Get your head in the clouds

Written by Andy McKee

If you have taught Journalism in the past 10 years, I know you have dealt with the problem of file redundancy; which document is the real final edit of the story that needs to be placed right now?

There’s the article on the memory stick that was modified most recently, but then there are three files on the server that are called “final” and “real final” and “editor’s final.” The editor believes that the most recent edit is on the writer’s desktop, but you don’t have administrator privileges to access that or the writer’s password, since she left early for a sports dismissal and is not answering her cell phone.

Regardless of how many times you have told your staff how to properly manage their document files, this duplication or similar confusion of files is bound to throw a wrench into even the most organized of staffs. Google Documents has a solution for this problem, and solutions for a myriad of others. I will detail the way my staff has utilized Google Docs, but I feel that we have only scratched the surface.

The Basics

Google Docs is an amazing set of web 2.0 tools that exist in “the Cloud.” These are programs similar to the Microsoft Office Suite of a document, spreadsheet and presentation software suite. Goggle Docs do not live installed on your computer but exist on a webpage. To reach the programs, you set up an account with Google at http://docs.google.com (if you use Gmail you already have one) and log into the site. From the Docs site you have access to several tabbed pages that are actually virtual programs, the most useful of which include: the three kinds of documents, G-mail, and an online calendar. Combined, these websites provide the journalism staff with free, integrated tools to improve your ability to organize, communicate, collaborate and manage your schedules, ladders and articles.

Organization

With Google Docs, all of your articles can live in one place – no duplicates, accessible to all for whom the document has been shared. The genius of the G-Docs is that, kind of like a chat window, people who share a document can all work on it at the same time, eliminating duplicate files.

For any deadline we have our section editors create the initial document for a story, beginning with ideas for angles, authorities, and possible leads. The section editor saves this document with a sortable name such as NP3-News-State-finals, which stands for third newspaper issue, news section on going to State. We give it a sortable name because all of your files exist in an online folder, which you can sort by name. If you want to see all of your NP3 files, just click on the name field to sort them out. You could also do a search to view only those files. It’s great. Sorting is one of the best management tools, which I’ll describe latter on.

Sharing

Next, the document is shared with the teacher, editor-in-chief, writer, photographer, layout artist and anyone else see who has accessassociated with the story. When a story is shared with someone, they can receive an email notifying them with a link to the file, or it will simply show up on their G-Docs webpage. There are two sharing settings for a document – share to edit or only to view. This is a big deal. We set the teacher, editor-in-chief and writer as editors of the document, and the rest as viewers. This way a photographer or layout artist can view the document to see what is going on with the story but can’t write on it. The teachers and editors can read the article in progress and type edits and provide feedback. We often color code our feedback so the writer can see either who is leaving a comment or where an edit was made.

Folders

You can keep everything organized in Google Docs by creating folders. Folders also can be shared. You can sort the files by their ownership, sharing, label or location. There is also a strong Find application on the site that can keep even the most cluttered of students and moderators organized.

Spreadsheets

The spreadsheet documents work a lot like Excel files. You can create tables, use formulas for calculations, and make ladder and deadline tabtabbed sheets in one document. We use these for our ladders and deadlines, photo assignments and identification data. The spreadsheet is perfect for our yearbook ladder. We can create the whole ladder in one shared location, then create tabs for each deadline assignment. The entire year’s work can be seen at a glance. We also use it to provide feedback. There are also “gadgets” (similar to apps) that can be placed in spreadsheets, including interactive charts, word clouds, word searches and more.

Calendar

Another excellent organizational tool is the Google Calendar. Every Google account member gets their own calendar, but you can also create new calendars and share those calendars with others. The calendar can be accessed as a web page from your Google Documents site, and you can also embed the calendar in another website. I shared the journalism calendar with all of my students so it shows up in their personal calendar page, but I also embedded the calendar into our website so that when they log onto it the calendar is the homepage. The calendars have the same edit and share privileges as the documents, so you can give editors editing privileges to set deadlines and call meetings.

Meetings and deadlines can be set to send reminder emails to the staff. Individuals can even set the calendar to text the reminders to their cell phones. The calendar helps to visualize events by providing an agenda view that lists all the events for any selected calendars. I find this helpful for all of my classes as it creates a mini-course outline and syllabus that can be shared an easily modified.

