cover interview in a series of designed scenes, an improvement that can be seen both online and in print. The short video gives more face to the professionals interviewed, and promotes interaction at the site, Facebook, and perhaps YouTube.

Faithful readers talk back

Growing a community means that you foster and mediate communication between people. How could the online presence promote interaction with the readers?

Fátima sends follow-up newsletters with short news, but these are not effective: only 10% of readers open the emails, perhaps because the newsletters repeat news that were just placed on the site and on Facebook.

Although articles in the site can have comments, no one actually comments, unless some interview has especially controversial statements. We develop a plan to:

  1. When announcing a new issue by email, immediately ask for comments.
  2. If needed, elicit comments from readers. Since they know their readers, they can even call readers for comments.
  3. Publish the best comments in the follow-up newsletter, therefore valuing commenters and eliciting even more comments.
  4. Publish the best comments in the next printed issue, therefore delivering the value of online interactions to traditional readers.

However, this plan would require the journalist to became a community curator, moderating some comments and asking for others. This interaction could improve the professional community around each magazine, but with a corresponding effort that should be evaluated. However, perhaps the advertising companies would pay to generate comments around their product announcements?

What's your project, then?

By 17h00 we had a Prezi presentation with the main ideias, and a working title: Professional Stories in Portuguese. The plan was to develop a sample article and site mock-up to showcase our proposal. However, the mini pitch session was only oral, so the Prezi part was just wasted effort. Ana stood up and announced our project publicly.

They publish professional magazines, with a very loyal audience. Only the PDF is put online. But they don't reach some Portuguese-speaking countries, like Angola. So they use the most-read part, the cover interview, and enrich it with images, related captions, call to interaction and email campaigns.
— Laure Nouraout, summarizing Ana's oral presentation

Amazingly, we had spent most of the day without touching our laptops.

I can't say that I understood much of what the other projects were about. I missed another Speed Geeking, an opportunity to compare approaches and tools, and to learn from the other teams at EditorsLab.

Have fun with your boat!

Príncipe Perfeito At the end of the day, I helped my colleagues to check in at the sailing ship Príncipe Perfeito, which had cut a nice deal for the organization. After calling the commander (whose wife should not be disturbed at 19h00), we managed to enter the ship. I had sailed in the ship during the UX-Lx conference, but I had never visited the surprisingly large living quarters.

Dinner happened at the restaurante of the Naval Association of Lisbon. The nice food let to more team building, as we explored individual backgrounds and interests.

Something that surprised me was to hear journalists telling stories of how states “mark” journalists:

  • To visit China in vacation, one journalist had to sign a declaration pledging not to engage in any journalistic activities.
  • To pass the border guard and visit Morocco with his girlfriend, another journalist had to pretend to be covering the film festival in Marrakech.

The team-building moved on to the bar Speakeasy, right next to the ship. So, it's about 02h00 when the group gets back to the ship, only to find out that the ship has moved up. The tide is much higher, and entering the ship suddenly became an adventure. And you don't want to disturb the commander's wife...

You might say that four persons went back home with a new story to tell.

Do you want a PhD with that?

Next morning I woke up thinking that the content strategy for CódigoPro might be neatly explained as a design pattern, something that I am considering for a PhD thesis.

People need stories.
— Pedro Lomba, Secretary of State

As I explained the concept of design pattern to the team, the words of the Secretary of State resonated with the team. Because what we are trying to do is to tell meaningful stories better.

We split work, and I get busy at writing down the design pattern. It will be the first time that I put a design pattern in writing. I used design patterns extensively at Altitude Software, but I never got around to write them down.

For a first draft, the result surprises me. I was able to write down:

  • 18 forces in presence, which I later clustered down to half.
  • Clear instructions on what to collect during the interview.
  • Guidelines on how to assemble the information into a final article.

Our solution is striking a balance among 9 competing forces! Perhaps yesterday we did some real work with our our minds open and laptops closed.

Where is that project?

