April 8, 2014


That tweet from Alexis Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic, touches on an important topic in the news industry, but one we rarely discuss. Workflow.

In the world of journalism, production workflow and process is not glorified. Nor should it be. But it should be respected. For all the talk about business models to save journalism, we talk very little about the tools that allow us to get the job done, let alone which ones are more efficient. But a profitable journalism industry is an efficient one. If you’ve ever pulled out your hair trading Word documents with track changes, then you know the saving grace of a good workflow.

“We are finally starting to see news [organizations] that are serious about the tools they use to do news better,” said Eric Eldon, the former co-editor of TechCrunch. “It’s a matter of mixing and matching the new things that are out there for whatever you want to get done.”

Let’s be clear, this is not about forcing more production out of employees. That’s self-defeating. This is about processes different organizations have for workflow so that everyone is working efficiently and in a sustainable manner.

“[When] designing workflows always, always start with the people …. . Do they feel like they have one more thing to do, or one less thing?” Suzane Yada from Center for Investigative Reporting told me. In talking with her colleagues, Yada found some pain points were easily solved by changing their current workflow and other pain points needed a new tool. They eventually settled on Podio, a work collaboration platform, and they knew it was the right tool because it allowed them to check off those pain points. They could work the way they wanted, not conform to the rules of a project management tool.

The “daily miracle” of putting out a newspaper has turned into a 24/7 never-ending miracle. News organizations are constantly buzzing. Reporters are filing copy, editors are checking in with them and making new assignments. Producers, multimedia/video editors and any number of other specialists play their part.

Whether it’s whiteboarding or entering the final content into a CMS, it’s part of a workflow. These systems are complex, often specific to the organization (and its leaders) and usually receive little attention or discussion, but much can be learned if we shared our processes. While it’s the great journalism that wins awards and boosts branding, it’s the project management systems underneath that allow anything at all to happen.

Project management software is how the tech industry gets real. Much like a content management system, the tools and systems one uses to manage define how you’ll work, what you’ll produce and how much friction there is throughout the process. Project management tools are opinionated; you have to find software that agrees with you.

“I generally think the biggest problem in workflow isn’t necessarily a step, but a culture … . New tools are great, but you have to make sure everyone uses them similarly and you have to have all around support for them. That means everyone’s got to buy in and get something out of it,” said Kim Bui, senior breaking news producer with Digital First Media’s Thunderdome.

There is no shortage of tools: Hipchat, Campfire or Slack for group chat. Asana, Pivotal Tracker, Trello or Podio for task-based management. Google Docs, Dropbox for file management. In an unscientific survey, the products above along with Basecamp, GoToMeeting, Skype, Google Hangout, Kapost, Convio and Salesforce were some of the most mentioned tools in various organizations’ workflow. But this list is not exhaustive and the combinations are endless based on needs. Maybe you want a group RSS feed. Try DelvNews. Maybe you want to manage a large group of community members contributing content, try Kapost. There is no one size, there is no silver bullet. It’s what works for your needs. But don’t settle for a system that puts the burden on you.

At Circa the development team uses Asana while editorial uses a combination of Trello for task management, HipChat for communication along with group emails, Zappier, and of course our own custom content management system.

I once heard the adage: “Everyone loves their project management tool. Everyone hates their project management tool.” In the end, it’s all about how you use a tool to make sure your work is flowing. If energy is lost to friction, then an organization needs to take a hard look at its systems to refine them.

David Cohn is director of news at Circa and a member of Poynter’s adjunct faculty. Previously he worked on some of the first endeavors exploring crowdsourcing and crowdfunding in journalism. You can find him on Twitter at @digidave.

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Over the last fifteen years David Cohn has been at the forefront of innovation in journalism, working on some of the first experiments in buzzwordy…
David Cohn

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