Q&A: Robin Kwong, Head of Digital Delivery at The Financial Times

In his role as Special Projects editor, Robin was behind the FT’s interactive Uber game, its fifth most-read story of 2017. He has since moved on to head the FT’s new Digital Delivery team. The Idea caught up with him to find out more about this brand new team and what he hopes to achieve.

Want Q&As with media innovators like Robin delivered to your inbox? Subscribe to The Idea newsletter, out Monday afternoons!

Can you give us an overview of your role as Head of Digital Delivery?
The core of the role is to start and run a new team — we’re called the Digital Delivery team until we come up with a better name. It’s me, my deputy, and four creative producers who we’re just about finishing recruiting for. This new team of creative producers will be embedded into the four main news desks of the FT at a deputy desk head level, but they will report to me instead of the desk head. The idea behind this team is to change how we commission stories.

The long background to all of this is that for the last ten years or so, the FT has been making the gradual changes and adjustments necessary to transition from a newsroom that produces a print product to a newsroom that produces an online product and a print product. All the changes that we had put into place in the past year or so are all focused around the production end of things — by which I mean they’re all focused on changing what happens after a reporter files his or her story. The thing that we never properly tackled is what happens before a reporter files his or her story.

Interesting. Can you elaborate on this?
Too often, when a reporter and an editor have a conversation about a story they still default to this question of “how many words should I file.” And so the way a lot of editors and reporters see stories is still this chunk of prose. And the first thing is getting the story right — this chunk of prose right — and then it’s thinking about what should we be doing digitally. That’s the origin of a lot of the complaints from the digital teams — whether it’s audience engagement or graphics or video — where it’s basically “if only you told us about this earlier, we could have done something great with it. But by this stage, it’s too late.” … And so to try to solve that first of all is fundamentally a culture change challenge. We decided that the best way to do that is to bring in change agents — to have people come into the desk and to model that behavior and to have right from the outset as part of their job description a responsibility for thinking more broadly and more creatively about storytelling and about format and to put them into the heart of news desks with backing and in a position of credibility and seniority. That’s what we’re trying to do with this new team. The idea is partly that if we get this right, in five years time — in the medium term — every editor will be a creative producer because we’ve brought in help with the way they think about stories not just textually but also visually.

When the creative producers come in, will the writer go to the creative producer before going to an editor?
Not really, mainly because the core function of an editor will still be as the first point of contact for a reporter and the first conversation will still have to be around ‘is there a story there in the first place.’ We don’t want to change that because that’s at the core of what makes something an FT story and what makes something not an FT story. What we do want to change is that once we’ve identified what makes this specific story interesting, we ask the question ‘what’s the best way of telling this story.’ So primarily creative producers are going to be working with editors.

How is the newsroom reacting to these new bridge roles?
I don’t know yet because the creative producers haven’t started, but what I can say is that as we were setting this up towards the end of last year, I individually sat down with every editor on those desks and spoke to them about it, and one of the very striking things I got out of it — take this with a grain of salt because obviously they were going to be polite and nice — I was getting asked a lot of ‘how’ questions instead of ‘why’ questions. So instead of people going ‘why do we need creative producers,’ ‘why isn’t a news article good enough,’ ‘why do we need to do all this’ — instead of that, I got a lot of ‘how is this going to work,’ ‘are reporters going to start talking to creative producers instead of editors,’ ‘how do I use the creative producers,’ ‘when should I go talk to them about a story,’ ‘what will they actually do?’

What that says to me is that the challenge is not so much overcoming opposition to this idea that we need to be more creative or more visual in our storytelling, but the challenge is much more around execution: making sure that when the creative producers come in that they actually show everyone around them results.

The editors you spoke to may not have been asking this, but what do you think is the value of embedding more creativity and more visual elements into a story?
There is a short-term benefit and a long-term benefit. The short-term benefit is that we’ve seen that when we do the more creative storytelling pieces — which tend to be big projects at the moment — those are more engaging. It hits all the right metrics — [readers] stay on the page for longer, they come back more often. A large part of the last year and a half, two years has been actually this sort of proof of concept that yes our readers prize our conciseness and density of information and being able to get through things in a familiar format really quickly, but that they also prize when we take the time and effort to design a nice experience for them. And so the short-term benefit is that if we can systematize this and do this more broadly and on a regular basis across our news desks instead of confining it to special projects and big projects, then this should hopefully get us more subscribers, get us more engaged subscribers, get people thinking the FT is at the forefront of digital storytelling.

The longer-term benefit is to build into the structure and organization of the newsroom an ability to adapt and to adjust to format changes, for example, or changes to how we present our journalism. Today the imperative is to figure out how we tell stories on mobile and how we tell stories visually, but what if five years from now the imperative becomes how do we do things in voice, for example. Without this sort of bridge between one-off, low-volume special projects and the day-to-day work that we do — we publish 180 stories every day … you need to figure out a way to start shifting that needle, and so hopefully those fit in so that when we do need to adapt and when we do need to change, there is a structure and process in place for how you do it and there are people in place that helps us along. We want to avoid the situation of — we didn’t do the ‘pivot to video,’ but like the ‘pivot to video’ thing — ‘ignore, ignore, ignore, lurch forward.’ Hopefully this allows us to proceed in a more orderly matter and in a way that doesn’t introduce so much chaos and disruption.

