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How the Minneapolis Star Tribune flipped its production workflow to better meet audience needs

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: Shifting from a print-first publishing workflow to a digital-first process helps create and encourage an audience-first philosophy in newsrooms.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. This “win” comes from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which participated in the Major Market Table Stakes program in 2015-16. It is written by Shannan Bowen, executive director of NC Local News Workshop and former director of product engagement and strategy at McClatchy. She was involved with a News Catalyst study on print and digital workflows.

Question: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?

Answer:  News Catalyst, an initiative that helps news organizations transform themselves into sustainable digital businesses, conducted research into publishing workflows to help publishers learn from one another about best practices, challenges, commonly used tools and general trends in content production processes. The research, which included a survey of 15 publications, revealed that print workflow steps often cause friction for staff, hindering digital needs because of deadlines or issues with legacy tech systems.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune, one participant in the survey and an alum of the 2015-16 Major Market Table Stakes program, knew that the print-first workflow was impeding the newsroom’s ability to embrace an audience-first philosophy. As newsroom leaders identified many different ways to grow digital audiences, they decided to start by addressing their own internal processes. It was time to move to a digital-first workflow.

Though the Star Tribune had identified digital growth as its main objective, the newsroom’s content production workflows were print-centric and created friction for effectively delivering news to audiences on digital platforms. Through conversations during Table Stakes participation, the newsroom’s leaders decided that if they truly wanted to serve targeted audiences on the digital platforms they use, they needed to shift to a digital-first workflow.

Like many news organizations with a print product, the Star Tribune has a print content management system as well as a digital content management system. Reporters and editors wrote and edited stories in the print content management system first, then moved files into the digital content management system. 

But this print-first workflow caused several technical burdens during the publishing process. For example, if reporters updated a developing news story in the print content management system, the changes would overwrite any edits or enhancements that were made to the digital version. Further, deadlines and other operations were made with the newspaper in mind, not the website or other digital platforms.

“It was a symbol of how we were working and what our priority was from an audience standpoint,” said Chase Davis, the newsroom’s deputy managing editor for digital strategy and technology. He and other newsroom leaders knew that readers coming to the Star Tribune from digital platforms needed news quickly and at different points throughout the day. 

And to better meet those needs, the newsroom’s reporters and editors needed to consider how their audiences are finding and reading the Star Tribune on their phones and from social media and email newsletters.

“That starts with the tools that [journalists] use to do their jobs and the vocabulary they use,” Davis said. Until you give reporters and editors the tools to address the needs of a digital reader, it’s difficult to ask them to think about that audience first, he added.

So, the Star Tribune set out on a two-year process to meet a clear objective: Flip the workflow so that the digital content management system became the primary platform used to write and edit stories, rather than using a print platform for digital needs.

Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)?

A:  This approach is related to Table Stake No. 1 (Serve targeted audiences with targeted content), Table Stake No. 2 (Publish on the platforms used by your targeted audiences) and Table Stake No. 3 (Produce and publish continuously to meet audience needs)

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: It helped that buy-in to move to a digital-first workflow from newsroom leadership was in place from the beginning. “It wasn’t hard to convince people of the need to do it,” Davis said.

But overhauling a workflow process was only part of the solution. The newsroom also needed a new digital content management system to make it happen. And finding and integrating a new system takes time.

A newsroom team formed in 2019 and collaborated with product and digital teams to collect requirements for evaluating new vendors. Those requirements included fields for social and search headlines, the ability to generate permalinks, and efficient ways to include social media embeds. Additionally, the team looked for vendors that had a full-featured API (application programming interface) to enable CMS integrations with other systems, such as Slack or Airtable, that the newsroom uses for communication and story budgeting.

Davis said it was important that the chosen CMS was simple to use and digital-first in features and workflows. “We wanted the system to be intuitive and not feel overwhelming,” he added.

Three vendors quickly rose to the top and were invited to meet with the newsroom for more detailed presentations about their systems. By the end of 2019, the Star Tribune had selected Chorus, a CMS by Vox Media used by more than 350 publishing sites.

The first implementation step was to replace a legacy digital CMS used by the newsroom. That step, the biggest tech lift in the process, began in March 2020. By the end of the year, teams were trained and started using Chorus to publish and curate digital content. 

But the newsroom’s workflow process was still print-first. The next phase of the project was integrating Chorus with the newsroom’s print CMS, Naviga (formerly known as Saxotech). This step enabled teams to start the operational shift to publishing digital-first by spring 2021.

This screenshot shows Chorus, the CMS used by the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Throughout this process, the newsroom has adopted a new mindset about using new digital tools. That new mindset includes getting used to ongoing iterations and new features within the CMS. For example, the Star Tribune is working with Vox to build an integration to Airtable, which they use for story budgeting. 

