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A Year with Superdesk: Australian Associated Press

The proverbial curtain comes down on a successful rollout of Superdesk at AAP HQ, late 2016.
The proverbial curtain comes down on a successful rollout of Superdesk at AAP HQ, late 2016.

We made the announcement that Australian Associated Press (AAP) went live with Superdesk in October 2016. Now, one year later, we decided to check in with Chief Technology Officer Brook Thomas to find out more about AAP's experience with our digital newsroom software.

Sourcefabric: Apart from putting the technical foundations in place, what were the other elements of preparation that were key to making the transition smooth? Are there any areas or activities where you would have invested more time and resources?

Brook Thomas: Training is arguably the most key component of a rollout. If users are not somewhat familiar with new technology on day one then nothing is smooth. Our training program ensured a minimum of education was provided to all journalists before their respective desks went live. Several staff were appointed Superdesk super-users and they were generally leaned on heavily during the early days.

We planned to squeeze the rollout – which had training woven into the timeline – into 16 weeks, which became 18 in the end. That seems a fair amount of time, but when you consider that we have several offices in Australia plus two in New Zealand and one in London, travel logistics mean whole days can be lost due to flights and transit. And we often had journalists being pulled into major stories on their scheduled day of training, too, which had a way of setting us back. That’s something you just can’t avoid. Another hindrance we encountered during the 16 weeks was the need to push out one or two major releases to address a few serious bugs and shortcomings which were not detected in testing. So with the benefit of hindsight, we could have invested more resources just prior to rollout to put the system under greater real-world load and testing.

Simon Hoff (left) and Dave Williams in the AAP's Wellington bureau during Superdesk training.

Sourcefabric: When you look back, what are the biggest changes from the way you worked before versus the way the newsroom operates now with Superdesk?

Brook Thomas: If you speak directly with journalists about their experience and their feelings about Superdesk, you get a variety of opinions, and that probably reflects the variety of roles and experience across the newsroom. Some journalists absolutely love Superdesk and, remarkably, others would probably prefer to have the old system reinstated. That’s pretty typical though for most major technology changes.

In terms of the technology and features, to use one example, Elasticsearch has been huge. The old platform, CyberNews, was terrible when it came to searching our archive. Retrieving results is now awesomely fast and rich. We’re getting visibility across all stories, whether they are in progress, just published, newly ingested or sitting in our archive which goes back about 30 years. This ease of access has been a major efficiency win.

Another major change we’ve seen is our journalists adapt to web and digital concepts that were previously not a consideration with the CyberNews platform, which was a Windows client application. With Superdesk being served through the web browser, Superdesk users have been forced to understand the quirks of an HTML editor. For example, when copying text from other sources and pasting it into the Superdesk editor, in the early days there were a lot of teething issues with irregular characters and formatting being introduced to their working copy. It took some time for us to get on top of this at a technical level, and at the same time it was a bit of a learning curve for users who had to understand that they were now operating on a very different platform that challenged them to shift their thinking into a more digital mode.

Although Superdesk is a year in production now, there is still much, much work to be done. It’s only in its infancy and some of the most important advances are still to come.

Sourcefabric: Is there any feedback from your editorial staff or developers that stands out in your mind?

Brook Thomas: The feedback that most sticks out for me is that offered up by our deputy Editor Jo Williamson. She is an absolute champion of Superdesk and given her reputation and credibility at AAP, her opinion goes a very long way. As an example, her personal show of gratitude for how Superdesk performed in our annual Federal budget “lock-up” says so much. This is a nerve-racking special event for AAP and it all happens inside a seven-hour time frame with zero room for technical issues. Even though we tested Superdesk in the lab for weeks and weeks, you can’t account for unknowns on the day. But Superdesk came through with flying colours.

As for the developers, they work best when they have true purpose and Superdesk offers that day in day out. Internally we have annual awards for staff and over three consecutive years now we have seen three of our Superdesk developers claim prizes for their innovation and contribution. I think in all of their acceptance speeches they were thankful of the opportunity to work on Superdesk, which is not a token sentiment – the project has seriously challenged them and brought out the best in them and I think they recognise that.

AAP's staff in the Canberra bureau ready for action on the eve of the annual federal budget lock-up in the nation's capital.

Sourcefabric: Turning now to the past 12 months as a year in the news business, can you say something about being able to respond to conditions on the ground in a more nimble way? 

Brook Thomas: What I am seeing across AAP is business areas outside the newsroom are seeking access to Superdesk. They want to get on the platform too, not to contribute content, but to get a sense of the daily news agenda. For example, Pagemasters and Medianet are related AAP Group businesses and their customers in various ways might be subscribers to the AAP wire. So we can give Pagemasters and Medianet staff access to the Superdesk platform to access information that supports the services they are providing. In Pagemasters’ case, they provide a lot of subediting services to customers which involves selecting stories from the wire and subbing them for print or digital delivery. Rather than play a guessing game as to when a particular story might be published, Pagemasters’ staff can view work-in-progress across the various desks and see what’s planned and roughly when it will be ready. This helps manage their workload, especially at the pointy end of the day. On the Medianet side, they are going to be experiencing all the benefits of the new planning feature in Superdesk. A lot of Medianet’s customers are in the PR and communications space and are keen to know what’s newsworthy and what events are coming up on the calendar. Direct access to this highly structured and detailed information will result in interesting opportunities to improve products and services.

Sourcefabric: Post-rollout, what is the day-to-day interaction like between AAP and Sourcefabric? How has the relationship evolved?

Brook Thomas: We’re still working together. We’ve been busily working on the new planning feature for something like eight months now. It’s much bigger than we initially thought. So we’re into a groove with our interactions. We know what they are good at, they know what we are good at. Our developers contribute significantly to the Superdesk project and that’s not lost on Sourcefabric. We’re like cousins.

One key area where the relationship has evolved is in development outside Superdesk. We recently commissioned Sourcefabric to build a new customer web application which leverages Superdesk APIs. This is a major play for AAP, too. We have something like five disparate customer web products for AAP Newswire and our intention is to consolidate those into at least two products over the coming two years. The advantage of Sourcefabric collaborating on this with us is that they have built up a solid understanding of our business needs these past few years and we want to capitalise on that. Plus, they have a real yen for visual design of news content.

Sourcefabric: And finally, looking ahead to the next 12 months: do you have any specific goals for the next stage of Superdesk at AAP that you'd like to share?

Brook Thomas: The next 12 months are all about releasing the planning feature and maturing it. We’re yet to see how the newsroom will cope with the pretty significant shift in process that this entails. But once it’s up and running, we’re going to hopefully see a beautiful dynamic between our planning and our output. The planning content – which is essentially event and coverage data – will also be presented to customers in the above-described new web application, so it’s critical to get it right on two fronts.

Another important area is multimedia. A few months ago we introduced images to Superdesk, allowing journalists to link story and image content and this was a major milestone for us. We want to grow this to include video at some point and realise the potential to create rich packages of content.

Elsewhere, we still have a few legacy systems we want to eliminate. The idea was to banish these as soon as Superdesk came along. But they have a way of sticking around!

We’d like to see analytics addressed in the next year, too. It’s important we get data from Superdesk on a variety of production metrics, to understand the performance of the newsroom at individual, desk, bureau and operational levels. We have the data of course, we just need to report what matters to us. This, we anticipate, will be a discrete module in Superdesk. 

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