An open letter (wish-list) for Sourcefabric

Just a couple of days ago, I found out about Sourcefabric and its future release of a free, open source, editorial system, the Superdesk. Like I always do with all the amazing digital tools I find online, I got in touch with Sourcefabric and let them know that I was looking forward for their product.

Adam Thomas, Sourcefabric Communications Manager was kind enough to reply and asked me what where my thoughts about an editorial system and the way it could help with the future of digital storytelling (regarding my article on the subject). In reply to his challenge, I decided to write an article for this blog. Adam agreed with my approach.

The most important aspect of a digital narrative is the amount of different multimedia assets that can be used to build a story. With these different assets, the need for full collaboration between different professionals within a newsroom is born. Any editorial system that aims to enable digital storytelling must provide a complete set of tools for the collaboration of these different professionals, many of whom have not been used to work within an editorial system, until now. More on this later on.

Another major aspect on today’s digital panorama is the publishing tools available. For print and web it is a fairly straightforward aspect, but for mobile and tablet publishing, things tend to be a little more complicated. Indie publishers are in urgent need for a solution (easy and inexpensive) that enables them to publish across these platforms. For the sake of this article I will focus on native applications as the needed solution.

Editorial systems can work with publishing tools, like Adobe’s Indesign and Incopy, or can have their own built-in tools. To tackle the problem mentioned before, that of being able to publish to various mobile and tablet platforms, it would be really nice if Sourcefabric where to develop Superdesk with a mobile and tablet publishing solution built in.

The way I see it working would be through the developing of various native reader applications for the different operating systems. These applications would offer costumers a simple customization solution but, apart from that, their backbone would be the same: a store function for buying issues, a library function for archiving those issues and a reader function to read the issues (on and off line). The various platforms would be iOS for Apple’s devices, Android for Google’s operative system based devices and Adobe’s AIR readers for desktops. Sourcefabric would provide the hosting of the different issues of each publication.

All of these different readers would process issues published with Superdesk, in HTML, thus allowing publishing for web browsers to be the same as for mobile and tablet devices, if publishers choose to do so. More, an HTML based solution would allow for integration with various widgets and API that are being used across the web right now. Finally, an HTML based solution should be made using responsive design principles allowing the same published content to be accessed on a myriad of different screen sizes.

Back to the functions of Superdesk for digital narratives, now that we’ve put aside the problem of how and what to publish for mobile and tablets.

For delivering truly digital narratives, newsrooms must become fully integrated and the editorial system must reflect this. As with an orchestra, digital narratives need a conductor to deliver the best ‘music’ to the audience. This conductor, or narratives editors, must be able, through the editorial system, to built the different stories, using all the above mentioned multimedia assets, without ruining the material needed for other publishing solutions, like print or web.

Allow me to further explain this point with an example: Imagine a story for a magazine. It’s main story will be told using text – actually, text must be regarded as the backbone storytelling tool for most of today’s news media publishers. When designing the digital narrative, some parts of this text can be swapped for multimedia assets, like video or audio slideshows. The digital narrative conductor must be able to perform those changes within the editorial system without ruining the print edition text.
So, an editorial system that enables digital narratives must be able to run parallel version of each story, one for each publishing medium.

When we consider all the different multimedia assets that can be produced for digital narratives (like video, interactive infographics, photos slideshows – with or without audio, etc) we can easily think of various software tools to produce all of these assets. If we want to find a common denominator for all of these multimedia assets it should be that, most of it can be built or exported as HTML. Therefor, an editorial system must give the possibility to add ‘bits’ of HTML embedded within the text main body. These HTML assets are to be uploaded, by various team members, on an shared article folder in the server.
It doesn’t make sense to have multimedia libraries for all the content inside an editorial system; it’s much better to have articles placed inside an individual folder with all the different multimedia assets that go into the making of that article.

Another multiformat tool that is most needed, because of all the different formats that can be used to record video, or pictures, is that of a ‘hidden’ translator that will re-save every multimedia asset to a supported format, taking into account the various platforms where those assets will be used.
For each of the above mentioned parallel versions of a story, only the ‘right’ formats and assets should be displayed.
For example, a story that has text, video, pictures and an HTML asset on it’s folder, would only display the text and pictures (CMYK version in 300 dpi resolution) on the ‘print version’ inside the editorial system. Likewise, the same story for digital publishing would display the text, the video, the HTML asset and the pictures (RGB version in 175 dpi resolution).

One multimedia tool that would be very welcomed inside a multiplatform editorial system, is that of a photo slideshow tool. This is the easiest multimedia asset that can be created by non-visual professionals. Most of the times these days, someone else on the newsroom must do the ‘montage’ work. This workflow ’duplication’ could be very easy to bypass through a simple tool built in the editorial system. It is of the most importance that this tool would allow adding sound to a slideshow, thus making it a powerful storytelling tool: the audio slideshow, perfect for really engaging plot points of a story.

Another important aspect of a digital narrative ready editorial system is that today’s journalists can record different bits of a story using their mobile devices. Superdesk should work to integrate it’s system with various mobile applications that are used to record different multimedia assets, like video and photography applications, or audio recording ones. Evernote and Dropbox are also two very usable digital services that could help the journalists, on the road, working with Superdesk. Finally, we can not forget about mobile email, calendar and other useful productivity tools: integration with these kind of apps can allow for huge improvements in workflow, be it when reporting, or when managing the publication with Superdesk.

As with any editorial system, workflow management and task assignments are of the most importance for building digital storytelling. The more multimedia assets are required for a story, the more different technicians are needed to collaborate, in an orderly and engaged manner, in that story. Editors and coordinators must be able to assign production roles and tasks for each article and be able to check on the progress of the work being done in each story.

In the end, I’m really looking forward to Sourcefabric’s solution. From what I’ve learnt it looks very promising. And with Christmas around the corner, who knows, my wish list just might be heard.

Please let me know in this article’s comments what other ideas you might have.


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