How ANA Newsstand Controls Its Chaos

September 10, 2020

By Andrew Eitelbach


The small team behind ANA Newsstand is as much a troop of jugglers as they are a group of writers and editors. Currently, the team, which consists of six people (not all of whom are 100 percent allocated to Newsstand) are pushing 53 stories for four publications through 11 stages of a 100-step editorial process that involves seven different roles.

The process is a lot. Like a lot a lot. But the rigor of our process is necessary to build credibility and ensure the quality and accuracy of the content that runs in ANA Newsstand.

Currently, those 53 stories are scattered across different stages of production. To keep track of where things are, we use a cloud-based collaboration tool called Trello.

Programs like Trello employ a Kanban-style card and list system — a digital version of index cards tacked to a cork board — to help teams organize, track, and collaborate on projects.

Originally developed by Toyota as a way to optimize assembly lines, there are a lot of ways to set up and use Kanban-style boards. And because Trello is cloud-based, it doesn’t matter if teammates are in a neighboring cubicle or on another continent — when the pandemic struck and we began to work from home, the only thing that changed for the Newsstand team was the view from our desks.

Let me just say here that the ANA doesn’t endorse Trello. It’s the solution that in my opinion as the editor managing ANA Newsstand works best for our team. I personally love Trello as much as a person can love an application and not get creepy about it, but my views and opinions don’t necessarily reflect those of the ANA. There are a number of similar products, including Monday, ProofHub, Wrike, ClickUp, and Asana, to name a few, that might work as well or better depending on one’s needs.

Whatever program one picks, a tool like Trello is a critical addition to any tech stack, especially as marketers ramp up their content marketing efforts. According to a report released in July by the ANA and the Content Council, spending on content marketing has risen an average of 73 percent over the past two years, and the report projects spending will increase another 42 percent by 2022. Respondents indicated almost a fifth of their marketing budgets (18 percent) are dedicated to content marketing.

While the report is based on data gathered before the coronavirus pandemic, it’s unlikely the virus will dampen consumers’ receptiveness to branded content. As Statista reports, overall media consumption has increased globally since the outbreak began. Our own reporting shows that brands are scrambling to use digital methods of engagement to forge relationships with consumers during the pandemic, and you can bet that a key way to grab their attention going forward will involve branded content.

For these teams, many of whom are working remotely and want to continue to work remotely even after the pandemic ends, finding the right collaboration tool — and using it effectively — is critical.

To that end, here’s how the ANA Newsstand team uses Trello to manage its content production workflow.


The Great Cork Board in the Sky

The simplicity of Kanban-style boards makes them highly adaptable for different kinds of projects. It’s a way to visualize a project workflow, where things are within that flow, and quickly understand where the bottlenecks are or where they might appear.

This visualization technique consists of two main parts: a board, which is divided into columns, and cards. Generally, a board represents a project or a team, columns designate some aspect of the project/team, and the cards represent components, assets, or tasks.

The downside to employing any project management system is that you and your team have to actually use it.

How the system works (i.e., what the cards and columns mean, and how they are used) is up to the user.

For example, a board could show a team’s to-do list with columns called “Needs Doing,” “Doing,” and “Done.” Or, the columns could be named for the people to whom tasks will be assigned. Either way a card, which denotes a task or assignment, is moved between columns depending on its status. In this example the names of the columns would depend on what’s more important: the status of the task or how work is distributed.

For ANA Newsstand, the columns each define a stage of production and each card represents an article. We use the Trello board to track articles as they move through our editorial process.

Each time we assign a new story, we add a card for it to the Writing in Progress column on the left side of our board. When the manuscript comes in, the article goes to a line editor and the card moves one column to the right. As a manuscript progresses through the process, the card keeps moving across the board. The further to the right a card sits on the board, the farther into our process the article has progressed.

Part of ANA Newsstand’s Trello board. The columns represent stages in the editorial process and each card represents an article in production. Cards move from column to column as articles progress through the workflow. At later stages of production, editors add the lead image to the card. It makes the board pretty! But it also helps prevent using images that are visually or thematically similar.

With so many stories in development at one time, the columns help us keep track of where things are. That’s helpful enough on its own, but that’s just the beginning of how Trello helps us stay organized and productive.

While columns tell us where an article is in the process, the cards that sit in those columns do way, way more.

Let’s get nerdy.


Cards Tricks

Cards are capable of holding every piece of information having to do with an article. Not only that, they come with a suite of features that would make a Swiss Army knife blush.

Cards have two sides: A front side that shows key pieces of data and a back that houses a wealth of information and functionality.

Quickly, here are the basic features of a Trello card.

On the front:

  • Name
  • Assigned team members
  • Color-coded labels
  • Due dates
  • Cover image

On the back:

  • Everything on the front
  • Description field
  • Customized checklists
  • File attachments
  • Links
  • Comments
  • The option to add hundreds of other functional enhancements

Cards can keep track of deadlines. They can be assigned to people. They can notify individuals when deadlines occur. They have checklists, to which one can add items, and the items in those checklists can have their own deadlines.

Team members can be mentioned in comments and in checklist items, and they can receive notifications about updates made to cards. Cards can be linked to other cards, even on other boards, and changing one can trigger changes in the other.

Additionally, Trello, like other Kanban-based tools, includes the capability to hook into other programs, including Slack, Salesforce, Twitter, Zendesk, and dozens of others, each bringing additional functionality to cards. Ours is connected to a group communication platform and pushes updates into the team’s feed to keep everyone on the same page in real time.

Trello itself offers a number of plug-ins that add basic features like a calendar view or sophisticated enhancements like customizable fields that offer an infinite number of uses.