“It’s not this static exercise like it used to be,” Davis said. “These tools are constantly changing, which means we can keep iterating and making them work better for us.” 

Q: What worked?

A: “Inclusiveness has been our watchword for this process,” Davis said.

He points to a “workflow group” that included people from different teams across the newsroom and other departments as the key to a successful process. The group met frequently to talk about challenges and opportunities that moving to a digital-first workflow presents. Those discussions led to people embracing the change that was coming, rather than feeling like a decision was being made for them. The group also helped communicate updates on process improvements and tool evaluations to their colleagues so that everyone felt included.

“Being open like that is one thing we did right with this process because it helped achieve that buy-in from a lot of different parts of the room,” Davis said.

Once the newsroom was fully onboarded to using the new digital CMS and workflow processes, they began working on ideas that realize the new system’s potential. For example, Davis said storytelling initiatives such as service journalism and live coverage are much easier to do in their new systems than before. Other features, like customizing digital story templates, also are being prioritized as new digitally native story forms expand.

Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?

A: Davis said that though he points to being inclusive as one thing that worked in the process, a more consistent plan for communication could have helped everyone stay on track. “I would call that critical,” he said.

For example, Davis points to making sure everyone is in the loop on which features are being integrated and the top priorities in the process —even if they aren’t involved in planning.

Another tricky aspect of vendor implementation is prescribing workflow decisions during development without being able to use the tool yet. “There’s a lot you’re just not going to know until you’re in there doing the work,” Davis said. “In that way, it ended up being hard to draw firm conclusions from some of our early workflow conversations.” Still, the earlier the conversations happen, the better.

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: “We were pleasantly surprised at how engaged folks in the room got around this,” Davis said. “There were some areas we thought we were going to be fighting uphill and turns out we were not.”

In fact, the print design team served as a key ally in switching from a print-first to digital-first workflow. The workflow changes have a significant impact on this team’s work, “but they see the importance and have been central to solving some of the project’s most difficult problems,” Davis said.

For example, the new digital CMS, Chorus, doesn’t offer copy formatting for the print product, which means copy editors and designers have to take extra steps for print production. Also, the article copy enters the print CMS differently than in the previous print-first workflow, so the new process requires teams to come up with new ways of organizing and updating those stories and their assets.

“It’s a lot of change all at once, and it’s not fun, but our print designers and copy editors have stepped up as leaders and problem-solvers,” Davis said. 

He credits Bob Kyle, a retired print designer, with writing scripts that help solve the print formatting issue. These scripts enable designers working in the print CMS to automatically apply the correct formatting on copy moving over from Chorus, helping them adapt to the new workflow.

Another member of the team, Design Director Greg Mees, worked alongside Audience Team editor Hannah Sayle to build a new story budgeting system in Airtable — not only to simplify work for print production, but also to have a single place for the entire newsroom to plan and coordinate coverage transparently. And another designer, Martha Buns, was a lead trainer during the transition.

“It’s impossible to overstate how much I admire what our copy editors and print designers have done,” Davis said. “Their jobs are indisputably harder than they were before, and instead of throwing up their hands, they’ve owned the solutions to some of our gnarliest problems. What’s more, they’ve done that with an eye toward the entire newsroom and broader goals that this effort is trying to achieve.”

Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?

A: “Involve the room. Be as inclusive as possible,” Davis said. “The room has to own the change to a degree. Change can’t be imposed.”

Also, he recommends coming up with a plan for getting as many people as possible involved in training and support for rolling out tools and processes. “In our newsroom, a lot of that work has fallen to a small number of people, which was probably necessary in the beginning given the structure of our rollout, but became less so over time. We’re working on some plans now to make that more sustainable.”

Q: What outcomes are expected as a result of this project?

A: Though the workflow and publishing tool changes might seem internally focused, the Star Tribune is aspirational about the impact.

“I think the ideal outcome of this over time, in a spiritual way, is that we see ourselves more as a multiplatform news organization and less as a newspaper,” Davis said. 

“The more you think about yourself as a news organization rather than a newspaper, your thinking naturally gravitates toward your audience and how you serve them. To me, that’s the end game. The audience is the center of all we’re doing.”

Going forward in 2022, the team expects the new workflow changes to result in new deadlines and possibly even newsroom positions. “For example, we’re starting to talk about how we need to rethink editing roles and structures to get more support on the dayside,” Davis said, adding that these roles are critical for newsrooms publishing earlier and more often on digital platforms.

“Part of this is also about learning by doing. By working in a new system, using such new workflows, we’re going to stumble into problems, opportunities and needs we didn’t know we had,” Davis said. “We want to leave space to react to those things.”

Related content: See how to Redesign workflows to ease and speed continuous digital publishing