CommonWealth Magazine Digital Transformation Report
Building a Digitally Literate Staff
Digital innovation within CommonWealth Magazine meant requiring print-oriented workers to take on more tasks. How did CommonWealth get people lacking in digital skills up to speed to take on the rapidly changing media environment?
Building a Digitally Literate StaffBy CommonWealth Magazine
The digital economy has upended every industry, and the media is no exception. But while international media outlets have been overhauling their operations to adapt to the changing world, the business models of most Taiwanese media organizations have remained stagnant.
At a time when most media organizations were stuck contemplating the dilemma of offline vs. online digital content, the enterprising Diane Ying boldly announced CommonWealth’s digital goal for 2017: the introduction of a digital content subscription service.
But this digital transformation was harder and more complicated than anybody had imagined.
Challenge No. 2
CommonWealth Magazine set up its company website in 1996 and then led the industry in introducing an iPad magazine, apps, and new digital products over the next 20 years.
Those initiatives put new demands on the company’s staff. CommonWealth digital content guru Joyce Cheng, for example, has moved from the editorial department to the internet department, the digital innovation group and now the digital content department over the past decade, reflecting the new normal of multi-tasking and constant change faced by media workers in the digital age.
Cheng believes the era when non-print media responsibilities are handled exclusively by an internet team has long passed. Digitization has now become a basic requirement of every department, she says.
The internet department carried the banner of CommonWealth’s digital transformation, and had to answer the many doubts of people on the print side of the operation, such as why headlines had to be changed for articles posted online and why an e-newsletter was necessary.
“We had our plates full with digital issues, but we still had to teach our print colleagues. They were a little skeptical, wondering why they were studying [digital skills],” recalls manager Wan-ting Shen.
Some of her colleagues jumped into digital, willing to give it a try, while others held back, taking a wait-and-see approach. Some focused on internet traffic, others on magazine sales. It was as though there were several rudders on a ship, all of them being steered in different directions.
Not surprisingly, turnover in every department has been relatively high in recent years. “It posed a big challenge to the organization, and it was an important test of ‘who were the most suitable people,’” says CommonWealth Magazine president Wu Yin-Chuen.
While contributing to innovation within the organization, most employees were also asked to spend time outside of their regular jobs to help with innovating the company’s processes. But some of the staff’s attachment to traditional work routines and resistance to the organization’s new operating practices posed intangible challenges.
CommonWealth could have laid off those uneasy with the transformation, but decided not to because “it was easy to find people with digital skills to join CommonWealth but very hard to find people with similar values and ideals,” Wu says.
Employees who were unable to learn the new skills required quickly enough were directed by their supervisors to focus their efforts on learning new skills and changing their mindsets. The company sought to nurture people who held a common belief in the news media’s mission and who, as part of CommonWealth’s new digital operations team, could unleash the positive influence of media on society.
Step 1: Using Technology to Improve Quality of Stories
CommonWealth got involved in digital content development at an early stage. From 2010 to the present, it has published hundreds of digital special features packaging videos, photos, charts and text on a wide range of topics. Those features have earned two prestigious Society of Publishers in Asia (SOPA) awards for excellence in digital journalism almost every year since 2010. Though CommonWealth cannot match the resources of international media, it has demonstrated an ability to compete with bigger players on the content side.
Yet, despite that success, the company has never grown complacent, and in an era extolling the virtues of citizen participation and open data, it began to cooperate with civic technology groups.
The most recent example of such collaboration was a story titled “Taiwan’s Industrial Land Crisis” about factories illegally built on farms and their attempt to gain legal status by having the land they are on rezoned. (Read: Taiwan’s Industrial Land Crisis)
The special report captured many awards, including a Foundation for Excellent Journalism Award for in-depth reporting, a Golden Tripod Award for best digital content, and a SOPA award for excellence in journalistic innovation.
The Golden Tripod Award jurists wrote: “Committee members recommended this for its innovative topic, depth and breadth of content, lively and fresh layout design and easy-to-understand text.”
A strong team of people was needed for a special report like this to succeed, and the group of journalists covering the story, comprised of experienced reporters and photographers, was buttressed by plenty of new blood.
