Making The Move To Trello For An Editorial Calendar

This is Taco — the official Trello spokes-husky.

Or, how we learned to stop worrying about spreadsheets and move to a continuous production cycle.

My team produces history articles. Up until recently, our content production cycle was grounded in the conventions of magazine publishing. Although not publishing a physical issue each month, we worked on a rigid, anniversary-led monthly schedule, setting quotas for ourselves across a range of subjects (for example — 10 articles per month, 4 on WW2 topics, 4 on WW1 topics and 2 on Cold War topics).

We used Google Spreadsheets to manage our editorial calendar, creating a different sheet for each month, with all publication deadlines assigned at the end of the month. The editorial team met fortnightly, going through the plan sheet-by-sheet, updating deadlines and noting down any issues or delays.

All very organised.

But there were problems: deadlines slipped, a backlog of articles grew, some months we couldn’t meet our quota, other months we went over our quota. The outdated magazine publishing model wasn’t working. Sure, we were successfully publishing content each month, but the process felt messy. We needed a re-think.

Inspired by our department’s use of agile methodologies for delivering our responsive website, I wanted to make content production more flexible. I wanted to stop thinking about delivery in terms of months, and instead move to a continuous production cycle, where authors are always moving content through the editorial workflow. I also wanted to get away from relying heavily on anniversaries for our content ideas, focusing instead on planning our content around the top subjects users are searching for (more on that to come in another post).

The first step was to put our users first and ditch the quotas — we’re not producing a physical publication with a set number of pages, so there’s no need to set arbitrary numbers each month.

Next, I decided to put the individual authors in control of their content. Google Drive is a great product for tracking dates and deadlines, but it feels static. There’s no connection with the actual editorial workflow.

Enter Trello.

Note: this is a stock photo. We are not redecorating the office kitchen.

I was familiar with Trello as a project management tool, but I had never really thought about how it could be used for other things. I liked the way it can give you a visual, interactive representation of an abstract concept — like a workflow — and so I searched to see if anyone was using it for content planning.

I didn’t have to look too hard — Trello has a blog post on this very subject.

Using the suggestions in that blog post (and some of the terminology — thanks, Trello team!), I built our own Trello board based on the steps of our internal workflow. Like everything we do, it’s public, so you can check it out.

Through this approach, team members are now in control of their own content. They add their article ideas to the board as individual cards, and then move those cards through the editorial workflow as the articles evolve. The author assigns his or her own deadlines, so that it’s possible to view the plan as a traditional calendar, but the deadlines are flexible and can be moved by the individual author when necessary.

Moving away from thinking about deadlines in the traditional sense is key to our publishing strategy, as in the next few months I want to introduce velocity tracking for individual authors and specific types of content, so authors can start to quantify their workload. My goal is that, eventually, an author will be able to say, ‘I want to write an expert-level long-form article, but I know that will take me [x] number of days. In that time, I could instead produce [x] number of more general short articles. What’s the best use of my time, and which output would benefit our history section more?’ Again, this puts authors in complete control of their schedule, giving them more flexibility and the ability to adapt their workload with relatively short notice.

And isn’t that what agile is all about?

It’s early days in this process, so I’ll post an update in a couple of months to report back on how it’s all going.