Meanwhile, Fátima worked on describing the project, which was a requirement for submitting the project by the middle of the afternoon.

Fighting against an intermittent Wi-Fi connection, Ana painfully downloaded an article and some sample images, which she then tried to assemble into a “new-style” scene page.

Fátima and Ana were able to showcase a new visual design, but only using unrelated pictures. We could not create a sample scene. We could neither find a set of photos related to the same scene, nor retrofit part of an existing article into a scene. However, we were definitely pressed for time at this point.

This drives home the importance of having the right mindset for a writing assignment, so that you collect the right information and pay attention to the right things. This is similar to my technical writing experience at Altitude Software, where each design patterns induced a specific way of thinking about the problem.

So I present CódigoPro

Showtime!

It was only by 16h00 that Fátima suggested that I should present the project at the final pitch session. I had assumed that Fátima would be presenting. We had mostly ignored the final pitch. On retrospect, we should have started working on the presentation much sooner.

When the presentations started, we watched in awe as the teams from larger newsrooms unfolded big idea after big idea, most with amazing half-working prototypes of sites or mobile apps.

In contrast, I presented my thoughts from a sheet of paper, not very well connected with the very visual slides developed by Ana and Fátima. Still, it felt great to stand up for my 2-day old team.

After years of hearing that journalism is dead, it was sobering to see traditional journalism making money since 2004. For example, the popular reference newspaper Público never broke even.

Surprisingly, I managed to end on time, by virtue of not detailing the design pattern itself. I ended with the motto “From the best of tradition to even better, online”.

The jury was surprisingly quiet at our presentation, after seeing all the technology marvels before us. “This is not about technology, is it?” asked a member of the jury as we left the stage. The technical writer inside me proudly replied “No, it's about telling stories”, as I though about the sole journalist that writes them all.

So we will not go to Barcelona

We did not win the competition. The team from Público got to go to Barcelona, with an interesting project that would not win my vote.

The winning team, jury, and organizers

After-hours, a member of the jury commented that Público was the only project that satisfied the requirements, because it was the only one aimed at newsrooms themselves. This surprised everyone, because the theme of the competition did not mention “for newsrooms” anywhere.

It was awfully nice

The EditorsLab was sort of an island of joy in the midst of confusing weeks. I was awfully nice to know Fátima and Ana, and I loved to work with them.

From my point of view, what started as a random funny activity turned out to be the right thing at the right time: I presented the two pages of design pattern to my likely PhD advisor in the following week. The sample greatly helped to focus our ongoing conversation.

During the event, my admiration kept growing for the work of Fátima and Ana at CódigoPro. They gave me arguments to shut up those that keep saying that the traditional press is dead. There was a sentence that went through my mind several times, but that I never got to say: tell stories worthy of being read.

I wonder if the project will have any chance of continuing, because a fourth person was missing in our conversations: the director Ricardo Flaminio, which sells the publicity. Perhaps our solutions will not work for reasons that Ricardo would know, but that we did not.

Only time will tell.

References

Global Editors Network
Home page of the Global Editors Network, an association of 1000 editors worldwide.
EditorsLab in Lisbon
The home page for the EditorsLab event in Lisbon.
GEN Community
The list of all EditorsLab projects, since forever. You need an account to download attached files and to contact project members.
Facebook photos
Official photos taken during the EditorsLab, used without permission.
Final report
Official final report of the event. 9 pages. Too bad they got my name wrong.
CódigoPro
The home page for CódigoPro, mostly with the cover pages of all published magazine issues.
ÓpticaPro 141 on Calameo
The Calameo version of ÓpticaPro #141 from February 215, a special 10-year issue. I really did not like Calameo.
ÓpticaPro website
The website for ÓpticaPro, with links to magazine issues in Calameo, plus short news.
ÓpticaPro at Facebook
Facebook page for ÓpticaPro, with links to magazine issues, news, and posts shared by others.
Professional Stories in Portuguese
My project with Fátima Ferreira and Ana faria from CódigoPro.

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