Finding Digital Publishing Solutions for Research Organizations

A trouble shared is a trouble halved. And those of us in think tanks and research organizations have a lot of sharing to do, especially on the challenge of digital communication. That became clear to me, if it wasn’t already, during the Digital Publishing Fair and Roundtable hosted last week at the Center for Global Development.

The event brought together about 30 communications professionals from a dozen of DC’s think tanks and government research organizations including (among many others) David Nassar of the Brookings Institution, Harold Neal and George Estrada of the Center for American Progress, Jeff Stanger of the Center for Digital Information, Mary Maher and Molly Garber of the USDA Economic Research Service, Ed Paisley of the Pew Charitable Trusts, and David Connell of the Urban Institute. Kurt Volcker of ForumOne designed the roundtable to build off of Jeff Stanger’s Beyond the PDF event from February 2012.

DSC_0322_rWith backgrounds in publishing, web development, IT, and communications, we were all thinking about strategies for staying at the forefront of the shift from delivering content digitally  to creating digital content. Five years ago perhaps we could PDF a report and call it a day. Today, it’s not enough: short attention spans, mobile devices, fiercer competition, and raised expectations mean we have to think digitally from the beginning to create reports people want to read, videos they want to watch, content they want to share.

There are some great examples  of digital communication and storytelling out there—“Snow Fall” from the New York Times and Bill Gates’s 2013 annual letter come to mind. These and others—see the Center for Digital Information’s showcase for more—do a great job of communicating in a way that only the web can, with an interactive mixed of text, graphics, video, and audio.  They’re great examples of what organizations can do for big projects  . . . when they have the time, money, and staff to make it happen.

DSC_0339_rBut what about the white papers and briefs and reports that make up the workflow of a think tank, research organization, or government agency? Not every brief or newsletter can be, or should be, like “Snow Fall.” But they should be shareable and share-worthy, accessible across platforms, and have room for web-native media. Many of us are taking steps in the right direction. During the show-and-tell fair portion of the meeting, Molly Garber of the Economic Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture was rightly proud to show off their new iPad app for their magazine, Amber Waves. The transition opens them up to multimedia content and begins to leave behind the legacy design-for-print-but-post-to-the-web process that many of us are stuck in.

DSC_0343_rI spoke a bit about my process of creating full text HTML versions of CGD briefs and other publications (examples here and here). So far they’re mostly web-optimized versions of print products (and so fall into the delivering-content-digitally category), but they could and should include video, audio, and motion graphics—content we often make anyway, but for separate content types.

The process of producing is relatively simple but certainly idiosyncratic. In Word, I apply the paragraph styles that will become HTML classes or IDs. I save that file as filtered HTML (which, from Word, is hardly filtered at all), open that file in a text editor (Notepad ++) and run a macro of RegEx search-and-replace strings to clean up the code and move things around. I then put that code into the template. Some tweaking is usually needed, and the metadata and anything additional (making microcontent like graphs or pull quotes shareable) has to be done by hand. It’s far from perfect, but it works without adding too much time to the production process.

Screenshot_3These and other efforts are steps in the right direction. Have we solved the problem? No, not even close. The roundtable participants had, like me, more questions than answers. But it was useful and heartening to find that so many others are facing the same difficulties. Kurt Volcker kicked off the roundtable by asking what keeps us up at night. Many of us are nagged by the same issues:

  • Scaling up: can our ad-hoc process of creating digital-first content handle our entire workflow, with available staff?
  • Future-proofing: will what we’re working on now still function when the next big device or format hits the market?
  • Changing mentality: how do we get our researchers, with incentives and traditions of their own, to think about the digital product from the outset, not as an afterthought to the “real work” of getting the text done?

Truthfully, we didn’t get much further than the airing of grievances, leaving some frustrated by the lack of answers. It’s a good frustration, though; at least we’re not alone. I hope and expect future meetings to focus on subsets of the problems and begin to not only halve our troubles but double our solutions.

I am the Director for Digital Communications at the Center for Global Development, a DC-based think tank turning ideas to action with world-class research, policy analysis, and innovative communications.

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6 comments on “Finding Digital Publishing Solutions for Research Organizations
  1. g2-d0d595cab0fb646af9f8911961276006 says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful recap. One of the big takeaways from the day for me was that there are really two big ways for research organizations to be thinking today about how they should be distributing their ideas tomorrow:

    First, we should be thinking hard about the preparing our orgs for a much needed longer-term “Big Shift” (capital B). And second, taking incremental steps towards that big shift until it really takes hold. What does that mean?

    The Big Shift, to me, means changing how research projects are conceived, pitched, funded, and produced – so that “digitally native” products (apps, data exploration tools, etc) are the primary output of the project, and the written report is secondary (if at all). This is already happening today in some cases. But it’s a tip of the iceberg thing – research organizations may do this for some of their highest profile projects or programs – but it’s simply not affordable for their most routine written output.

    The second, requires taking the baby steps to move your routine “written” output into the new age of multi-device consumption. The CGD Research Brief Reader you shared is a perfect example of this.

    The cool thing is that both of these create great results. Having a group of folks willing to share as they learn on both fronts is really exciting for me – and I’m looking forward to the next roundtable

  2. David Hobbs says:

    Good job Kurt on arranging the useful discussion, and it sounds like everyone got a lot out of the event.

    I wanted to share some quick thoughts on scaling up and changing mentality. For changing mentality, fundamentally research organizations should be thinking about deepening engagement. I don’t just mean spending more time exploring a particular research topic but also whether audiences are publicly participating in the discussion. The reason I raise this is that in discussing publishing research beyond the PDF, there is a temptation to chaise shiny new buzzwords while missing the underlying goals of the website. So for instance if a goal is to broaden public discussion (not especially easy with a straight PDF), then the tactics should support that goal. So part of changing mentality should be about thinking deeply about what the website is all about, and I would say deepening engagement is key.

    Scaling up is probably the most problematic, because it is so extremely easy to create one-offs that everyone gets excited about but then disappointed when everyone can’t have it. This is a broader problem than just PDFs, and gets to workflow and standardization. Standardization isn’t the dirty word that everyone thinks it is, because it actually allows all boats to rise rather than just energetic or capable groups within an organization to push the envelope. I agree that baby steps are key, and should fit within a broader process of continuously improving any website.

  3. Thoughtful post. Especially the identification of the common issues. Would you be happy for me to reblog on

  4. Reblogged this on Monographer and commented:
    Monographer writes: At the moment we have two volume editors — Irenee Daly and Aoife Brophy Haney — working hard on compiling the text of our late-2013 publication, ’53 interesting ways to communicate your research’. Although the series it will be published in, Professional and Higher Education, sells mostly to academic markets, we’ve been open from the start to ideas from all sectors — not least because of our view that think tanks, NGOs, charities, etc. often have thoughtful, imaginative, approaches to research communication. The Work Comms site, and this post by John Osterman in particular, bears that out. We’re reblogging it here, not least because of Osterman’s provision, through hypertext, of examples and because of his identification of outstanding issues.

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