Exploring a content first workflow: how to boost editorial productivity, quality and reader engagement

Editorial workflow consultant Kilian Schalk talks about a content-first approach to editorial workflow – what it is, how it can save you time, some of the common workflow improvements that editorial teams can make, and how you can improve the quality of your content along the way.

Editorial workflow consultant Kilian Schalk talks about a content-first approach to editorial workflow – what it is, how it can save you time, some of the common workflow improvements that editorial teams can make, and how you can improve the quality of your content along the way.

PurpleGray Principal Kilian Schalk is an expert in editorial workflow, helping content creators adapt to a changing world. He talks with Targeted Media Services Network Editor Lyndsie Clark ahead of the launch of his Australian course, aimed at helping small to medium-sized magazine publishers save time while boosting reader engagement. 

Lyndsie Clark: Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how you got into editorial workflow?

Kilian Schalk: Sure! I’ve been in magazine production and technology for about 20 years. I started my career with Rolling Stone, The New Yorker and Condé Nast. And for the last six years, I’ve worked as a consultant, helping brands figure out how to make change happen. I think that background has given me the empathy to both understand the challenges that come with change (because I’ve been there) and how it works when done well (because I’ve worked with lots of publishing teams to establish their practices). 

I’ve found that publishing teams can often get such big savings from small changes. And that really feels important when publishers are looking for every possible advantage.

LC: You talk about a content-first approach to editorial workflows. What does that mean? And how can publishers apply it?

KS: There’s a couple of different ways that content-first applies. From a mechanical perspective, content-first means you finish the stories completely before they ever hit the print page. So all the checking and editing is done. And then you can take that article and put it straight into print, on the website, anywhere else you want. 

We’re so used to creating content on the printed page, that it doesn’t feel edited until you have all those red marks on the page. But my measure of success is to reduce the marks on the page so that they’re only maybe about a headline being too long [or other layout elements]. The structural, copy, and line edits are made in a Google Doc or whatever tool you’re using, because that’s a lot easier to manipulate. 

From an editorial perspective, content-first allows you to think more holistically about your content. How do you want the content to appear in print, how do you want to adapt it for the web? 

It allows you to think more about your audience; your print, web, and social audiences might be different. You might have the base article, and then you can adjust it from there. But it’s always about the content first – the basic ideas, the images – which is then tweaked for different channels. 

LC: And what are some of the common areas of improvement that you see or can commonly identify within editorial production schedules?

KS: Having content finalised before print is a huge game-changer. One thing I see is that most publishing teams are not designed to create content for different channels within the same workflow. They have a print flow, they have a web flow, and those different systems create confusion. If you put the content through the same ‘funnel’ it allows you to work together on a single document which makes the whole process more efficient and allows for better collaboration. 

Once you have this kind of workflow, you’re able to close content every day, which allows you to reach your audience every day. With print, you reach them once every month, or once every two months, or once every two weeks, whatever it is. But in a digital world, you need to reach them every single day. Transforming your workflow means you can close your stories in print, one day after the next. And you can actually create the content you need for the web from your print content, allowing you to stay in constant contact with your readers. 

Most importantly, it reduces the lead time. So let’s say that something happens in the news that you want to tie into. You can write that story very quickly for the web, and you’re not losing any time. You can keep pace with the news; stay relevant. 

LC: Do you have an example of someone that you’ve worked with previously that’s had that kind of improvement?

KS: I ask groups to think about the time it takes for an article idea to reach a reader.deally you want this to be as short as possible because often ideas are time sensitive. I had one group that was going from idea to reader in four weeks – it took them four weeks to write, edit, and deliver an editorial. So we reconceived their workflow, making sure to maintain quality. I suggested they aim to get an editorial done in two days. Well… they went from four weeks to four hours! 

The true power of this is that I didn’t control the improvement. They did. And they achieved things they didn’t think possible. This is a great example of how saving time can open up all kinds of possibilities. 

