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The common denominators of change: print publishers, editorial workflow, and the transformation process

It’s a drumbeat in today’s world: “publishers need to change”. How many times have you heard that? How many times has every legacy (print) publisher heard that! For most of my clients, it haunts their dreams.

It’s not like they’re not trying…Most print publishers I know of are constantly on the lookout for ways to streamline editorial workflow, produce content across more platforms, and produce more quality, unique content that directly serves their audiences.

But change is hard. It takes focus, energy, and resolve. It requires teamwork and vision. All things that small and medium-sized magazine publishers often struggle to shoehorn into an already bulging workload. I get it. I’ve been in publishing since the 1990s and I’ve seen some things.

I’ve also, of course, worked with print publishers from around the world, helping them transform their editorial workflows to become more nimble and flexible and adaptable to a publishing environment that seems to have only one constant: change. I’ve done this as an insider – at Rolling Stone and The New Yorker – and as an outsider, as a consultant and via the 14-week Digital Transformation Seminar Series, the program I developed to give publishers the mindset and perspectives they need to keep pace with whatever change comes their way.

Kilian Schalk, editorial workflow expert
Kilian Schalk, editorial workflow specialist.

As my company PurpleGray and the Targeted Media Services Network prepare to launch our program in Australia next month, I’d like to share what I’ve learned about change, what works for print publishers looking to streamline their editorial workflow to better serve their audiences, and what successful transformations have in common.

Why is change so hard?

There is lots of discussion out there about the need for publishers to change, but very little clear guidance about what to change…much less how to do it.

And the reasons for this are simple: every publisher’s circumstances and profile are unlike any other. Just as no one knows your audience the way you do, no one else can ever quite tell you how to successfully transform your business. You have to find your own way.

This is particularly true of publishers with highly targeted audiences. Their audiences, their profiles, and their content needs – including topics, frequency, format, and platforms – are all unique. Even if you try to replicate someone else’s transformation, you will inevitably discover that something about your audience or their needs or your circumstances doesn’t match your model’s profile and your results don’t mirror theirs.

Or maybe you get results initially, but the changes don’t stick. ‘Industry best practices’ aren’t much help. And, to quote William Goldman, “nobody knows anything”. It can really feel impossible.

And yet there are legacy publishers who can and who do keep pace with the times. Their teams are able to adapt, quickly, and seem to do things…easily. What is their secret?

Common traits

Well, I can’t answer for every legacy editorial team…but I have watched, worked with, and learned from organisations as varied as Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, Time, Hearst Publishing, Condé Nast, Meredith, B2B publishers, America Media, Our Sunday Visitor and dozens of others from Hawaii to Malaysia to The Netherlands to South Africa to Des Moines to New York and back again – and I can report that successful and on-going change relies on the following traits:

  • Leadership trusts their staff
  • Leadership is willing to change their own perspectives and workflows
  • Leadership commits resources to the transformation process
  • Editorial teams conduct and complete their own workflow experiments
  • Editorial teams continue to test new ideas in their workspace, learn from the results, and adapt accordingly.

My Digital Transformation Seminar Series is based on an approach that leverages these traits.

Nothing in life is ever guaranteed, but I’ve seen it enable editorial teams that thought they were irretrievably overwhelmed and stuck to transform their workflows so thoroughly, and so effectively in synch with their unique needs, that they gained hours in the day, increased revenue, and branched out into new channels without breaking a sweat.

Case studies

Here are some examples. The following editorial teams not only successfully transformed their workflow processes with the help of my 14-week program, they have made on-going workflow transformation a part of their editorial culture.

These stories come from two cohorts of more than a dozen small to medium-sized US publications (2 to 10 people) that took part in the Digital Transformation Seminar Series during the second half of 2020. They represent what’s possible, and some of them even make it seem easy. What they don’t – can’t – convey is each team’s unique experience of the transformation process; the seminar series is designed to provide strategic guidance, technique, and perspective as each team picks its own way up the mountain.

Leadership goals:

  • “Our readers seem to want newsletters. We need to be more efficient so we can send more.”
  • “There aren’t enough hours in the day.”
  • “I want to get back to the subscription numbers/revenue we had fifteen years ago.”
  • “I don’t want to have to work every weekend.”