One good example of creative digital storytelling is the FT’s Uber game that you actually helped create in your previous role as Special Projects editor. Can you tell us more about your involvement on the game?
The game was originally my idea. I was editor and project manager. I worked with Leslie Hook, who was our SF correspondent who covered Uber. She did all of the reporting. What I did was essentially work very closely with Leslie to distill all of that reporting and I did the narrative scripting. And then I figured out how do I actually get this made — how do I get a UX designer and a developer and illustrators to get this made.

The Uber game published in October of last year, as I was transitioning into this new role. We had been working on it on and off for about a year.

The FT’s Uber game

Is there still a Special Projects team? What types of stories make a good special project?
There is no official replacement for me as Special Projects editor, but in that role, I was working really closely with our Interactive News team — this is the team that has data journalists, graphic designers, and programmers. The regular stuff they do is election results, etc. but then they’ll also do special projects, which are very innovative and often experimental in nature. So there are still people doing that, there just isn’t specifically that job title. And there isn’t specifically that job title because the change that I wanted to create when I proposed creating this [digital delivery] role was to bring project management skills into the newsroom.

To answer your second question —[one of] the most interesting things I’ve seen recently is chat-based storytelling. The Quartz news app was the first one. Moving from the chat interface as a way of surfacing stories to [readers] to actually telling a story through a chat interface is something that I find interesting. Two examples of this: The BBC News lab published this set of stories called Crossing Divides. It’s about having difficult conversations around controversial topics. For each of those topics you choose to be a person on either side of that debate and you have this chat app conversation with the other person on the other side. The other thing that I was going to mention is a new open-source tool, InterviewJS, to make it easy for newsrooms to create these kinds of interactive chat stories. Al Jazeera produced this with [Google Digital News Initiative] money.

These two things combined lead me to think that [chat-based storytelling] is getting to be an interesting space. We don’t have anything currently in the works that uses that format, but that would be an example of something where we’d probably want to do it as a special project initially to see if can we find a story that is really suited to this format and can we actually just try to do it once.

In terms of an experiment like that, how do you measure success?
It varies from project to project depending on what the goals of a particular project is, but I can talk about the Uber game. There were three main goals of it — one of which didn’t involve measurement. It was could you do something that is both journalism — so it’s fact-based and meets all the standards of journalism — and yet is also a game, [involving] user choice? There are some inherent contradictions here because a format very similar to the Uber game — there are several examples of news games around migrant stories from the European migrant crisis, charting the story of someone going from Syria to Europe. It’s tricky because factually the person that you interviewed has made one set of decisions and has taken one specific route to get to where they are now. But once you put it in the hands of players, they can choose many different things, so how do you square that circle?

The two other goals that did involve measurement are is there a way to attract newer, younger, more diverse audiences to FT journalism if you use different formats? The vast majority of people who played the game were non-subscribers. And what is more interesting [was seeing] how the game got distributed and spread relative to how a normal FT story gets spread and shared.

The other goal was around could we design a compelling experience that kept people engaged for longer than most news articles? The average time on page for our articles is probably a minute to two minutes. The Uber game took about 10 to 15 minutes to complete and you have to click 56 times on average or more in order to finish it. And that slides against all the conventional wisdom about doing journalism on the net, which is everytime you make someone click something you lose about half of your audience and no one is going to stick around for 10 minutes. But what we found is that two-thirds of the people who started the game actually finished it. That very, very high completion rate was a good way of proving that this is a compelling format, that this does things that match up with what the FT is overall looking for (we’re overall trying to achieve how to keep people engaged and how to deliver something that they would feel strongly about and remember).

The broad approach is be super clear about what you’re actually trying to achieve. And decide if it’s a yes-no question or if it’s actually something you can measure, and then figure out what the closest proxies are and measure that.

The Uber game was in front of the FT’s hard paywall. How do you decide whether to put something behind or in front, particularly for something that’s more interactive?
As a general rule everything should be behind the paywall unless there’s a good reason to be outside of it. In this case we felt that there was a good reason to be outside of it because of the format choice and the way that we were quite deliberate in making the visuals’ design its own thing — it doesn’t particularly look FT. Those two things combined meant that we would be trying to engage new audiences, it would more likely appeal to a more general public and younger audience. It was actually a pretty easy decision from there to put it outside of the paywall.

Linked to that though was that it was very important at the end of the game to have that really big call-to-action that’s like “read this story” because it’s not enough to just engage with and attract a new audience to the thing in itself. To close the circle, it’s also very important to say that ‘hey this thing that is surprising and interesting, once you go through it [and get] a sense of curiosity about the topic in question and a good impression of the FT and what we do, please go to our regular offering and read the story to find out more.’ That way it doesn’t just become a fun side project with no strategic implication.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity, and was originally published in the May 21st edition of The Idea. For more Q&As with media movers and shakers, subscribe to The Idea, Atlantic Media’s weekly newsletter covering the latest trends and innovations in media.