LC: And what are some of those possibilities? What are the opportunities that open up to publishers when they streamline their workflow?

KS: One classic example is email newsletters. A lot of publishers have a problem with open rates going down. 

The magazine teams that I work with have great content. They have a connection to their readers, but sometimes those readers are reading through thousands of emails and they may miss things. 

One way to get people to open an email, and I’ve seen this in several clients, is to have a subject line relevant to the news of the day. So that subject line gets people to open the newsletter, but the content inside is still the deep value. So basically: give readers news about the day, which is what they want, while supplying them with content that they need. 

Being able to do this allows you to be more strategic with how you reach your readers. 

LC: That’s a great opportunity. You mentioned before how you worked with a publisher to reduce their time from four weeks to four hours, but they were a big part of making that improvement. What’s your technique when you work with publishing teams on their editorial workflow? How do you work with them?

KS: The people doing the work everyday know it the best. But often they don’t necessarily have the technique they need to improve things. So when I work with teams we create an experiment, and I give a series of parameters. That allows the teams to very quickly see what might work and what might not, and to see where they get blocked. I’ve done these experiments dozens of times so I know what happens. But what people bring themselves is a sense of curiosity about how to improve things: What works and what doesn’t? What do our readers want? Well, this would not work because of this…

So it’s not a theoretical conversation. It’s about drawing out what’s possible by doing. I help them define the problem. And then I act as a guide as they climb the mountain.

LC: What are your thoughts about email and its impact on editorial workflow?

KS: One thing about email is it creates confusion. So when you send files by email, often people start wondering: “Where is that document? Is it being worked on or not?” That confusion creates a waste because every time you don’t know about something, you have to ask. That’s one email you have to send, one email they have to read, another email that you have to send back. That exchange becomes death by 1,000 cuts. Every email is a single cut. Everyone knows that there’s too much email. But with editorial workflows, there are other systems that allow you to get around it and exchange content quickly, as well as work from the same place. 

The other thing that happens with email is that often your junk mail and your personal mail and your regular mail are all mixed in together. That’s more confusion. Is this an important message or not? So suddenly, you can’t really use email effectively to communicate. Email is not going away, and it’s not going to diminish in volume. But if you can avoid it, please do.

LC: I really hear you on that. Often when I’m overwhelmed, it’s simply because of the amount of email that’s coming in. And it’s not necessarily stuff that should be taking up my time or attention. But it does.

KS: Yes. Obviously, as publishers we send emails as well. But what’s wonderful about it is that you start taking that frustration you have about email that’s wasting your time, and figuring out ways to send messages that really matter to your readers. Treat them differently. There are some emails you love getting, and there’s a lot of emails you don’t. With this process, you can start giving yourself more connection to your readers, where you become the email they look for because they want to hear what you have to say. 

And that’s one of the exciting things about going content-first: you start learning not only about how to manage content, but also how to provide a better service to your readers. 

LC: Yes, definitely. That’s the ultimate isn’t it – that engagement, that deliverability.

KS: Absolutely. The deliverability, and also the feedback. With print, you don’t ever have direct insight into reader response, where you see what works and what doesn’t. You know, when I was doing The New Yorker, I’d be on the subway and would watch someone reading the magazine. It was great – you could see them holding it, which articles they were reading. Well, with email, you can get equivalent feedback. And it’s cumulative. That feedback is  a huge opportunity to serve your readers. 

LC: Yes, and then you can also funnel those learnings from your enews into the content you put in the magazine as well. So it’s circular.

KS: It’s circular, and the process feeds itself. The nice thing about magazine reading is that it’s a lean-back experience. You don’t get notifications interrupting you. A magazine doesn’t require you to have a battery; you don’t get distracted by the other apps on it. It’s just your stories. And so, when you have someone reading your magazine, it is the deepest relationship you could have with a reader. Everyone’s talking about engagement and relationships. Well, magazines have had it for years. And it’s time to take advantage of it.

