Project Argo is an ambitious undertaking. It involves networking NPR with 12 member stations spanning three time zones with a different mix of bloggers and editors at each station. The stations cover a variety of regionally focused, nationally resonant topics that range from climate change to local music.
Communicating effectively within these parameters has required creativity and experimentation. And we’re still learning.
I’ll break down our various approaches — what we’ve tried, what’s working, and what we’re still working on — using the three tiers of communication: One-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many.
These exchanges with the stations have offered some of the most intensive and valuable interactions of the project. When we started, much of our communication happened through the typical channels — lengthy, one-on-one phone calls and emails to brainstorm, strategize, give feedback, and train.
Email has a tendency to be high friction. Messages can take a long time to compose and a long time to digest, and much is often lost on both ends of the process.
But of course email still has its advantages. It’s asynchronous — in other words, you can carry on a thread without needing to be on the same schedule. It’s great for laying information out in precise detail, whether you’re talking about metrics or line-editing posts. And it’s invaluable for documenting your communication and finding it later.
For working remotely, there’s nothing like a phone call or Skype session to have a good back-and-forth conversation. There are drawbacks here too, of course: Calls longer than 10 minutes need to be scheduled, and lots of good information can escape without being documented.
Lately, I’ve taken to augmenting phone conversations with a PiratePad to help with that last problem. Like Google Docs, PiratePad allows two or more people to see what one another are writing in real-time. The difference is that PiratePad shows your document-mate’s typing character by character, rather than refreshing at regular intervals, so it’s a little more immediate. This combo has been excellent.
As the project has evolved, most of our one-on-one contact has become pretty quick and spontaneous. Twitter has proven to be one of the best tools for communicating one-on-one. Since all the bloggers are on Twitter, a quick DM conversation often suffices to get across what we need to convey or inquire about.
Heather Goldstone, who blogs for WGBH at Climatide, said Twitter was her favorite tool for staying in touch. “Just in general, I’ve gotten really hooked on Twitter,” she said. “It’s more like texting instead of email. If the other person’s around, it’s got a faster turnaround time and more of a conversational feel than email.”
Despite the surfeit of tools to choose from, however, the most valuable one-on-one interactions we can have are in person. For as much as we can do by email, over the phone, through Twitter and other means, nothing replaces being able to sit down face-to-face with our station colleagues, or being able to peer over their shoulders as they’re working on their Argo sites. Of course, this is the most time- and resource-intensive way to communicate. But there’s still nothing like it.
We occasionally need to broadcast messages to all the stations involved in the project. For that, we mainly use Basecamp, which gives us a good common archive of files and messages, and integrates pretty well with everyone’s email. The biggest problem with Basecamp is that all replies to a message are sent to everyone who received the original message. This can create quite a cascade of emails when a lot of folks weigh in on a thread.
We regularly lead webinars for the Argo bloggers, and we’ve tried a variety of approaches to doing this. We started out setting these up through a common, organization-wide GoToMeeting account, but this required quite a bit of advance set-up and coordination, and one of the participants invariably had technical troubles. Plus, we’ve had difficulty recording the webinars. (GoToMeeting’s recording technology only works on PCs; my teammates and I use Macs. Plus, the GoToMeeting software tends to conflict with screencasting tools we might use to record the desktop and audio.)
We’ve since moved to a lower-fidelity approach, using free tools. Join.Me to share desktops, and FreeConference.com for voice communication.
The voice controls in FreeConference.com’s system are reasonably robust. Call organizers can mute everyone but the presenter, allowing call attendees to un-mute themselves selectively. For a small fee, FreeConference.com allows us to record the audio when we need to. Pair that audio up with video of the related slides, and you’ve got a webinar recording.
When our goal is capturing best practices all the stations can replicate, or documenting instructions on using various aspects of the Argo platform, we turn to our two public-facing communication channels: the Argo blog and the Argo documentation site.
Like everything else, these communication platforms pose their own disadvantages. It can be time-consuming to write up or record material for these sites. Also, the more material that’s there, the harder it can be for the stations to find what they need when they have questions.
We created an FAQ on the documentation site to help the stations find answers to the most common questions. And the time invested in producing the documentation and material up-front often saves us time down the road when we can send a link to a post we’ve made in response to a question from one of the Argo-bloggers.
We’ve consistently found that some of the most valuable communication around the project happens when folks at each station can talk with one another. Yet because of the geographical and topical dispersion of the stations, these can be the hardest interactions to foster. So we continue to seek ways to encourage this, using all of the tools mentioned in this piece.
Webinars offer a regular opportunity for folks at the stations to share lessons about a focused aspect of developing a niche site. Increasingly, we’ve sought to foster more open-ended conversations among the stations as well — including regular story calls where a subset of the bloggers share what they’re working on, spontaneous brainstorming calls, and check-in conference calls where we discuss how the project is going.
Right now, requests for technical help from bloggers at the stations tend to fall into one of three categories: bug reports (this should work, but doesn’t), feature requests (I’d like to be able to do this on the site), and requests for advice (how can I accomplish this in a post?). It’s impossible for the bloggers, who don’t know the details of how the software works, to determine which is which.
So it would be helpful for us to route all these reports to a common channel, accessible by all, where users can chime in if they’re having similar problems or have advice to share on how to accomplish something. To that end, we’re working on creating a Stack-Overflow-esque board that would allow the bloggers to discuss issues and solicit advice as a group without the reply-all problems Basecamp poses.
On a few occasions, we’ve been able to bring the stations together for some of that invaluable person-to-person contact. As Tom Paulson, who blogs for KPLU at Humanosphere, pointed out, in-person communication builds on all the other methods of sharing ideas.
For a project as variegated as Argo, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to keeping in touch. The project has unfolded in phases — hiring reporters, training reporters, building audience, and sustaining growth — at various rates for each station, and each of those phases has required a different approach to communication.
What’s served us best are flexibility and adaptation. Setting up a phone call over Twitter while we trade notes in a PiratePad. Using Basecamp to agree on a time for a webinar that mashes up FreeConference.com with Join.Me.
Although I’ve mentioned specific tools in this post, I don’t think the hodgepodge of software and services we use is the most important takeaway. Instead, my strongest recommendation is this: Be attentive to your communication needs and how well your approaches are serving them, then adjust continuously.
Matt Thompson is an editorial product manager at Project Argo.