More and more journalists use blogging platforms to write and edit stories, but those text editors are pretty basic: It’s not easy to see what changes others have made to a post. And two people can open the same post, overwriting one another’s edits.
The New York Times has solved those problems for online journalists by building a tool that will track changes in a browser-based text editor. The tool, called ICE (for Integrated Content Editor) was built so that it will work with a variety of text editors; the Times has already built plugins for WordPress and TinyMCE, a common text editor used in blogging platforms. (The New York Times Company is an investor in Automattic, the company that develops the WordPress blogging platform.)
In effect, the Times has combined the ubiquity and ease-of-use of brower-based text editors with the accountability and scale of newspaper word processing systems.
In a phone interview, New York Times Chief Technology Officer Marc Frons explained the problem that his Web CMS team aimed to solve with ICE:
When you’re working in a collaborative environment as we and a lot of journalistic organizations are, you really need that ability for multiple people to touch a piece of copy, and for those changes that everyone has made to be catalogued and archived and shown, so that there’s a record of who’s done what to who, when. …
No one on the Web had such a thing, because most bloggers, when you think about that, are smaller operations than most newsrooms.
So the Times developers decided to add on to existing text editors out there by creating a tool to track changes.
A demo of the Times’ text editor shows how it works. Changes made by different users are marked with strikethroughs or highlights. A user can press a button to accept or reject a particular change or all of them. It looks a lot like revision tracking in Microsoft Word.
ICE is more sophisticated than the “track revisions” function in WordPress, which shows the previous version of a story but doesn’t highlight the exact changes. And while WordPress shows those revisions on another screen, with ICE they appear in the text editing window, right where you add links and boldface text.
Enabling a Web-first workflow
At the Times, ICE means that journalists will not have to choose between writing in CCI, the Times’ print CMS, and Scoop, its Web CMS. Regardless of whether they’re writing a blog post or an article, they’ll use the same text editor.
Frons described the current system of writing in CCI and converting stories for use on the Web as a “Rube Goldberg-esque workflow.” It’s literally a “print first” system, built when the Times didn’t anticipate how the Web would upend publishing.
“At first when we built the Web CMS, it was really just for managing content, not for creating or editing it,” Frons said.
“But as time went on and it became clear that we were doing more and more for the Web, we said, ‘Why don’t we reverse the paradigm?’ … Instead of writing in the old newspaper CMS and trying to put links in and add metadata and do all these things for the Web, let’s do all of that natively and then transfer all that content into the newspaper CMS.”
ICE will further a cultural change in the newsroom, Frons said: to “get people away from this idea that there’s this separation between the newspaper and the Web.”
And it’s more efficient. The process of converting stories from the print to the Web CMS has presented problems. For a while, links and changes made to the Web version of a story were overwritten when a new version came over from CCI. (The problem was called “stomping.”) Even now, Web producers must add the metadata that drives the Times Topics pages and other features.
The Times will roll the new editor out across its newsroom departments over the next year, Frons said.
Right now ICE will work with WordPress and TinyMCE. The Times also has released the code on Github so that other developers can integrate it into other publishing platforms and modify it if they see fit.
So while the Times’ version only allows a single user to work on a story at a time – which is what the newsroom wanted – another developer could change it so that it enabled collaborative, real-time editing, similar to what you can do with Google Documents.
“One of the reasons we open-sourced the project,” Frons said, “was for just this sort of thing.”