The Customer Effect

How the Financial Times keeps up editorial experimentation

  • The FT's new special projects editor, Robin Kwong, wants to bring ideas to life.
  • A recent story about China's exports dominate the world's oceans shows the strategy at work.
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By Lucinda Southern

All publications are under the gun, and the first things to get cut are usually experimental. To help guard against that, the FT last year brought on a “special projects” editor, Robin Kwong, charged with leading temporary experiments that don’t always lead to a permanent product.

These experiments include everything from posting original content native to Facebook to live streaming video in 360 degrees. As the experiments operate in an ad hoc fashion, Kwong often works with different teams on a temporary basis. The role sits somewhere in the middle of an effective editor and a commercially minded product manager.

“Most reporters — especially the organized ones — will have a column of broken dreams, ideas they want to do but they don’t fit anywhere and they don’t have anyone to help with it,” Kwong said. After feeling frustrated that there was no one leading the charge on these irregular projects, Kwong, a former interactive journalist at the FT, moved into the role to give more structure to these experiments.

“There’s always the core of an idea of something we want to achieve, but translating that into the end product and discussing who else needs to be involved, that’s where I come in,” he said.

Some special projects are tied in with the newsroom’s priorities. One experiment was to live stream in 360-degree video the moment when Nigel Farage, head of the campaign for the U.K. to leave the EU, found out the results of the referendum.

robin-kwong
Robin Kwong

“In terms of outcomes, it was an abject failure,” said Kwong. “In terms of experiments, is was a resounding success.” After five seconds of low resolution and choppy images — thanks to sluggish Wi-Fi — they killed the stream. However, the FT was satisfied because it now has a detailed 12-point checklist it can use for any future 360-degree live streams. Some were simply small operational points, like an additional person is needed to field the YouTube comments, so turn them off if resource is low.

Other projects do become more permanent: The FT has started creating online hubs for article series and special projects like Robot Week (a series on features on robots) and a series on human trafficking. Insight gained from these led to the product team making improvements to topic pages on the new FT.com, which launched in October.

“Regardless of how readers arrived (through social, search, or direct), they then tend to want to just go from one interesting article to the next, rather than going to the landing page in between to hunt for the next piece they want to read,” he said. “A key design lesson here is that we need to put a lot of effort into thinking about how we guide people to the next story from the article page.”

Going forward, the FT plans to create more visual stories. But most of its reporters haven’t had to write storyboards. Inevitably this has forced a change in culture, process and workflow: Reporters have to do more pre-reporting and working with photographers even in the planning stages.

This piece, for example, follows a barrel of oil from the Syrian oil fields. For five weeks, the reporters worked with the FT’s cartography expert to figure out what would be needed to create all the maps and data tables in the piece. The article was written three days before publication. Previously, the process would have been reversed, with reporters spending weeks writing the text and leaving the graphics desk a couple of days to get get the images in order.

Kwong’s ultimate aim is to no longer be needed by putting enough tools and processes in place for editors and reporters to pitch and run their own special projects. He’s created, for example, pitching forms for the reporter, a checklist for the editor and a list of questions to ask of Lantern, FT’s in-house analytics dashboard.

It has already starting to pay off. Kwong had no direct involvement on this piece about how China’s exports dominate the world’s oceans, but it came together thanks to systems he had put in place.

china
The FT wants to create more visual stories.

“Something can start off as a special project, but once we’ve done it several times, you create the resources and tools,” he said. “It’s not sustainable for the FT to rely on one special projects editor.”

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