Since the start of 2016, the Financial Times has made a number of changes and appointments in the newsroom designed to strengthen editorial workflows and make new technologies more approachable for journalists.

In January, former deputy editor John Thornhill was appointed as the title's first innovation editor, tasked with transforming the outlet's approach to commissioning and publishing opinion pieces across different platforms.

Another appointment followed in February, when interactive data journalist Robin Kwong took on the newly-created role of special projects editor.

For the last six months, Kwong's work has mainly fallen into three different strands, which merge under the special projects umbrella: working with editors and reporters on more complex stories; developing an "IKEA kit" for how to best launch and manage larger scale initiatives, which editors could conduct even without the help of the special projects editor; and conducting internal training workshops on data investigations and digital storytelling.

"There is a big difference in approach from what my involvement has been over the last six months, compared to what it was before," Kwong told

"What's been different is that I've deliberately tried to work together with an editor who's normally the person in charge of a project, to support and guide them through the process."

Collaboration on special projects is key

The first special project Kwong has overseen since his appointment was Robot Week, a series published in May looking at the role robots and machines play in our day-to-day life. He worked with Sue Matthias, the outlet's senior editor for special news projects, to coordinate the coverage and the publishing schedule.

"For example, we discovered that because our audience peaks in the early morning commute, that's when we wanted things to go out.

"We used Google spreadsheets to track everything that went into the production process, accessible to everyone. So if we had a set time for publishing on Monday, everything for that day would need to be in place by the previous Friday.

"We'd never had to store up a week's worth of stories like this before and [Google Sheets] was a low tech way of doing it, but in the future it could be built into our CMS and workflow."

Some twenty-five people worked on Robot Week and after the series concluded, Kwong, Matthias and news editor Peter Spiegel held a retrospective review meeting with video producers, audience engagement editors, and commercial and technology staff, to break down what had gone well during the project and what could be improved next time.

"From my perspective, I've always said this new job is about being able to scale and that means others need to be able to do things as well.

"So my goal is to help editors or people who will be put in charge of these projects as much as possible, show them how I approach things and what works, and then they can take it, leave it or adapt that to their own style of work."

The FT's second special project was, naturally, its coverage of the UK referendum in June. This time, Kwong worked with Daniel Dombey, the outlet's Brexit editor, focusing more on testing and adapting some of his existing strategies for breaking news scenarios.

Kwong also had to manage editorial and admin tasks, from contingency planning to be prepared for either outcome of the referendum, to creating a newsroom-wide staff rota over the weekend that followed the vote.

One of the FT's aims with its referendum coverage was not only to update people on the latest polls and events, but also contextualise the results by pulling in some of the stories published earlier in the year.

"Back in February, we had done a series of explainers about Brexit and our editor, Lionel [Barber], said that because we had so many and they had become so wordy, they were no longer doing their job of being succinct and summarising, so we had the idea of turning them into something visual."

As a result, Kwong liaised with the FT's data visualisation editor, Alan Smith, and the graphics team to transform these explainers into what eventually became the FT's Visual Guide to Brexit.

Screenshot from the FT's Visual Guide to Brexit.

"There's always the core of an idea of something we want to achieve, but translating that into the end product and discussing who else needs to be involved, that's where I come in."

A custom-made "IKEA kit" for bigger stories

Kwong is also working on a special projects "IKEA kit", a three-component tool for reporters and editors designed to help with bigger stories, to avoid "any problems that usually happen down the road because an idea wasn't properly formulated".

The kit contains a pitching form for the reporter, a checklist for the editor, and a list of questions to ask of Lantern, FT's in-house analytics dashboard, to measure the success of a series and not just an individual story.

The FT started building Lantern towards the end of 2015 and the dashboard went live in March. Its aim is to help journalists and editors better understand how and where readers interact with the content on the site, a move designed to help with acquiring new subscribers as well, as the outlet publishes content behind a paywall.

Kwong is trying to determine how and when the kit should be used in the newsroom. The challenge is finding a balance between getting people to use it before starting a project, and not making it feel like another complex task is added to their to-do list.

"With both Robot Week and our Brexit coverage, one of the questions we asked of the data was, 'if we take a topic and put this much time and resources into it, is it likely to make people come back more regularly than our usual content'?

"The answer was 'yes', but figuring out the right question to ask was a large part of the work.

"We can come up with two or three of these questions that can be applied to each special project, because we want to encourage people to review what they've done by looking at the data.

"This can only be achieved if we make it easier for them," Kwong said.

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