Surging Behind the Scenes: Our Editorial Tools and Workflow

Covering an industry that’s ballooned beyond belief


By Tony Wan, Managing Editor

I remember the days when I trawled the abyss of the Internet for news about the edtech industry, particularly around the nascent startup scene. That was back in 2011, when a couple of friends and I were building a game best described as “Zelda plus math.” We were starving for any tidbits of insights that might help inform how we run our fledgling of a business.

That summer I came across this tiny outfit named EdSurge, which was looking for some part-time editorial help. I joined to learn more about the industry (and finally put to use my most marketable skill as a history major: the ability to explain things in a tolerably coherent manner).

Now the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. There is no shortage of information. We get stories and pitches for stories from a variety of sources — teachers, superintendents, founders, investors, researchers, marketers, PR folks — through email and events, over coffee and cocktails.

No complaints here though! Hearing new ideas from new voices (and seasoned veterans) in new communities around the world is the sign of a vibrant industry. That said, for an editorial team with the equivalent of about three full-time writers, the barrage of information can be a little overwhelming. (My inbox sends its apologies.)

There are different kinds of publishing models for online media organizations. There’s a model that says, “hey, anything goes!” Then there are the “classic” journalistic houses that only run pieces from their own staff and handpicked contributors.

We’re somewhere in the middle: We want to publish quality articles, and we’re willing to help writers get their ideas together. The primary test we use: Is this actionable information? Could someone — an educator or an entrepreneur or anyone else involved in education — read this article and do something different?

That means we try to go short on position papers that simply espouse a point of view (“personalized learning is promising!”)—and long on efforts to share how things change (“here’s how we make it happen”). We also want to publish good writing and will carefully labor over a word or phrase.

How do we publish up to 150 posts a month? Communication tools are key.

Tools

Every week we gather for a story meeting to share upcoming news and events, submissions from contributing writers, and potential story ideas. Before committing to writing or editing any story, we try to answer the baseline question: How does this piece offer actionable, valuable insights and/or perspectives for our educators and entrepreneurs?

In every case, we try to support our instincts and intuition with numbers from Google Analytics and Buffer about how previous stories performed.

Trello

is the main tool that we use to move stories from ideation to publication. We have a board, Story Pipeline, where the following lists are placed in order of immediacy, from left (priority) to right:

  • Next Week (what we have committed to publishing next week)
  • On Deck (stories we have committed to write or edit, but which are not slated to run next week)
  • Upcoming News (specific events and announcements with set dates)
  • Brainstorm (promising ideas)
  • Article Submissions (by non-staff writers)
No, this is not what’s currently in our pipeline

Every list consists of stories, each of which is represented in a card that includes the following information:

  • A brief description of the story;
  • Staff assigned to write or edit the story;
  • Color-coded labels denoting the progress of the story. This lets us know what’s being actively worked on (yellow) and what’s ready to publish (green). We also attach a label (purple) if we need help with graphics from our designer.
  • Images for the story, along with any alternate images that can be used for sharing the story on social media.
That’s me, the crab

Trello is an excellent tool for moving story cards from one stage to the next (in our case, from right to left). Stories are archived when they are published, making room for the following set of stories next week.

Story ideas in the “Brainstorm” list can often linger for awhile and ultimately be scrapped altogether. After all, writing is a fickle, masochistic exercise; some ideas just seem much better in your head than in words.

Some advice for those new to Trello: Avoid the temptation to create too many lists and labels. Yes, the colors may look pretty, but Trello’s value is to move things along — not micromanage every little detail.

Zendesk

We regularly get article submissions from outside individuals and organizations. This year we’re delighted to have run many of them: around 40 percent of all our long articles come from our community members.

All submissions come through Zendesk, and we create a card for each story in the “Article Submissions” list. We review each piece as a team during our weekly story meetings, after which we assign a color label for those we accept (teal) and reject (red).

Google Calendar

is where we schedule the publishing of stories. Trello has its own calendar , but we find Google’s to be more convenient since it is also where we track and communicate other work activities like meetings, calls and travel. This allows the non-editorial team members, with whom we work closely, to see what’s coming in the pipeline.

Trello calendar can be integrated with Google Calendar through iCal feed, but currently there’s one major shortcoming. As Trello notes:

Changes made in Trello won’t instantly update to third party applications such as Google Calendar. We estimate that Google Calendar and other third party applications update their external feeds approximately once per day, but that is dependent on how frequently the third party application pings the Trello servers.

Slack

is our internal communications tool, and we use it to let others know when a draft of a piece is ready for editing. Traditional media companies may have assigned editors, but for our small staff that also juggle other, non-editorial tasks, the editing duty falls on whoever is free (or awake at 11:47 pm). After all, writing at a startup is not a 9 to 5 job. Some people do it better during the day; others prefer the sound of silence after dusk. (I personally like to work on Hawaiian-Aleutian time zone when possible.)

Our dev team has also set up a Slack integration with our in-house CMS that sends a notification to the editorial channel as soon as a story is published on our site. Interesting stories discovered by our team members are also shared here, in case we want to cover them.

Never ‘Done’

Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable — Dwight D. Eisenhower

It would be nice if we could predict when news will break. (We’d also be rich!) But alas, we don’t control the news cycle (yet). Throughout the course of the week we make decisions about whether to drop a planned story in order to work on something more urgent.

Like my English teacher used to say, an essay is never finished; there’s just a deadline. Our editorial workflow is still evolving and there’s certainly room for improvement. If you have any questions or suggestions, please leave us a note!