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Zapier at ONA14 - Automate Your Newsroom

Danny Schreiber
Danny Schreiber / September 24, 2014

Zapier is a free online tool makes it easy to integrate and automate the apps you use, such as WordPress, Gmail, Google Docs and Twitter. In all, over 350 apps are connected on Zapier.

Case Study: See why Anthem News publisher Nadine Shaalan calls Zapier "another editor" in her newsroom.


What is Zapier?

event-based automation

Zapier is event-based automation. An event, let's say a new Gmail email with an attachment, triggers an action, such as downloading that attachment to a specified Dropbox folder. This simple equation—an event happens in one place, triggers an event in another place—is then applied to a massive integration of over 350 apps, including WordPress, Google Docs, Evernote and Twitter. That means when you receive a new email, besides saving a file to Dropbox, you could trigger an action in hundreds of other apps, making the automation possibilities of Zapier seemingly infinite.


How Anthem News Automated Freelance Management without an IT Department

"A fantastically satisfying way of avoiding having to use an IT person every time I need something done."- Nadine Shaalan, Publisher of In&Out Publications

About Anthem News

anthem news website

Anthem News of Anthem, Ariz. is the online arm of In&Out Publications, a local news organization started in 2005 by Philadelphia Inquirer veteran Nadine Shaalan. With a mission to put useful, accurate and entertaining information into the hands of residents, In&Out publishes a weekly print magazine and a monthly health and wellness insert in addition to its regularly updated site.

Problem

As a community news outlet, Shaalan employs only herself full-time and relies on a team of a dozen freelancers to fill the pages of In&Out's print and online publications. On top of managing and editing the work of her writers and occasionally writing stories herself, she maintains advertiser relations, designs ads as needed, lays out the print publications and oversees the organization's strategic decision making. This schedule requires she maximize her time to the greatest extent, but on a small budget that can be difficult—proprietary software that would systemize her newsroom's processes is too expensive. Working with an IT team, she says, is also ineffective for an organization of her size.

"One of the biggest hurdles I've found since getting into online news is IT," Shaalan says. "I have a heck of a time getting things done the way I want them to be. Then, of course, every time you pick up the phone, you're going to pay $1,000."

Solution

To keep expenses at a minimum and tech simple, Shaalan uses low-cost apps—Gmail, Google Docs, Google Drive and WordPress—and relies on a free WordPress plugin created by a fellow journalist. The plugin, "Docs to WordPress," developed by William Davis of The Bangor Daily News, allows her staff to automatically import a draft to WordPress when they place a Google Doc in a specified folder. The plugin automated the first step in web production and proved to be impactful to her team's workflow.

"For a small company like us, automation is extremely important," she says. Which is why she didn't stop. There were still time-consuming tasks, like story budgeting and freelance correspondence, to streamline.

This is where Zapier, an automation tool she began using in January 2013, came to play a vital role to the In&Out newsroom.

"(Zapier is) almost like having another editor, another manager," Shaalan says. "It's like having somebody to poke everybody and get everybody going."

That poking and prodding is really automation at work. In all, In&Out makes use of 16 different Zapier automations to streamline their editorial work.

Readying Press Releases for Assignments

in&out's google docs

Like most news organization, In&Out receives press releases daily. When they arrive in Shaalan's inbox, instead of filing away interesting ones for consideration later, she simply adds a Gmail label.

"When I (label) that email as something that's potentially good for editorial, Zapier will take the content of the email and move it into Google Docs into our 'Potential Stories' folder," she says. On top of that, another Zapier automation sends the attachment to Google Drive, as well.

"Anytime we need stories idea, we pop that folder open," she says, noting it saves her from having to sort through thousands of emails.

Budgeting Stories

To budget stories across her three publications, Shaalan relies on a Google Form. She begins by entering a freelance assignment in the form, which adds all the fields as one row in a specified Google Sheets spreadsheet.

in&out's google form
Click on the image for a closer look

These assignments (Google Form submissions) are then added to the appropriate Google Calendar(s), which individually comprise the publication's story "budget" or story lineup, giving the crew an overview of what's ahead. As to which calendar receives the story, it depends on the assignment's destination—"Print & Web", "Print" or "Web". This is all part of the Zapier automation Shaalan has set up—a new Google Sheets row (via a Google Form submission) adds a new Google Calendar event—which includes a filter to route the story to one or both spreadsheets, and subsequently, calendars.

When the automation begins, triggered by a new row in Shaalan's designated Google Sheet, Zapier checks the "Destination" field to send the story to the right calendar.