Beyond its in-house team of more than 10 people – reporters, data journalists, copy editors, video specialists, designers and engineers – CommonWealth also enlisted the help of outside groups to report the story, in particular engineers with the D4SG (Data for Social Good) Fellowship.
“Integrating old and new technologies and finding critical facts and evidence were the most significant elements of this report,” says senior CommonWealth writer Kuo-chen Lu, who directed the story’s coverage.
Lu had been pursuing the topic of national lands being used illegally for more than a year. He had witnessed President Tsai Ing-wen and her administration visit large-scale factories since taking office and hold briefings on how to legalize their operations.
Lu was concerned that factories situated on land zoned for agriculture could be given legal status, and he decided to look into the story a little more proactively.
Key evidence in investigative reporting usually comes from three sources: government agencies, individual sources, and reporters’ own digging. But for this report, the government was unwilling to release records on land parcel and property boundaries, making it impossible to verify whether factories were built legally on land zoned for industrial use or illegally on land zoned for agricultural use. It was also impossible to know which factories were operating illegally on agricultural land.
Sources contacted for the story also refused to provide that information.
The only option left for Lu and the team was to investigate the issue on its own, but it started on the wrong track. Team members gathered every Saturday to discuss the story, going through huge amounts of data for three months, to no avail.
Fortunately for the team, it unexpectedly came across a file online showing records for more than 3,000 parcels of agricultural land on which factories were located. Reporter Kao Yuan-tai led the team in converting the records obtained to geographical coordinates and plotting them on Google Maps, revealing clearly which factories were built illegally on land zoned for farming. (Read: Behind the Interactive Maps)
By that time, it was July 2016, and the deadline for submitting digital and print versions of the story was only four months away. The team made a surprising discovery, however, as it looked into the illegal factories identified, finding that they were not the dirty, small-scale metalworking factories they were expecting, but rather global leaders in their fields and markets.
When contacted, some of the companies at first swore they were operating legally, before becoming speechless when shown the factory’s location plotted out on Google Maps. Other companies happily agreed to be interviewed but made reporters wait for nearly two hours before talking to them.
Because of the precision of CommonWealth’s data, however, there was indisputable evidence of the truth, regardless of how companies responded.
On a sunny autumn day, a reporter from the video center operated an aerial photography drone that shuttled over green, fertile rice paddies broken up by clusters of red or gray corrugated steel buildings. The images highlighted the absurdity of the policy to “convert good land into factories.”
If new technology had not helped dig up new evidence, it would have been hard to imagine how these small, illegal factories polluting the land have already expanded into a huge kingdom.
Lu was indignant over these illegal factories, which pollute the environment and adversely affect competition, national land planning and agricultural policies.
“Factories could be built on agricultural land where the land was cheap and you didn’t have to treat wastewater; why would anybody want to build a factory in an industrial park? The result is that, after 10 years, Taiwan does not have a single parcel of land left intact,” Lu says.
In recent years, CommonWealth has published many investigative reports, such as the one on illegal factories and others focused on illegal residential complexes built in the Greater Taipei area, and the purchase of land in a national park. The stories have at times angered advertisers, costing the company millions of Taiwan dollars in advertising revenue.
People on the outside may not fully understand the extent of this tug-of-war between journalistic integrity and commercial imperatives.
Several years ago, a new reporter asked Wu Yin-chuen what would happen if the magazine had to rely on sponsored advertorials to survive.
“In that case, it would be time for CommonWealth to disappear,” Wu replied.
In today’s world, the media is full of fake news and embedded advertising that blur the lines between fact and fiction, which has undermined the public’s trust in media. But CommonWealth still believes it necessary to uphold the principles of verifying information and being fair if it hopes to develop a following among younger readers.
CommonWealth Magazine’s Recent Awards for Digital Features
2017 Golden Tripod Award
Best Digital Content Award for 'Taiwan’s Industrial Land Crisis'
2016 Golden Tripod Award
Digital Content Award for the CommonWealth Magazine feature 'In Our Time'
2015 Golden Tripod Award
Digital Innovation Award for e-newsletter app development model
Honorable Mention in Excellence in Digital News for the online special report: 'The Rise of Northern ASEAN'
Award for Excellence in Digital News for the online special report: 'Who Owns Taiwan’s National Parks?'