For our purposes, we assign each article a unique project ID and use that to name the Trello card along with server folders and all article-specific files. This ensures we can always find things regardless of who created it. (It’s also a great way to organize email.)

We use the description field to keep a detailed timeline of our progress, so if someone calls in sick or wins the lottery and never comes back, another team member can step in without missing a beat.

A look at the back of a card. The back of the card contains as much detail as one can bear to add. In our case, that includes the names of the editors and writer, progress notes, and the publish date, among a zillion other things. Deadlines and custom checklists provide accountability and help keep team members on task.

Our cards are built using templates that each include multiple checklists, one for each key role (e.g., managing editor, line editor, senior editor, fact checker, HTML developer, proofreader). The checklists hold team members accountable and help managing editors pinpoint exactly what’s been done and by whom. Additionally, because we are a small team and we often fill multiple roles, even for a single article, checklists in combination with being assigned to a card keep us on top of what we need to do, for whom we’re doing it, and when it’s due.

We also employ a color-coded label on each card that identifies the magazine program. This helps us quickly distinguish green cards tracking ANA magazine articles, for example, from blue ones tracking Forward magazine content.

Labels are also one way to filter a board’s view.

We can filter by label, individual or individuals, deadline, keyword, or any combination thereof. Filtering by person is particularly helpful to identify instances where one person has a number of conflicting deadlines approaching. By spotting that sort of thing early, we can better distribute the work and keep things moving smoothly.

Grouping cards into columns based on the stages in our process, assigning team members to cards to fulfill various roles, and then providing those team members with a specific checklist to work through as they complete their assignment by a determined deadline helps us to work more cohesively as a team. It makes the flow of work predictable and therefore manageable in a way that makes it possible to be more productive with our time.

It also helps that we have a butler.


Yeah, We Have a Butler

The downside to employing any project management system is that you and your team have to actually use it. At least a minimal amount of time has to be dedicated to keeping it up to date. When someone fails to make an update, it often causes confusion with the rest of the team. It sometimes results in delays or a domino effect of delays that affect other projects. Without consistent use, the project management system falls apart.

The secret to using a team collaboration tool like Trello to successfully manage a project is twofold. First, it has to align with a rock-solid process, one that outlines each step and provides details on exactly what to do, how to do it, and when. Second, the practice of using the tool itself has to take as little of the team’s time as possible — this is where our butler comes in.

Trello comes equipped with an automation bot called Butler. It will not serve you drinks, but it will handle a vast number of tasks, freeing up team members’ time to focus on producing work.

Butler will not serve you drinks, but it will handle a vast number of tasks, freeing up team members’ time to focus on producing work.

The bot is programmable to look for certain triggers and then perform a series of tasks based on different variables. Triggers can be based on time, action, or input. They can happen at certain times, such as when a card’s due date arrives, or on a recurring basis (i.e., daily, weekly, monthly, annually). The bot can trigger when something is done to a card, list, or board, or when certain information is added to, say, a card’s description field or when a person is mentioned in a comment.

The ANA Newsstand team uses 74 customized automations, most of which trigger when we complete certain items in our checklists.

For example, when the fact checker completes the final item on her list, it triggers an automation that performs the following series of tasks: A note is sent to inform the managing editor that the fact checking list is complete, the status field is updated to inform whoever views the card that the article is back with the managing editor for next steps, the card’s due date is changed to the next working day, and the fact checker, whose role is now complete, is removed from the card.

Similar automations happen at every milestone, adding and removing team members, moving cards between lists, updating cards with relevant information, and relaying status changes and upcoming deadlines to the appropriate team members as needed.

We also use automations in more subtle ways. Every day at 9:00 a.m., cards due that day float to the top of their columns so we can easily see what needs prioritizing. When an article reaches web development, the test link is automatically added to the card for easy reference, and when the article goes live the test link is replaced with the live link. Additionally, when an article publishes, Butler fires out emails to the promotions team to let them know. (There are also less subtle automations in place. For instance, if a card goes untouched three hours past its due date, a red label and a hazard sign appear — when an action advances the due date, the warnings are removed.)

The very unsexy inner workings of ANA Newsstand’s automations. Automation formulas, like the two of 74 pictured here, use a Mad Libs–style construction (i.e., “When a checklist item containing X is checked, perform the following tasks…”). For Newsstand, we use emoji characters to trigger certain automations. Each emoji signals a unique series of actions.

Beyond stepping in to handle repetitive tasks, Butler lightens the load by evenly distributing work. We tell the bot who handles what and it divvies up the work automatically. For example, we have three fact checkers; when an article reaches fact checking, Butler assigns person No. 1 every third article.

Whether the automations trigger a transition between team members, organize cards chronologically, or surface issues we may not have noticed otherwise, our butler keeps our team moving.

What’s more, our automations help limit the time the team spends in an article’s Trello card to less than 15 minutes over the course of the 10-week-long process, which means we can maximize the amount of time we actually spend producing articles.

Our managing editors, who spend the most time in Trello and are directly responsible for 41 steps in our 100-step process, spend no more than 10 minutes in an article’s Trello card. A fact checker’s entire interaction with a card takes less than a minute.


Trello and Go

Juggling as many content items as we do, a cloud-based collaboration tool has become an intrinsic part of how the ANA Newsstand team works.

Whether you’re producing written articles, podcasts, videos, website pages, influencer-based social media content, or something else, a clear process coupled with a collaboration tool to keep your team aligned and on task will go a long way to ensuring the work is done consistently well and on time.

With remote work becoming the norm during the pandemic, and surveys showing a majority of workers report being more productive at home and want to continue working from home even after the pandemic ends, it’s likely that collaboration tools will become all the more necessary as teams master the practice of working together from afar.

How is your team managing its work in a remote environment? Share in the comments.

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