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Time is money and a newspaper’s team of specialist writers its differentiating asset, so it wasn’t hard to make a case at Fairfax Media’s Financial Review Group for a system which saved duplicated workflows by integrating newspaper, magazine and online publishing.

The division – which produced the national daily ‘Australian Financial Review’ and its websites, plus magazines including the weekly ‘BRW’ – has just gone live on a new EidosMedia system, cutting its teeth on the ‘lock-ups’ of the Henry tax report and the federal Budget.

“It’s been a really good experience,” says chief executive Michael Gill, who championed the changeover from a mix of “one dimensional” systems components including Atex editorial and layout for newspapers, Adobe’s InDesign for some magazines, web content management systems, and graphics tools such as Illustrator used to create charts and other infographics not necessarily in a form which could be used across more than one medium.

“The old arrangement created islands among users, with a lot of specialised units... each isolated and without the ability to interchange,” he says.

Now he claims FRG is the first Australian news operation to be fully integrated for multimedia, and one of a handful in the world with fully integrated newspaper, magazine and web operations. “And it is one of the first anywhere to integrate online ‘end to end’... from content creation to the web portal,” he says.

The March go-live started with introduction of EidosMedia’s Méthode portal server for the websites, and built back with the production system to take in first, the newspaper, then ‘Business Review Weekly’ and more recently other magazines in the group. Fairfax operations outside Australasia include the ‘IT’ and ‘MIS’ magazines in Singapore.

Throughout the process, immediate benefits have flowed from eliminating duplicated copy-flows, freeing specialist writers from the constraints of the old systems and making them available to a bigger variety of media.

Developed by a Milan-based company which included many former Unisys people, the new-generation system allows XML-based content to be published simultaneously through multiple channels using an object-orientated Versant database. A first adopter was the UK’s ‘Financial Times’, which placed an order in 2002 after an Atex project in which it was a partner was aborted. But even allowing for the design and implementation, it has taken a while for Méthode to gain momentum.

Finally, however, it seems that fame is spreading: ‘Le Figaro’ in Paris took the system for a non-integrated workflow, and early in 2007, HT Media – New Delhi publisher of the ‘Hindustan Times’ – started using Méthode for its new business daily and website, ‘Mint’.

In 2008, the ‘Seattle Times’ became the first US newspaper to pick up the system, followed by the ‘Wall Street Journal’ shortly after its acquisition by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. And with, perhaps, the Murdoch imprimateur, more attention followed. Other sites took a look and it seemed likely that News Limited in Australia would beat Fairfax to be first there.

Gill, who at one time worked for the ‘Financial Times’ in London, says he heard from a friend about the Méthode system in use there, and took the next available opportunity to check it out. “As a result, we sent a team of six to look at five sites in Europe and two more in the US,” he says.

As it happened, Jim Pensiero, who heads news operations at the ‘Wall Street Journal’, is also an acquaintance and Gill recalls that having already identified its potential, he had faced the problem of re-justifying the investment after the ‘WSJ’ changed hands.

What followed at the Fairfax division has been the reinvention of newsroom workflow at the ‘Financial Review’ and its stable of associated websites and magazines. “We set about thinking how we would really like the newsroom to work,” Gill says.

All content is simultaneously available for all publications, with sub-editors preparing content for print and web at the same time with no ‘hand-offs’ to other systems.

The move has also allowed the creation of new sections and services. Within the afr.com website, exclusive new online content has been added including ‘AFR MarketWrap5pm’, ‘Street Talk’ and a new ‘Dealbook’ segment covering major corporate transactions, regulations, law and commentary.  At ‘BRW’, staff are also able to publish directly to brw.com.au, and websites ‘MIS’, ‘CFO’, ‘Asset’ and ‘Smart Investor’ are being upgraded.

Gill says full integration of Financial Review TV is to follow, with upgraded content and regular programming.

The new publishing platform also provides a web-accessible archive not just of FRG content, but of that of all of Fairfax Media’s more than100 newspapers and magazines. More than five million articles published since 1987 have been migrated to Méthode, and are available online to ‘AFR’ and other Fairfax subscribers.

The FRG newsroom makes intensive use of a topic-driven transparent news planning feature in Méthode. Writers can create proposals for stories in the form of topics, with comments, media resources and contact data added progressively.

Section editors then select candidate topics, which become tasks and enter the main workflow and – when completed – are available for web publication and print pagination. With updated details constantly on display, the topic lists provide an overview of editorial ‘state-of-play’.

Australia’s May federal budget provided an opportunity not only to put the new system to the test – only weeks after commissioning and configuration work had been completed – but also to achieve the biggest gains from it.

And they were immediate: Configuration has replaced coding, with sub-editors able to do preparatory work for special web pages, which had previously required many days of complex work by digital specialists.

Creating a replica system for the traditional budget ‘lock-up’ – under which a team of journalists, cut-off from outside communication, are given advance access to budget papers – was also simpler and much more straightforward.

The complex remote printing requirements of the financial daily mean pages are generally needed for printing by 8.30 pm... “usually a big ask if they don’t let us out until 6 or 6.30 pm.” And in a competitive marketplace this year, Gill says “we may have been first” with full online coverage.

“It has made a dramatic difference for us,” says Gill.

Whether the gains from the Eidos system within the Financial Review Group will influence change across Fairfax Media’s other dailies remains to be seen, but it’s clear it is already delivering the sort of integration chief executive Brian McCarthy espouses.

Gill says in a very short time, the system is meeting all the requirements set for it ... “and quite a lot of our wish-list as well”.
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