At time of writing, The Telegraph newsroom is two weeks away from being fully operational on Trello. The brief was to try and do away with all the unnecessary administration involved in running a busy office. In our case, this is 500+ journalists and video producers who are all trying to get their work out there — and the digital noise is intense.
So how did The Telegraph do this?
All the desks were keeping their own record of the day’s work — some on Word docs, some on spreadsheets, and others the inside of their brains — and all were feeding this information manually onto a central Google spreadsheet. This spreadsheet (known as the digital grid) was displayed on a big monitor three times daily for conferencing purposes. In addition, the desks were printing copies of their individual lists and handing them out.
All these different methods of tracking are fine for individual teams, but for the portal team — whose job it is to promote these stories on the homepage and on social media — it was becoming more and more laborious.
The homepage editor couldn’t see where in the process all those stories were or when to expect them. Had stories been commissioned or were they just ideas? What were their deadlines, who was writing the pieces, and who was producing them for online publication? Was this the same person? Were these stories live and, if so, where?
The portal e-mail inbox was groaning. The main way for desks to communicate that stories were live and ready for promotion was via the portal group e-mail, which has 80+ addresses on it. This equated to approximately one e-mail every two minutes during business hours, with most of these e-mails clogging up inboxes of the 98% of staff not working that day.
The main desk in charge of garnering traffic and registrations for The Telegraph was the last to know and drowning in information. Something had to be done.
Trello was earmarked as a solution by the tech team. The Kanban (“billboard” in Japanese) project management system has long been a go-to since Taiichi Ohno, an industrial engineer at Toyota, developed it to improve manufacturing efficiency in the factory.
“Out-of-the-box” Trello is easy to set up and simple to use — think of a digital whiteboard made up of lists with sticky notes on them that can be labelled, timed, and assigned to individuals and moved from list to list. The cards can hold a variety of information (such as writer and/or Web producer and publish time); pictures and documents can also be attached (a boon for The Telegraph’s picture desk). The cards can also be archived. This is much more powerful than a spreadsheet.
Adoption of the tool would be simple and smooth. Why wouldn’t the newsroom want to use a system that offered more? This is a simple matter in theory, but for the various desks, it quickly became apparent that one size does not fit all.
Some desks, like business and news (the “live” desks), work to a daily cadence. Stories are spun up and quickly published with less of a need for forward planning. Other desks, like the sport and foreign desks, operate with fewer in-house staff, and teams like culture and fashion are very compact with more of a need to plan work in advance.
The initial strategy was to have our business analyst, Sunny Sidhu, map out the workflow of each desk. This would be done by speaking to the senior members of the desk and investigating exactly how they work from the start of the day to close. We would then supply them with a bespoke solution based on their existing day-to-day duties and routines.
Armed with this information, the personal finance section launched in October 2017 to little fanfare, but the team of three coped well and took to the system quickly. The first shot in the battle to “ditch the digital grid” had been fired.
Buoyed by this success, the rewsroom team then rolled Trello out to the business desk — a much larger team comprised of 30+ writers and editors. This did not go so well. What Trello lacked was a single place to view all the cards. The desk, although game, was still using a spreadsheet and Trello became a millstone for them — an extra thing to update for an already stretched team.
With the sport team earmarked as the next desk to start using Trello, an opportunity arose to breathe life into the project with a new approach. First, a member of the editorial team (that’s me!) would be seconded to serve as a middleman between the developers and the journalists. This involved identifying the important stakeholders on each desk to best map the existing workflow with Sidhu. The person in charge of the desk doesn’t necessarily know how his staff members organise their work on a day-to-day basis. He or she tends to see the end result.
Another advantage was having a long-term staff member who could explain how each editorial desk works to the developers. This also meant having a friendly face to eventually onboard the journalists using terminology they understand.
Sport operates like a proper team, a collegial bubble in a corner of the room where everyone can do each others’ jobs. A ball is dropped and someone picks it up. This is an ideal situation when you are trying to introduce a new product and devise some best practices for the whole company.
Using the sport team as our new guinea pigs and taking its feedback, we were able to isolate some key issues.
- A Trello board full of cards — while easy to filter — is difficult to read in one go. As a result, we set the developers to work and devised a list view with bespoke fields that mimicked Google Sheets.
- Creating a card and adding all the elements was time consuming compared to merely filling out a cell in spreadsheet. The team of developers developed a new feature named “fast create.” Again, this mimicked the action of filling out a spreadsheet. Both of these are excellent tools when you are onboarding a busy group that fears change!
- We created a template board that worked in the background to add cards for regular columns onto the main board every day. Again, this reduced the workload.
- We created a portal board for the homepage and social teams so they could triage stories from every desk. This is all automated so there are no more e-mails to the main desk.
Armed with these new power-up tools and features we set to work on building a board for news, well aware that if the adoption of it failed then the whole project was dead in the water.
We had sport on board, but news was essential if Trello was to work across all of editorial, so we felt it best to keep the very busy news editor, Mark Hughes, insulated from the process until we had something to show him.
To do this we approached the weekend news editor, Virginia Newman, and breaking news editor, Danny Boyle, and embarked on what seemed like a three-hour therapy session as we examined exactly how The Telegraph news desk goes about its daily business. To our knowledge, no one had taken the time to do this before. This is no surprise given the intensity of the work involved by the reporters on every desk. Their input would turn out to be key.
When the news board was ready, we demonstrated it to Hughes and his deputy, Caroline Argyropulo-Palmer, to get feedback from them before we approached various other deputies, including the night editor and the overnight editor in the United States.
We soft launched overnight and rolled it out fully at 6 a.m. Since the reporters only need to perform part of the process on Trello, we gave them a 10-minute primer at their desks and they were off and running.
The conference went without a hitch, and so far, barring one or two mishaps, the process has been smooth. So smooth that the remaining desks, far from being reluctant to use the tool, are now beating down our door to get involved.
We’re not quite finished, but the valuable lessons we learned are:
- Try not to be everything to everyone. We tried the iterative approach and it failed. When we standardised all the boards with several key features, training became easier and smoother. Build it and they will come!
- Often, the more senior executives are the ones most resistant to change. Approach younger team members who are more tech-savvy and versatile. Let them drive innovation. They are the ones using the tool the most.
- Everyone is busy. Don’t overdo the training. Follow this guideline: “Just the facts, ma’am. Just the facts.”
- Be flexible. If people offer feedback then respect them for taking the time. If the development work is easy to do, put it on the top of the to-do list.
The Telegraph will continue to roll out and perfect the Trello process in the weeks and months to come.