Rachel Schallom on building the Sun Sentinel’s first longform piece

On August 18, the Sun Sentinel published a huge investigation revealing Florida’s failure to keep the most dangerous sex offenders locked up. The reporting was extraordinary, the database work was extensive and the multimedia was compelling and beautiful. We knew it deserved a special treatment, and I created the Sun Sentinel’s first fully responsive, multimedia-packed site.

We are thrilled with how the final product turned out, but it did not come without challenges. Here are the biggest difficulties I faced and what I learned:

SunSentinel-PredatorsDeveloping a concept for presenting the huge amount of multimedia in a way that is both organized as well as partnered with the narrative, rather than supplementary to it

I thought it would be a challenge to convince the editorial team to present the project with this approach since it’s the first time the Sun Sentinel has done anything like it. Surprisingly, everyone was on board right away. To understand this story and all of its pieces, we knew the reader would need a good amount of context. By placing them right next to the text that describes the same person or topic, the reader is able to feel the story through multiple dimensions: text, audio, video, photo. Sure, the reader can click around and take it in on their own time, but at least it is set up in a way that navigates them through the narrative.

Working outside the content-management system, which is too limited to meet our ambitions

Building a page outside of our normal content management system meant I had to add in everything that is usually already on the page. It seemed that every day there was something else I had not thought of yet: metric tags, social media links, a footer with copyright information. Working with  our technology department, we were able to get it all figured out. The one challenge we did not overcome was figuring out how to put it behind our recently-implement paywall. Learning how to accomplish that will definitely be a priority moving forward.

Figuring out the tools to use to build a standalone, responsive site from scratch, with no on-staff technical mentoring

I tried a lot of things for the first time: LESS, media queries, Typekit, Boostrap, z-index specification, browser-specific coding. Even still, the hardest coding challenge was figuring out a week before deadline that the database was created using the Yii framework, and it was a hell of a lot harder to style than anticipated. I worked with an incredibly skilled backend programmer who created the searchable database, and we thought I would swoop in at the end and style a bunch of divs and classes. It turns out that the Yii grid format is pretty set, and there are not any YouTube tutorials in English. Talk about a freak out.

Our newsroom’s small staff means that there aren’t many other journalists with programming skills, but I was lucky enough that we had Rebekah Monson serve as a consultant on the project. I also reached out to a few friends in other newsrooms. Bouncing ideas off of talented coders was extremely helpful. And, of course, it wouldn’t have happened without my wonderful design director David Schutz.

Managing a digital-first project with a team of journalists that works in a historically print-oriented system and with limited understanding of the technical challenges of such an endeavor

The hardest part ended up being getting content to develop. The deadlines we set were very aggressive, and it was hard for the editors to keep their hands off the content. Managing this project required not only pushing my programming skills, but also pushing my communication and organization skills. Project management for a digital project is different than a print project, and I had to consistently remind editors that we think about, plan and develop digital projects differently. This project taught me to think about explaining technology, tasks and problems to those with limited technical knowledge.

The most important thing I learned was that major development projects can be built outside of huge newsrooms. Here’s my advice for getting it done:

  1. There are many resources available online (make sure you buy a license if needed, though!) so you don’t have to build everything from scratch yourself. I used several scripts to accomplish different effects.
  2. Make two lists: one for what absolutely has to get done by deadline and one for features that would be awesome to add. This helps prioritize tasks and give reasonable time estimates.
  3. Take time to learn: read tutorials, watch webinars, read blog posts. While StackOverflow became my best friend during this project to solve problems, I became a better and faster coder by reading up on concepts I’d be using over and over again.
  4. Get buy in from your immediate boss. My design director was able to stand up for my work and our timeframe in meetings because he knew exactly what I was working on and struggling with.
  5. Be patient with yourself and your team. You are learning new things, and they are outside of their comfort zone. Be positive — any innovation is a great move for your newsroom. Believe you’ll get it done, and keep pushing the boundaries of digital journalism.

(Rachel Schallom is a designer at the Sun Sentinel. See more of her work here.)