The presence of process

Just after Thanksgiving, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University published a groundbreaking report, “Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present”. A free PDF download is available.

Written by C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky, the report is simultaneously wide-ranging and trenchant. The whole document (122 pages) is worth reading, but if you’re pressed for time, an 18-page introduction tells the story at a high level.

After that, the authors focus in turn on journalists, institutions and the newspaper publishing ecosystem before offering a set of conclusions. There’s far too much to include in a single blog post, though Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab does his best to prove me wrong on that count.

One section that stood out for me: “The Dilemma of Institutional Change” (pages 57 to 62). In it, the authors maintain that “the very success of newspapers at doing what they do makes changing them difficult”. This, of course, sets the stage for disruption by other entities.

Anderson, Bell and Shirky describe this challenge as the “presence of process”. Appropriately, they consider workflow to be the combination of tools (technology), process and organizational design. In an elegant and understated way they note, “Tools put in place to manage process also put in place the assumptions used to design the tools.”

Although the report addresses the nature of journalism in a digital age, its workflow recommendations apply to anyone publishing content in digital forms. These include calls to:

  • Fully rethink workflow to support digital uses
  • Provide options to override a content management system, the primary publishing tool
  • Share best practices; compete on content, not workflow

If my experience is any guide, those recommendations get harder to implement as you head down the list. “Rethinking workflows to support digital uses” remains the closest mountain we have yet to climb.

Shortly after the report was released, I had a chance to attend a NewsFoo event hosted by O’Reilly Media. Participants were invited to volunteer (and lead sessions on) their own topics. Motivated by the Tow Center report, I added “Fixing publishing workflows” to the agenda.

About ten people joined the discussion, which I launched with a short overview of what I consider the primary publishing functions (gathering; translating or transforming; and producing and disseminating). As producing and disseminating become the publishing equivalent of a button, the focus is shifting toward the use of lighter-weight tools to gather and transform information.

The attendees included Shirky, co-author of the report and creator of the “publishing is a button” meme. The discussion didn’t invent a new workflow (maybe if we’d had a second hour), but we did reach a rough consensus that web standards might be the way to go. I’m still thinking the internet is the ultimate CMS.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.