Here's what a Filter looks like inside Zapier:

web filter

The "Web Budget" Calendar

If "Web" is present in the Google Sheets row, the story is added to In&Out's "Web Budget" Google Calendar with the following details:

Summary: Web [slug]

Description:

  • [Assignment summary]
  • Photos: [Whether or not the freelancer is responsible for photos, too]
  • Link to story: [A link that opens up a new Google Doc for the freelancers to write and file their story—generated manually and entered into a form field]

Start Date & Time: and End Data & Time: noon [due date]

The "Print Budget" Calendar

print filter

If the Google Sheets row contains "Print" instead, the assignment is sent to the In&Out's "Print Budget" Google Calendar with the following details:

Summary: Print Pubdate [slug]

Description:

  • Story Assigned to: [freelance writer's email]
  • Assignment summary
  • Link to story: [A link that opens up a new Google Doc for the freelancers to write and file their story—generated manually and entered into a form field]
  • Photos: [Whether or not the freelancer is responsible for photos, too]

Start Date & Time: and End Date & Time: noon [due date]

Assigning Freelance Writers

Employing the same two Google Sheets—Web Budget and Print Budget—Shaalan set up a Zapier automation to send story assignments to her freelance writers. To do this, she connects the spreadsheet to another calendar ("Assignments"), in which freelancers are automatically notified when they have a new assignments. Again, this is done by a Zapier automation that creates a Calendar event from a new row in a Google Sheet.

Here's what the calendar event looks like, pulling in the fields from the Google Sheet (which pulls in new rows from the aforementioned Google Form):

Summary: [Writer name] Deadline to File [Slug]

Description:

  • Assignment summary
  • Assigned to [freelance writer's email]
  • Link to story: [A link that opens up a new Google Doc for the freelancers to write and file their story—generated manually and entered into a form field]
  • Photos: [Whether or not the freelancer is responsible for photos, too]

Start Date & Time: and End Data & Time: noon [due date]

Attendee: [freelance writer's email]

When the story is entered, the "attendee"—the freelancer writer—instantly receives an email invite to the event, which contains a link to an empty Google Doc.

"If you look at our workflow, we've really made it pretty idiot-proof," Shaalan says. "The writers don't even have to create a file […] there's a link to the Google Docs file where they just click on it and start typing. That's it, that's all they have to do."

Assigning Freelance Photographers

Just as she's automated written assignments, Shaalan also uses Zapier to get stories in the hands of her freelance photographers. For this, she employs a similar Google Form, spreadsheet and calendar but the same Zapier automation—a new Google Sheets row creates a new Google Calendar event, to which the photographer is invited.

Retrieving and Editing Freelance Work

Key to the Google Calendar events used in this automated workflow are the one-click links for the writers to open a new Google Doc. It's one part of this process that's manual—they're created when the freelance assignment form is filled out at the start—but it streamlines the process.

Once in Google Docs, Shaalan and another editor move the docs in and out of folders, along an editorial process.

  1. drafts
  2. filed
  3. copy edit
  4. ready for print
  5. send to web
  6. archive these

Once a writer is ready for their assignment to be edited, they move it to the "file" folder.

Submitting Stories to be Publish

When the editing is complete, the copy editor moves the freelancer's doc into a shared "Ready for Print" folder. Doing so, triggers a Zapier automation that sends an email to In&Out's designer.

From there, the copy editor uses the Doc to WordPress Draft plugin to send the story's copy to WordPress.

Paying Freelancers

Beyond the editorial process, Shaalan has added automation to parts of her newsroom operations, as well.

To be sure she pays her staff of freelancers on time, she's set up a recurring event in Google Calendar called "Team Member Invoice" and with a Zapier automation, she sends a monthly reminder to team email address.

Here's how she set up this automation, which again includes a Filter:

Calendar: [Name of calendar], hers is called "Admin Calendar"

Time Before: 3 days (this triggers a reminder 3 days before she's like to pay all invoices)

team member invoice filter

Here's the body of the email sent by this automation:

Please help us keep our books in order and get you paid in a timely manner by sending your invoice by the morning of the last business day of the month.

Thank you.

Benefits

Zapier plays such an important role in the In&Out newsroom that Shaalan sees the automation tool as almost a member of the staff itself, calling it an editorial assistant.

"It almost replaces a person," she says. "Between that and Docs to Wordpress Draft, we don't have to (purchase a) proprietary system. This is a really low-cost, effective way to tailor systems to do exactly what you need from them."

Move over, she no longer needs to work with an IT firm.

"This has been a fantastically satisfying way of avoiding having to use an IT person every time I needed something done," Shaalan says. "It's like pre-programming—it's already programmed for you, you just put things together like LEGOs."

And just because she's automated over a dozen manual tasks in her newsroom doesn't mean she's figured it all out, she admits.

"I created (the automations) one by one as needed, and I've got more to do," she says. "There's always more, there's alway a better way of doing things."

Credits: Newsroom photo courtesy David Sim on Flickr. Potbelly Sandwich Shop photo courtesy Zara on Flickr

Photo of Grace Garey

“If we didn't get these ongoing notifications through Zapier, we’d miss important information on how patient funding is going. It's saved us so much time.”

Grace Garey, co-founder of Watsi

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