For the past two years, I’ve been working on Project Argo — a collaboration among NPR and 12 member stations in which the stations launched 12 niche websites on a platform we developed (built on WordPress), each putting their own spin on a common editorial model. As the pilot phase of Argo comes to a close, and we turn our attention to spreading and operationalizing what we’ve learned more broadly throughout the public media system, the question I get more than any other is, “If you were to start back at the beginning, what would you do differently?”
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I’d reframe the question slightly. If you work in digital media, you know how much this world is still in flux. The pace of change means that trends, tenets and ideas can spring up, calcify into conventional wisdom, and fade away all in the span of two years or less. So instead, I’ll lay out a few things we might change if we were starting the pilot in January 2012, and some of the ideas that we hope to push on in our work with stations over the next year.

1. PLAY MORE WITH LENGTH AND FREQUENCY

Although we emphasized the importance of a considered take from the get-go with Argo, we also stressed that the bread-and-butter of blogging is writing short and often. But as many have remarked, the quickest of quick takes have migrated into status updates on Facebook and Twitter, or blips on Tumblr. And alongside that migration, we’ve seen blogs become less about the instant and more about the Instapaper. A steady rise in popularity for Argo’s highest-trafficked site, MindShift, accompanied its move to less-frequent, longer-form blogging. CommonHealth, another of the network’s most popular sites, has scored some of its biggest audience hits with 4,000-word opuses like this one.

2. FIND PARTNERS AND BUILD TEAMS

Part of the Argo team’s aim was to replicate a pattern we’d seen again and again in our combined decades of working in independent and commercial news organizations: A single person with a singular vision builds a sizable community around a topic from the ground up. And we saw plenty of that this year. But several of our stations also tweaked the model of the single, full-time blogger that we began with, splitting the position between two part-time bloggers, or augmenting the site with contributions from freelancers. And by and large, this has worked quite well for the stations that have taken this approach. In the meantime, we’ve seen several popular veteran bloggers expand their operations into teams. Ezra Klein’s eponymous one-man operation at the Washington Post became the four-person micro-site Wonkblog. Politico’s legendary Ben Smith added Dylan Byers to his roster (very shortly before announcing a move to Buzzfeed). And, of course, “Andrew Sullivan” has been the euphemism for a multi-headed team of collaborators for some years now.

That single person with a singular vision can still make a hell of a splash, of course. (Obligatory year-end reflection shoutout to my colleague @acarvin and my daily inspiration, Maria Popova.) And it’s easy to convince yourself you’re actually collaborating when all you’re doing is sharing one another’s widgets. But among the things we’ll be looking for in 2012 are opportunities to foment genuine, effective partnerships.

3. LOOK FOR EDITORS

When we were hiring our set of reporter-bloggers for Argo, we stressed that it was vital to hire rock stars to helm these sites. In their quest to find rock stars, hiring managers asked variants on one question over and over — “Is it more important to hire someone with strong, proven reporting chops, or native bloggers who live and breathe the medium?” (Understanding, of course, that it’s not a dichotomy. Plenty of folks have both traits.) Today, though, the advice I’d give is, “Find folks who could be awesome editors.” As I told Andrew Phelps at the Nieman Journalism Lab, I shifted from calling our site hosts “reporter-bloggers” at the outset of the project to calling them “reporter-editors.”* They do have to be strong, speedy writers. And they must be able to report. But the qualities that lift the best blogs to a higher plane are news judgment, pattern recognition, and an instinct for planning and programming — the hallmarks, in short, of terrific editors.

When I look at the amazing strides the Atlantic has accomplished online over the last few years, I suspect that much of it comes from having a masthead of double-threats who edit as well as they write — folks like Alexis Madrigal (and very soon — permit me a squeal — Megan Garber).

4. TREAT CONTEXT AS CONTENT

The three people who paid attention to what I was writing and thinking about just before I started working on Argo probably got some severe whiplash as I took on this role. One of my passions in journalism as far back as I can remember — the thing I spent a year at the Reynolds Journalism Institute studying — has been context. For years, I’d been writing about the need to invent a timeless journalism, deeply embedded in context, that eschewed the hyperactive, short-term-obsessed imperatives of news and took advantage of the web’s capacity to unite episodic and systemic information. Suddenly, these lofty thoughts gave way to paeans to the listicle and headline-writing tips. I’m happy to trace for you how this effort relates to that larger quest, but I can’t deny that the future-of-context mantra has been on the back burner during this effort to build successful niche communities.

This is why it makes me so thrilled to see Argo’s sister project, StateImpact, double down on context in their approach to blogging. They are proving that marrying well-tended topic page overviews with regular blog posts can be a formula for success. While Argo’s prominent “skybox” promotion modules highlight blog posts, a similar convention in the StateImpact design is engineered to highlight topic pages instead. StateImpact reporters take care in producing these pages, writing authoritative, attention-grabbing headlines for them, promoting them with strong thumbnail images, and treating them, generally, as content (not merely as archives, sidebars, or after-matter for users who want to know more). Partly as a result, the topic pages have become some of the most popular material on the StateImpact sites. And instead of fading away once the initial rush of interest in a story is over, these pages grow more valuable over time.

StateImpact joins sites like Salon and SBNation in starting to blur the line between stories and topic pages. And I like it. I don’t think we have a silver-bullet successor to “the article” yet, but I’m eager to move this vein of experimentation forward.

5. THINK BEYOND THE RIGHT RAIL

The “right rail” or “sidebar” has been a mainstay of the news story page for years. Often-automated, haphazardly programmed, it tends to be the dumping ground for material that organizational politics and wishful thinking deem to be essential. Over the years, that space has gotten freighted with more and more stuff — random widgets, text ads, house promos — further subdividing the thin trickle of attention that usually accrues to it.

When we started the Argo sites, we tried to keep the right rail on our pages fairly tight. But as time went on, that space began to sprawl (as it’s wont to do on every website). We stuck widgets there; stations added their own widgets; partnerships yielded new widgets; all despite scant evidence that the space was capturing much user interest.

Now, with mobile devices on the uptick, we can no longer take for granted that the right rail gets even a token eye fixation from users. And designers have been quietly snuffing it out. When NPR redesigned its Shots blog earlier in 2011, the right rail became a much more minimalist enterprise, both on the front page and on story pages. (The redesign has correlated with a healthy uptick in all our favorite metrics for the blog.) Adweek’s gorgeous story page design integrates sidebar material much more organically throughout the page. Recently launched tech site The Verge is doing something altogether different with the concept of the story page, and the right rail is not a part of it.

CONCLUSION

Again, not all of these thoughts would have led us down a different path in 2010, when we launched Argo. But they point towards some differences in the type of project we’d launch today. I ran this list by my confreres Joel Sucherman and Wes Lindamood, and they liked it, but I’m sure they’d each pick a different set of points.

A consistently astonishing aspect of working in digital journalism is that you always feel like you’re at the beginning of something. And in a way, you always are. May our world shift even more in the year to come.

* Yes. I know. And I agree. “Reporter-bloggers” pains me as a term; it risks reinforcing the false dichotomy between “bloggers” and “journalists” that drives all sensible people crazy. But many folks still need reassurances that even we Micro-Aggregated Cyberpeople place great value on reporting, and if a little hyphenation can spare me from having to engage with a 12-year-old stereotype involving pajamas, so be it.

Alexis himself reminds us all once a week on Twitter that the secret sauce behind the Atlantic’s steady march of awesomeness online is actually J.J. Gould and Bob Cohn.