LC: Yes, definitely. You’ve touched on a couple of the cloud-based services that publishers can use. What are some of the tools that you recommend?

KS: I think there’s been an explosion of cloud tools out there. There’s so many you can use. My recommendation is to learn from one specifically, and then take that learning and apply it to others, because working with the cloud is a different way of working. It is not the same as with Word or InDesign, working with local file formats. And it takes a little bit of getting used to but you can learn very quickly on free tools. You can learn everything you need by using a Google Doc, for example. 

LC: Many magazine teams also work remotely, either by choice or by necessity thanks to COVID-19. Do you have any particular tips or tricks for teams that work remotely?

KS: Just because a process or system worked at the office does not mean it works remotely. People will often fall back on what they know, and it’ll kind of work. But there are so many advantages to working with cloud-based systems and working asynchronously. You don’t have to all work at exactly the same time but you do all need to work in the same file. That’s the change in mindset. You will be able to make changes more quickly. And that allows you to be more collaborative… faster.

There’s also a need for patience and technical support. I mean technical support in the sense that when they’re remote and/or using new tools, people often fall back on previous systems because they have the technical awareness of them – not because it’s the best tool, but because they don’t want to tell their bosses that they don’t know how to do something. They’ll never say that the problem is the tool, they’ll say, “Oh, this is the way we do things.” But if you give them the support and opportunity to learn a new way of working, they discover themselves what is possible. And that makes for fewer hard conversations and more opportunity. The experiments that I run in the course really help with this.

LC: It’s interesting talking about that cultural change that’s required to initiate a different editorial workflow. How do you work with publishers to do that?

KS: Cultural change has to start with leadership. Leaders will often have an idea of how they want to grow or change their company, but they don’t always know how to do it. With changing workflows, leadership first needs to show that they can change. They have to model the behavior. 

I once worked with an editor in chief who confessed that her team had been asking her to work in Google Docs, but she had always resisted because she didn’t know how to use it properly. She felt that she could tell me, but she couldn’t tell everybody else; the cultural change is often about making it safer for people to share their challenges. Problems are opportunities, not things to avoid. I feel like that’s one of the most important elements of cultural change – acknowledging that there are some things that are not working and it’s okay to talk about them.  

LC: And when everyone’s learning as a team, particularly with a third party such as yourself, it makes it a little bit easier to be open.

KS: It is. It’s hard to change. But it’s a lot easier to do it when somebody else is there to lend a hand. 

LC: These were all the questions I had for you today. Kilian, did you have anything else that you wanted to add?

KS: I would say that this is the moment for magazines. It really is. Everyone’s trying to find a way to be relevant. By having a beautiful printed magazine in your home you’re telling the world what you care about. It was true 20 years ago, and it’s even more true now because there are fewer magazines in print. When someone decides they want to subscribe to your magazine, that’s a really special connection. 

Websites and social media don’t have that. Digital-only groups don’t have that. And by now it’s also much easier to create all those things than it is to create a print publication. But they don’t have the relationship with an audience. So, ironically, when it comes to trying to connect with people, I would say magazines have the advantage. Your readership already knows about you and cares about you. You’re just trying to reach more folks like them. 

It’s the age of the magazine. It’s not the age of the bad magazine. If you’re a magazine that is just repeating what’s on the web, and it’s bad content and you don’t care, you aren’t going to last. But one of the things that was exciting to me about working with you and the groups that you work with via the TM.SN is that you make quality a priority . And not just because it brings in revenue, but because people care. If you care, you can make a difference.

The Targeted Media Services Network has partnered with New York-based PurpleGray Consulting to deliver a 15-week online workshop for Australian publishers to transform and streamline editorial workflow, boost audience engagement, and track and measure success.

Click here for more information on the Digital Transformation Course. 

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Lyndsie Clark
Lyndsie Clark
Targeted Media Services Network Founder and Editor Lyndsie Clark aims to celebrate and support Australia's print and digital media brands that serve highly engaged, targeted audiences.

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