Challenges:

  • Financial and distribution issues
  • Audiences and advertisers that behaved differently with no warning
  • Feeling overwhelmed.

Imperatives:

  • Maximise resources
  • Extend reach
  • Do it fast.

Maximise resources

The Holy Grail of workflow is to create more content without expanding your team or causing burn-out. These groups achieved it.

————————————–

We used to ship our issue after the end of business at 6 or even 7pm and now, eight weeks into the program, we’re shipping everything by 1 or 2pm and have more time to produce other content. We can also react to breaking news without messing up our process.

Louisiana

Making changes on layout PDFs was slow and laborious. The new process has saved everyone so much time that we can create a new Spanish-language edition based on our research.

— Maryland

Our contributors now use cloud templates, meaning everyone can see everything in real time.

— New Mexico

A publisher who used to chip in and copy-edit page proofs on paper was able to do so remotely on his laptop while in transit to see his grandchild.

Iowa

Extend your reach

Audience attention in today’s world is scattered across an array of ever-shifting platforms and channels. How do you know where to find your people? And how do you maintain the quality you are known for in print as you expand into those channels?

 ————————————–

We saw that young parents were a potential market. So we decided to try a quick video podcast and see what happened. We went live 18 hours later and started getting results and feedback almost immediately.

— Louisiana

We saw that our newsletter open rates had room to improve, so we redesigned the layout and were able to increase them by 6% in a week.

— Virginia

We now publish stories once a day as they close instead of holding on and publishing everything at once after it prints. Thisallows us to focus our social media on promoting new stories every day as they go live.

— Minnesota

Speed it up

Being able to work quickly involves accelerating the process of content ideation, creation and delivery while maintaining (and even increasing) quality. These teams learned to move faster without rushing, created fewer errors to be fixed down the line, and delivered content at a speed and in ways they had never imagined were possible.

During the first four weeks of the program we moved our entire workflow off our file servers and into the cloud so we can work remotely anytime.

— Arkansas

 We discovered that we can collaborate on a story by having multiple editors and a designer in the same document as they discuss on Zoom. Knotty issues get resolved very quickly.

— New York

We were able to implement a new content tracking system in a week and use it for all content after four weeks.

Indiana

A “derecho” (a 70-mile wide wall of thunderstorms and tornadoes) knocked out power at the main office and we had to publish using the new system from our homes on very short notice.

— Iowa

It used to take a day to edit stories. Now it feels instantaneous!

— Maryland

A continued culture of editorial transformation

These teams came together to figure out what worked and what didn’t. They had to learn new things and let go of old habits. Each brand developed their own unique editorial and change process. And none of them were blessed with perfect transformation conditions: one team had a 30-year veteran out of commission due to surgery; another was in and out of hurricane watches; one even lost their Editor-in-Chief to COVID-19 for a month.

What stays with me most vividly, though, is the energy and palpable relief that came with realising they could adapt and change to accommodate any new goal or condition. Not only were they more efficient, they were self-sufficient – they had developed the collective headspace and a global understanding of their workflow that allowed them to keep figuring out what needed to be done and what they needed to learn to do it… long after the program had ended. Without exception, their brands as well as the communities they served were better for it.

“In 29 years as a reporter at this newspaper, I’ve never seen such a rapid transition.”

— New York

“We have learned to change ourselves. That might be the most lasting thing.”

— different client, also New York

More information about the up-coming Digital Transformation Seminar Series in Australia can be found here.

Written by Kilian Schalk, Principal, PurpleGray Consulting

PurpleGray Principal Kilian Schalk is an expert in workflow design, helping editorial content creators adapt to a changing world.

He led the 2015 ‘Moonshot’ effort to transform America Magazine into America Media, and created the blueprint for a 2018 workflow overhaul of Vanity Fair. Formerly Managing Editor for Editorial Development at Condé Nast and Technical Director of Digital Projects at The New Yorker, he was the youngest Production Manager in Rolling Stone history.

His training programs focus on client transformation. He has worked with magazines to overhaul editorial and marketing workflows, accelerate content delivery, redesign websites and print editions, build digital archives, increase editorial web team output, move from a subscription to a membership model, restructure contributor contracts, and boost online traffic.

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