Doing something important: Building ‘Other Than Honorable’

Since I originally wrote this post the “Other Than Honorable” series has won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.

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Other than Honorable began as a project by the Gazette’s investigative reporter, Dave Philipps. He’d been on the story off and on for a few months by the time I joined the project. He knew he had something here and I was brought in when it became apparent that the story was going to make waves.

About that same time the New York Times ran their famous Snowfall story. The journalism world was buzzing about it and for some pretty good reasons. It’s a terrific example of the state of the online storytelling art. The Gazette wanted its own Snowfall and it had the perfect story for the job. Being the the only developer in the newsroom it was up to me to deliver.

All I had to go on was that we would have a ton of text to work with and some photos. The story had a lot of supporting data and research so graphs were a necessity. Video was also a possibility, but hadn’t materialized yet.  But none of this was ready. Much of it hadn’t even been conceived of.

I started on the basic groundwork before the first draft of the story was anywhere near done. The most basic decision was whether or not to include the project in the Gazette’s CMS. We were also preparing a migration to a new system so including it natively in the CMS (my preference) was off the table.

With the main CMS ruled out I looked at two alternatives: building it as a flat file and installing a new CMS on a different server. Knowing the quality of the story I was working on I decided to bet on it getting a lot of traffic. That made building the entire site as static, flat files a very attractive option and the one I went with. It meant that only I’d be able to do any edits to the project, but since I had a mandate to do the best possible job the difficulty in editing limited the chain of blame.

We’d already decided to use Twitter Bootstrap on our CMS migration project and since I’d had extensive experience with it on several projects for the Tulsa World it was the obvious choice. I also sprinkled in a few jQuery plugins for lazy loading images and drawing interactive charts.

Just as the first draft of the first story was coming together I had a working mockup ready to go. We couldn’t have planned it any better. The text for the draft slotted right into my template and the photos were just fantastic. The subsequent month of waiting for and replacing drafts of text, photos and videos was painful. In the last few days Dave and Michael, the photographer, and I were spending hour after agonizing hour huddled over my little Mac staring at code that they’d learned to read out of necessity.

We launched the project at midnight on a Sunday morning. The promotion strategies fired up first thing and traffic was slow. Really slow. By the time I slithered into the office on Monday morning I prepared for the worst. But that morning the traffic tide rolled in. By noon it was the most read story of the month. On Tuesday morning half of the traffic to the site was reading the project. The traffic held on for a solid week before it started to slow down but it didn’t matter then.

We’d told the story we wanted to tell, the way we wanted to tell it and we’d made a difference. It’d take an act of Congress to help these soldiers and that’s what they got.

Lessons Learned:

Get involved early. There really isn’t a way to be involved too early. A developer being involved in a story early on changes the possibilities dramatically. If I’d have come into the project with a week left we never would have been able to do what we did.

By the time we launched I’d sworn off ever doing this big of a project by hand in static files. It’s just too much for one person to handle and remain sane. Shortly after the site launched I started a project to convert the whole thing to a WordPress template. That template was later used by Dave for another great series after I’d left the Gazette, thus proving my point.

Know your traffic patterns. Sunday is a rotten day to launch if it is also your slowest traffic day.