Step 2: Post-production to the Front Lines
Reporters serve on the front lines of news organizations while editors work behind the scenes to provide direction and feed them story ideas. But with the advent of the internet leading to more stories being generated at a faster rate, editors have to join the battle to bring added value to content.
This is how CommonWealth’s “quick-strike brigade” was established. Whenever a major event occurs, a team of reporters, editors and social media people set up a group on Slack, an online team communication platform, to discuss different angles from which to cover the story.
Reporters then gather information and write their pieces, while editors package anywhere from four to eight stories into an in-depth feature, enabling readers to fully understand the ins and outs of the breaking news.
Post-production Managing Editor Joanna Hong says her workload has doubled since the integration of the print and online divisions. The first time she really became aware of how much digitization has changed her job came on November 9, 2016, when the results of the U.S. presidential election become known in Taiwan.
By noon, it was clear that Donald Trump would pull off a victory that shocked the world. Experts were scrambling to offer analysis while readers were desperate for answers as the result triggered a tidal wave rarely seen in news history. CommonWealth immediately posted four articles online analyzing the election’s outcome, and added another 28 articles in the following 24 hours.
In the following week, more than 10 articles a day were generated covering Trump’s victory from several angles, including looking at the people involved, and the result’s international, political and financial implications. All of those articles had to be edited and posted online by editors.
Those same editors also had to take articles published in the print edition of the magazine and post them online, but there was much more involved than hitting the “copy” and “paste” buttons. Because of the differences in print and web interfaces, headlines had to be revised and countless details in the story’s format and layout had to be changed.
The magazine, for example, uses a vertical text format, with the text running from top to bottom, and Chinese characters are used to write numbers. But text on the website runs horizontally, from left to right, and Arabic numerals are used for numbers to make them stand out.
In addition, for print articles, a photo is only required every two pages or 1,400 words, but online stories require a sub-headline, chart or photo for every 300 to 500 words of text to keep the eyeballs of easily distracted readers glued to the screen.
People often say the devil is in the details, and that is generally the way it is in the media industry. Embroidering these many details together cannot be done by machine; it requires editors’ keen eyes to go over every element of each story and make the necessary revisions one at a time.
Hung was able to do that, but in making the transition, she also mastered how to edit e-newsletters, compose digital tables and charts, and cleanse data, and she even learned the basic programming language HTML. In many more traditional media organizations, those would all be the responsibility of a dedicated internet department.
Beyond providing training, CommonWealth encouraged sharing groups in which employees shared the tricks of the trade to accelerate the pace at which the organization acquired digital skills, such as how to interpret Google Analytics, apply search engine optimization, write headlines and ask for submissions from freelance writers.
When department supervisors discovered interesting topics, they would form learning groups of five to eight people that they would lead in experimenting with content, changing headlines and adjusting the timing of social media posts. These steps were taken to get employees to think outside the box, dare to try to new things and turn CommonWealth into a learning organization.
Su Herng, a professor in National Chengchi University’s College of Communication, has applauded CommonWealth’s digital content and innovation initiatives. But she also repeatedly stressed the importance of finding new business models that turn content into revenue to ensure the company’s sustainable development.
Transforming CommonWealth’s own staff required a heavy push, but devising a successful business model also meant figuring out what digital subscribers might want and in what form. How CommonWealth tackled that challenge will be covered in the next installment of this series.
Building a Digitally Literate Staff
Employees unable to learn the new skills necessary for their jobs quickly enough were told to focus on learning new skills and changing their mindsets. That’s because the company found it easy to find people with digital skills to join CommonWealth but very hard to find people with similar values and ideals.
Reporters on the front lines collaborated with outside engineers to apply new technologies to breaking through traditional constraints on covering a story. Post-production editors picked up new skills to move to the front lines of generating digital content.
Next to be continued>>
Translated by Luke Sabatier
Edited by Tomas Lin