The Training Is Coming From Inside the CMS

Illustration by Oscar Bolton Green

To train a 1,700-person newsroom, The New York Times added tooltips and guidance to the CMS.

By Eric Athas and Taylor Poulos

In an era where storytelling is constantly evolving, how do you seamlessly train a newsroom with 1,700 journalists spread around the world?

That’s a question near and dear to the Newsroom Development & Support team (or, N.D.S.), a department responsible for driving change at The New York Times. The team has trained reporters and editors on everything from live briefings to data reporting to visual journalism and new story formats like explainers.

In 2019, N.D.S. completed one of its biggest undertakings: training the entire newsroom on an expressive and collaborative CMS, called Oak. The N.D.S. team coached every single reporter and editor one-on-one — in New York, Washington, D.C., Hong Kong, London, San Francisco and remotely for correspondents — through every part of the tool, and explained how it all worked and best practices for its powerful storytelling capabilities. And then, when journalists began using Oak, the team was there to answer questions in-person and on Slack. We also worked closely with the Oak product team to incorporate feedback and make the software more effective and easier to use.

The work was exhaustive and time intensive. And, because the team spent so much time training reporters and editors on how to use Oak, that left less time to train them to master different story formats, move swiftly during breaking news, make stories more visual and other skills needed in the new tool.

To help make Oak training more efficient, the N.D.S. and Oak teams launched a project aimed at building guidance — such as tooltips, helper text and best practices — directly into Oak. The goal: Give reporters and editors the help they need, in the places where they work, at the moments they need it most.

Research revealed challenges of CMS training

With that goal firmly in mind, we interviewed our colleagues within The Times and outside experts on training to understand where our documentation worked well and where it fell short. Through this research, we uncovered several major challenges.

1,700 people is a lot of people
The first challenge was the size and scope of the newsroom itself. With over 1,700 journalists who touch our CMS, there are many different roles that need to be accounted for. Our CMS users include reporters who work on one major feature story for a long period of time; editors who shepherd dozens of stories toward publication every week; and visual journalists who are focused on making our report striking and beautiful.

Varied expectations for what a CMS can do
A journalist’s previous experience with a CMS can affect their expectations of our tools. People who have joined The Times from organizations with less effective CMS teams had limited expectations about what a CMS could do. Because the first step of learning how to do a task is being aware that the task is possible, these lowered expectations made people less likely to try new things; They simply assumed that whatever they wanted to do wasn’t possible. On the other hand, some people were used to asking more of their CMS, and were comfortable pushing its limits through insightful questions and feature suggestions.

It’s hard for busy journalists to keep track of every new feature
With a dedicated product and development team for our CMS, we are constantly tweaking our tools, especially the tools our journalists use most often. This means we need to continually provide training that covers new changes. And because our tools are complex, these training sessions are sometimes over an hour and a half long. We can’t expect every person to remember every detail of the sessions.

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Training isn’t one and done — tools and best practices evolve
As the world we report on changes, so do our tools and best practices. Our tools need to have the capability to surface, document and remind users about these changes. One participant in our research put it succinctly when he compared journalism to medicine, where knowledge is constantly evolving, and practitioners constantly need to stay up to date with the latest techniques.

The research was essential in learning what guidance would be most useful for the Times newsroom. It also helped us identify the challenges we would need to navigate when placing tips in the space where our journalists work.

Newsroom experts helped pinpoint essential tips

Our next step was to make sure that the guidance would be informed by the journalists doing the work day in and day out. We made a list of every field that our reporters and editors touch in Oak — such as headline, summary, captions and URL — and asked over a dozen colleagues about each one. We wanted to know what tips we should include and how we might frame guidance in the CMS. We also wanted to know where there are sticking points in the CMS, and what is most important to flag when journalists are making decisions on deadline.

Although we already had extensive best practice documents and how-to guides for every aspect of newsroom work, space is limited in Oak. This process allowed us to narrow in on the guidance that would be most essential to surface as our colleagues write and edit.

Once the list of items was refined, then it was time to figure out where they should live in the CMS. Here’s where we landed:

For information tied to a specific field: The Right Rail

The Oak Article Editor with information about how to write an SEO headline to the right of the page.

For most of the guidance we came up with, the right rail was the best place to put it. The information in the right rail shows up when a user is focused in a specific field, making it targeted to the moment users need it most. Auxiliary information, like a character count, can be shown within the same context, giving live feedback as users perform an action. And unlike tooltips, which show up only when users think to click or hover over the right icon, the guidance is shown by default; always there, but designed to be differential and not distracting.

For information tied to a element in the editor: The Detail Pane

The Oak Editor with the add element menu open. An image element is selected and information about the element is shown.

Oak is an element-based editor, meaning that journalists build their stories out of a wide array of multimedia and text based elements, such as images, pull quotes, headings and embedded tweets. To document these elements, we expanded the element menu to include space for an image, a description and a link to learn more about the type of element, leaving plenty of room for explanations about what the element is, and how it can be used.

For when you don’t know where to start: The Help Center

The Oak Editor with the help center opened. It shows information about how to use Oak, links to get help and suggest improvements, and product updates.

In addition to this in-CMS, N.D.S. has produced a lot of documentation about our best practices for things such as SEO, visual journalism, editing processes, and story formats. However, it wasn’t clear where people could access this information within Oak. The help center is integrated into the tool itself, accessible through an icon in the lower right hand corner of the screen. It has a curated list of documentation and links, as well as the option to search our full documentation library. It also has a place for people to submit feedback about the tool directly, making it easier for people to submit feedback or questions the second they run into issues.

Guidance needs to stay up-to-date

How we tell stories will only continue to change. And so our journalists will continually have new things to learn: new tools, updated standards and best practices to ensure they’re able to make the best journalism possible.

Just as our storytelling formats will change, so will our tools. It’s important to have a clear process for keeping all of the documentation we have placed into Oak up-to-date. Our colleague, Jin Kim, an editor with N.D.S., will lead the next chapter of this work to keep in-tool guidance relevant. Jin will coordinate between the Oak team and N.D.S. to determine when the text in Oak has become out of date and will be able to update the information on the fly. In collaboration with newsroom experts, Jin will also keep a pulse on emerging journalistic practices — such as new SEO tactics or updated standards guidance — that can be surfaced to reporters and editors. By building this capacity, we hope to continue evolving the guidance built into Oak, well into the future.

Eric Athas is a Senior Editor for Digital Training at The New York Times

Taylor Poulos is a Senior Product Designer in Publishing at The New York Times.

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The Training Is Coming From Inside the CMS was originally published in NYT Open on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Source: New York Times

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