Transparency, collaboration drive in-house planning innovations at Nine

By Ben Woodhead

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, Nine Metro Publishing

Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

News planning is a collaborative affair. Whether it’s daily news conferences, or weekly or monthly planning sessions, editors continually come together to hash out ideas and set the agenda.

So, it stands to reason collaborative planning tools are essential to a newsroom’s success. That’s why so many newsrooms have turned to Trello, Google Docs, and other widely available collaborative products to meet their planning needs. But these tools often have a major weakness. They’re separate from the CMS and, for many newsrooms, that’s where most journalists do their work.

The in-house tool used by Nine makes it easier to plan and create content across all mastheads.
The in-house tool used by Nine makes it easier to plan and create content across all mastheads.

Nine’s mastheads, including The Australian Financial Review, The Age, and The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), have long appreciated the value gained from planning in the content management system (CMS). In fact, Nine was recognised with an INMA award in 2020, in part for the “runsheets” news planning tool in our in-house content management system, Ink.

Runsheets are lists of stories and ideas that are used to plan daily, weekly, and monthly coverage across home pages, newspapers, newsletters, and magazines. They’re critical to planning transparency in Ink and play an important role in our drive to create more content that converts and retains subscribers.

Runsheets sit at the centre of planning workflows that allow reporters to pitch stories from Slack directly into Ink, empower editors to programme coverage in the CMS during news conferences, and integrate with our home and print pages for production efficiency.

Stories in runsheets update in real time, showing changes to headlines, workflow status, and other editing aids, such as sensitivity and legal flags. They also show when and where stories have run on our Web sites.

They’re powerful tools, but they have suffered from a big limitation. They have not allowed true collaborative planning — until now.

When Nine’s editorial product and technology team asked our editors what their top priority was for workflow efficiency at Ink, the answer was resoundingly collaborative editing of runsheets. So, we set about delivering it for the newsrooms.

To enable concurrency, we implemented ShareDB, with OT JSON1 operations for documents, DocumentDB storage, authenticated WebSocket connections to clients, and presence messages for collaboration.

The result is runsheets that allow up to 20 people to collaboratively allocate stories to publishing schedules and print pages, and to add planning notes to story group labels, known as dividers. Twenty is an initial cap while we ensure stability and scalability. However, it far exceeds the number of people who typically make concurrent changes to a single runsheet.

The runsheets allow several people to collaborate at the same time.
The runsheets allow several people to collaborate at the same time.

One of the most important considerations when designing the user experience was communicating enough information about changes to a runsheet, without creating distracting visual noise.

Colour-coded avatars, similar to Google Docs, represent editors in a runsheet. When an editor adds, moves, or removes a story or divider, a highlight matching the editor’s avatar colour briefly draws attention to the change. When an editor edits a text field, such as planning notes, a colour-coded highlight appears showing the field is locked.

Concurrency has empowered editors to work collaboratively on planning tasks. For the Age and SMH, which publish multiple home page editions across the day, digital editors in news conferences can programme ahead, while the home page editor on duty simultaneously makes updates for the current edition.

For sections with digital and print publishing, one editor can programme the digital publishing schedule while, at the same time, another takes content from the digital plan and allocates it to print pages within the same runsheet.

In addition to more cohesive planning and time saved, editors report that concurrent editing has improved story utilisation by ensuring fewer stories fall through the cracks as a result of inefficiencies in the planning process.

But our journey doesn’t end there. Having solved the problem of collaboration for individual teams planning in single runsheets, we are now working to empower whole-of-newsroom collaboration.

The next iteration of our planning tools, due in the first half of 2024, will allow editors to view and programme multiple runsheets at the same time, kanban-style.

Once complete, any journalist in the newsroom can have a top-down view of all stories in production, organised by topic, channel, schedule, and page, while critical story content and workflow information updates in real time.

It’s the culmination of a multi-year vision to bring planning collaboration and transparency to the CMS, empowering our newsrooms to create more agenda-setting journalism that deepens subscriber engagement.

About Ben Woodhead

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