How Pakistan’s Express Tribune reported its biggest online project

by Sara Olstad
Oct 30, 2018 in Digital Journalism
Photos of people

In 2015, ICFJ Knight Fellow Shaheryar Popalzai was embedded at The Express Tribune, one of Pakistan’s largest daily newspapers, to help them design and build data-driven online media projects. “For Peshawar,” Popalzai’s flagship project with the Tribune Labs team, commemorates the first anniversary of a terrorist attack that killed 147 people, many of them children, at an army school in northern Pakistan.

The multimedia piece is nominated for a 2016 Online Journalism Award. The awards will be presented at the Online News Association Conference in Denver on September 17.

Popalzai told IJNet about how he and the Express Tribune Labs team coordinated with reporters across desks to pull off the project — and how other newsrooms can replicate their successes.

IJNet: Where did the idea come from for this project? How long did it take to produce?

Popalzai: The anniversary of the Peshawar attack was a few months away, but we decided that it was important for us to do a very big project which would act as a tribute for those we lost and as an audit for what the government has done so far. We thought we would create it to be a yearbook style montage with images of all those people who we had lost, but, it evolved as we started talking about it, it turned into something much bigger with more reporting components.

The initial team was just three people. It was me, Chief Digital Editor Hassaan Khan and Tribune Labs Editor Shayan Naveed. The planning stage was a couple of weeks. ... After we had that done, we went straight to the editor of the paper and said here’s what we need and we need your help to talk to the print editions. He sent a note to all the relevant desk heads saying our team was working on this project, you guys should help them out, and then the [desk heads] started assigning reporters to do the stories we needed. The actual story content started coming in around two weeks before the actual date of publishing, and the technical development started about a week later… In total, over 15 people from four different teams worked on the project.

What was your role in the project?

I participated in the project planning, when we came up with the kind of stories that we wanted. … Once the content started to come in, I managed the tech side of things with the developer we hired specifically for this project.

Once the Labs team edited all the stories, their designer gave us the design and they gave us the content and started putting it together, the project backend turned into a CMS because we figured a simple HTML solution wasn’t going to work for us. They don’t have a developer working in the newsroom so it would have been difficult for them to modify a lot of HTML. We ended up building a solution where if they wanted to they could go back and fix anything they wanted.

What advice do you have for other newsrooms that are just starting with large-scale digital projects?

A lot of people feel it’s very hard to do such projects and it won’t be easy to manage them or even deliver them, or develop them for that matter, but it’s really not. You just need a really good development team and a content team that is going to deliver on time. In a lot of cases people feel that the print reporters might not be comfortable working on digital, but once they see the potential that they have for digital, it was just a massive shift for us. For example, broadcast reporters [when] they report on television, the story disappears. But with digital, it just stays there and it’s immortalized. This gave print reporters a chance to put something down in writing that they could be remembered for. Getting shortlisted for the Online Journalism Award is a great motivation for them.

For me, the project emphasized the fact that we could deliver the tech side of things on such short notice. … People tend to think the tech side of things is going to delay the project or it might not be easy to do, but once you have everything set, the tech can be easy to deliver. A lot of the tech is open source now. That’s the beauty of the journalist-tech community, ... people are willing to help each other out. Even if your news organization doesn’t have this kind of resources for big digital projects, there are lots of open source or out-of-the-box ready solutions that can be deployed.

Image courtesy of The Express Tribune's "For Peshawar" Project.