A resource for news innovators powered by American Press Institute
Complexity: Intermediate
Article Complexity Bar Graph

Redesign workflows to ease and speed continuous digital publishing

Use these steps to create – then execute – a roadmap by which to arrive at a true digital first workflow within a reasonable time frame.

This is an excerpt from “Table Stakes: A Manual for Getting in the Game of News,” published Nov. 14, 2017. Read more excerpts here.

If you have not done so already, use the workflow mapping steps described in the “plan” section to identify workflow performance gaps. This mapping will identify a whole range of performance gaps, issues and challenges that should fall into three categories of fixes based on their difficulty and the time frame required to address them. Use the following to create – then execute – a roadmap by which to arrive at a true digital first workflow within a reasonable time frame, say 10-12 months:

Relatively quick and easy fixes through clarifying and changing workflow steps or roles without significant skill or technology considerations.

These “do now” fixes can include:

  • Eliminating low value tasks within the workflow;
  • Consolidating tasks to reduce handoffs where significant new skills are not involved and the task instructions can be readily learned;
  • Establishing standards for “clean handoffs”, including clarifying the roles and responsibilities on both sides of the handoff (e.g. with simple checklists);
  • Codifying, documenting and recommunicating workflow steps where there is confusion or conflicting practices (again, with simple checklists);
  • Strictly enforcing adherence to workflow tasks as “non-optional.”

There may also be simple tools that can be adopted to make discrete tasks within the workflow faster, easier and simpler to train on (e.g., a better suited software for photo cropping, sizing and format conversion) or relatively inexpensive hardware upgrades that can ease process bottlenecks.

Multi-month drives (e.g waves of 2 to 4 months each) to close workflow performance gaps through broadening digital skills and digital-first practices across the newsroom.

Broadening digital skills and digital-first practices will get your newsroom significantly closer to the “one person” digital workflow. Yet, because they require folks in the newsroom to learn new skills, adopt new mindsets and break old habits, you ought to expect the full transition to happen through series of successive waves of action.

Broadening digital skills involves identifying the specific skills needed, assessing current individual and team skill levels against those requirements, setting expectations for digital self-sufficiency, and providing needed support. For more, read 6(c) below as well as the chapter entitled Shaping The Right Staff Roles and Skills For Your Newsrom.

Shifting to digital practices involves getting reporters and editors:

  • focused first and foremost on digital publication with an understanding (and belief) that print will emerge from their good digital work;
  • writing, producing and publishing throughout the day rather than working to a single print deadline
  • thinking always in terms of audience, starting with audience listening for story insights and carrying through to audience traffic monitoring for story feedback.

Hands-on newsroom leadership direction, demonstration and reinforcement is needed – sometimes starting with clear “permission” that it’s now okay (and expected) to really focus first on digital.

Take time to think through the planning and preparation for these efforts. But avoid one, huge, all consuming “change program.” Like other changes described throughout this report, you can move forward on a small scale with certain individuals and groups based on readiness and then expand and accelerate later across the newsroom. In addition, remember to ask folks who have – or build – digital skills to help others in peer to peer ways. Moreover, your effort can be a self-feeding movement. Those who already have the digital skills and are most critical for providing the needed skills instruction and coaching to others (i.e. producers), will have more of their time freed from routine production tasks as more reporters and editors become more self-sufficient, freeing more of their time to do more skill development.

Along with building digital skills, multi-month waves might also address workflow gaps that arise from ineffective technology and tools. Prime among these are getting a “universal” budgeting system and chosing/using a common platform for real-time communications and coordination (e.g. Slack). See section 6f for more. These tools that are readily available, don’t require large investments, can be implemented with relative ease, and are likely to be seen as being necessary to implementing many of the most basic changes required.

Major technology changes and investments required to fully simplify workflows and convert to digital-first, print later and better publishing.

These are changes aimed at eliminating any added workflow steps, workarounds and other complications and impediments arising from operating in a mixed print and digital CMS environment.

Start with using your workflow mapping assessment to make the case for, and define the requirements of, a CMS environment that supports rather than hinders digital first publishing. While the cost of such investments are often viewed as prohibitive, the workflow inefficiencies and staff time costs of not making the investments too often go unquantified and just accepted as part of ongoing operating costs. And, yet, they are costly.

As part of this clear-eyed assessment of existing technology costs, you may have a situation where the print CMS is the primary, “originating” system that either feeds the digital CMS very poorly or requires manual reentry of content into the digital CMS. If so, decide to flip that by making the digital CMS the primary authoring and production CMS that feeds the print CMS. If necessary, consider “cutting-and-pasting” digital content into the print CMS. Though far from ideal and likely to shift the burden of added workflow steps and workarounds from the digital side to the print side, the net effect may be positive for spurring the newsroom’s full conversion to audience-driven continuous digital first publishing and print from digital curation while waiting to fund and implement better overall technology solutions.