Presentations

Google Docs pretty much eliminates the use of the white board. Presentations are an application that works a lot like PowerPoint. I write all of my “start of class” information in a Google Presentation that I post on display screens, or project. What makes use of the presentations better than a white board is that this document can be shared and it can be saved. So not only do you have a record of the daily activities, but the staff does too. The teacher and possibly the editor-in-chief have edit privileges. The class sharing for the document is set to view. This means that if a student is sick, they can still view the important notes for the day. Each day gets its own slide, so you also have a daily record of the class events. I use this for all of my classes and it is an excellent resource for my students and me.

Collaboration and Communication

The core unique quality of Google Docs is its ability to allow for seamless collaboration. When documents, assignment ladders and calendars are all shared in a single location, it means that the staff can work as one.

I developed a workflow to enhance staff collaboration using Google Docs. Editors are in charge of developing and managing the ladder for the yearbook, and helping to establish initial leads and angles and possible authorities to get the reporters started. Once this is established, the editor-in-chief is in charge of publishing this to the ladder spreadsheet and sharing it with the staff. Each deadline sheet has the specific pages due for each deadline and staff assigned to the story. Each copy editor is in charge of creating the Google Document that the journalist will use to write the story. The copy editor creates the document with the proper name for easy sorting, and also includes the lead, angle and authority ideas at the head of the document. Then they share the document with the people on the story. The journalist, teachers and editors all have permissions to edit the document. The photographer and copy desk (layout) are given shared permissions, which allow them to read the article but not edit it. This keeps everyone on the same page. Editors and teachers can provide feedback, photojournalists can get ideas for coverage, and the copy desk can consider word count and headlines.

Another way Google Docs can assist with collaboration is the Chat feature. Google Docs shows you when others are working on the documents and allows you to chat together. A bit of text shows up at the top of your document that reads “Also viewing …@gmail.com.”

As mentioned earlier, the calendar allows you to create events that send emails and text messages to communicate deadlines with individuals or the whole staff.

Ubiquity

Consider that wherever there is an Internet connection, your staff can work on their stories or keep track of their assignments. At home with a cough? At the game with their iPhone? Conducting an interview? Students can take notes, work on their stories, check assignments, add events and more in one shared location.

Management

As I mentioned in the lead, the simultaneous editing of Google Documents makes managing files much easier. By revision history-detailusing a single shared document several things are accomplished: redundant files are reduced, students can work on files off campus, teachers and editors can keep track of the progress and add comments to the stories.

With so many people able to work on one document, I was initially worried that people could ruin each other’s work. I know that even with regular documents I have had hours of editing ruined by other people “fixing” stories that I have completed. With a regular document, once the page is edited, saved and closed, all previous changes are lost. There’s no way to undo changes once the document is closed. Amazingly, this is not so with Google Docs. Google Docs has a feature called “Revision History” that keeps track of all changes, who made them and when. So even if the entire story is accidentally deleted from the page, the previous copies are available in the Revision History. This is also useful to keep track of who is working on the story and when. I have had writers tell me that they have been working on stories, only to check the Revision History to see that no work had been done.

Along with simultaneous editing, one of the key components of Google Documents is the ability to set sharing permissions. In our workflow we have two deadlines: the staff deadline and the final deadline. The staff deadline is about a week before the final. Journalists have to have their work completed by this deadline for their grade. On this deadline, the copy editors change writer’s permissions to view only, and the copy desk’s permissions to edit, so they can place the stories on the page. The copy editors then print the story for the teacher. From this point on the editors are in charge of the story. The ability to manage the sharing of documents keeps staff on their toes for each deadline and makes editing and grading a file more manageable.

On Cloud 9

Google Docs does not solve every problem. Uploading large photos can be slow work, occasionally the server loses connection (more so in 2008-09, but we have not had any problems this year) and all the organization in the world does not mean the staff will meet its deadlines. However, good organization never hurts, and Google Docs makes organizing your files, ladder assignments and deadlines so much easier, that if you do not have your head in the clouds yet, I think you soon will have.

  • I sat in your presentation and never got to a link to it. the conference session url just goes to this blog post. Could you send me a link to your actual conference presentation that was not done in google docs. thanks. http://amkee.info/CUE2011/presention/index/html does not work and gives me a “page is not found message”

  • Great story over again. I am looking forward for more updates=)

Andy McKee