The Flying Narwhal: Small mag workflow

Flying Narwhal logoKaitlyn Till, Shed Simas & Velma Larkai

Project Overview

Who we are & Background context

We are Master of Publishing students at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. We approached this project from the perspective of two magazine concepts we developed earlier in the term: Shed, a consumer lifestyle magazine about minimalist living focused on Vancouver, designed as a multi-platform publication for web, iPad, and print; and Roam, a custom-content publication for an Airbnb-like service that has a print magazine, a digital edition (PDF of the print) and a website.

Aims & Goals

We devised a workflow solution that manages text content for all assets of a small magazine from a single source. Rather than devising a complete workflow software that attempts to cover all possible options, we curated a list of suggested components that can work together in flexible ways, so that publishers can tweak the system based on the processes they already have in place.

The aim was to create a simple solution that can be applied to small magazines that, like Shed and Roam, are publishing on multiple platforms. While not our main focus, book publishers should also be able to adapt our system to their workflow, especially for creating print and ebooks from a single source.

Specifically, we catered our suggestions for the Roam WordPress website; the Shed Padify digital magazine; and the web and print editions of Repurposed magazine, a digital-first literary and arts magazine with a yearly print component.

Available resources & Project requirements

Kaitlyn Till is the editorial expert, Shed Simas is the art and web expert, and Velma Larkai is the production expert. We also have access to John Maxwell as a consultant. Our colleagues, who were also working on bleeding-edge projects, are available for consultation and user experience testing. We also have extensive web resources for documentation on the tools we chose to use for this project.

We have the established magazine content and vision for both Shed and Roam, and Shed prototypes for web and print.

We had to find out how Padify works so that we could optimize the content input process. We also needed to research Dropbox-to-WordPress syncing methods and plugins, which we found online through WordPress’s extensive support community.

We also needed more in-depth and hands-on knowledge of Pandoc and how to cater it for all three assets. We did this using John Maxwell’s Pandoc experience, and John Macfarlane’s resources: We’ve chosen to use Pandoc as our primary engine since it is already able to perform conversions to and/or from every file format we expect to encounter. We can also have it operating right in Dropbox, which can then feed directly into WordPress and Padify.

Usage Scenarios

General workflow requirements of small magazines

Most small magazines share a set of requirements, which we kept in mind. All small magazines need a submission management system, whether this is a simple in-house protocol of how to handle email contributions, or third-party submission management software. Ideally, during the editorial stage, articles need to be accessible from multiple computers and/or by multiple users — including contributors who may not be working in the office — often at the same time. With all these simultaneous users, version control can be very important.

Requirements for Roam‘s WordPress website workflow

Roam is an Airbnb custom content quarterly magazine. It operates on four different platforms: print, digital edition, website, and enewsletter. The website is built on WordPress and features specially developed content including multimedia and interactives. All print content is condensed for the website.

The main users of our content management system is the Roam team (Alex Sutcliffe, Rosie Sidle, Tilman Queitsch, and Emily Ross). They are all familiar with the WordPress, Dropbox, Google Drive, and InDesign. They have no experience with Pandoc and Padify.

Their main need is for a system to move articles that have been published in print into the web — frequently as a condensed version — as well as to publish original online content.

Requirements for Shed‘s Padify digital magazine workflow

Shed publishes online first, digital magazine second, and in print third. At each stage, there will also be new, unique content added to the mix. The main person who will be using The Flying Narwhal system for Padify is Jesmine Cham, Shed’s Digital Director. She will also receive help from Kaitlyn Till, Editor-in-Chief. Any interns who help with the Shed digital magazine will be trained by Jesmine.

Jesmine is comfortable with digital technologies; she is familiar with Google Drive, Dropbox, and WordPress; and she has some experience with Pandoc. Kaitlyn is also comfortable on a computer and familiar with Google Drive, Dropbox, and Pandoc; but she is less familiar with WordPress.

Shed magazine in general needs to be able to input new content to all its platforms — WordPress website, Padify digital magazine, and print. As articles get reprinted in other platforms, they may be left as-is, condensed, expanded, or even repurposed in a different form.

Requirements for Repurposed‘s web to print workflow

Repurposed is a shoe-string budget magazine that solicits content that repurposes previously existing material. It publishes a web magazine quarterly and a print magazine annually. The print magazine compiles previously-published content from the web and some new content.

The primary users of The Flying Narwhal system will be Cassandra Metcalfe and Brittany Vesterback. They are both familiar with Dropbox, Google Drive, WordPress, and InDesign. Neither is familiar with Pandoc. They will be publishing online using WordPress.

Once content is fully edited for the web edition, select content needs to be imported into InDesign to create the yearly print edition; this version of content should include any edits that were made in WordPress. New content may also need to be added at this stage.

The Flying Narwhal Components


Basic cost: $319 per year (read more)

For a robust submission management system, we recommend The service streamlines the submission receipt process so that everyone involved knows what material has come in, when it was submitted, what it is, where it fits into the review/selection process (who has seen it, and who hasn’t), and which submissions have been responded to.

For magazines that can’t afford Submittable, this stage can be bypassed entirely. Documents can be received by regular email or other web forms without affecting the process. All content will have to be manually placed into the Incoming Dropbox folder.


Basic cost: Free (read more)

For all organization, storage, and version control needs we recommend Dropbox for Business, which offers ample cloud storage and complimentary advanced version control. All other components also integrate well with Dropbox.

An option for smaller magazines is Dropbox Pro; it  does not include version control, but this can be added on via the Packrat add-on. Very small magazines can also use Dropbox Free, which offers limited storage and no version control; but otherwise fits with The Flying Narwhal seamlessly.

Google Drive

Basic cost: Free (read more)

Google Drive can be used for collaborating on documents — for example, a writer and editor working together.

Neutron Drive

Cost: Free

Neutron Drive is an app extension for Google Chrome that allows users to share and edit HTML files (and other file types, like Markdown) online as if they were working on a regular Google Doc file. It integrates seamlessly with Google Drive and, for the most part, works in the same way.


Basic cost: Free (not explicitly advertised; read more)

By using CloudHQ, a cloud management service, Dropbox and Google Drive (and other cloud services) can be automatically and continually synced so that all files are available in both locations. Word documents saved to Dropbox get converted to Google Doc format; and new Google Docs get saved in Dropbox as Word files.


Cost: Free

WordPress is a powerful, free, open-source, and widely popular content management system. Its community support is unparallelled by other cms. One of its most important features, however, is its extensibility. WordPress has an extensive plugin library, most of which are also free and open source.

One such plugin is Post via Dropbox, which allows users to create and even publish posts simply by putting a text file in the appropriate folder in Dropbox. The plugin even understands Markdown syntax and converts it to HTML for WordPress.


Basic cost: $4,500 (contact Padify for details)

Padify is a powerful web app for creating digital magazines for iPad and Android. For adding articles to a publication, Padify features a handy Dropbox upload that works very much like the Post via Dropbox plugin for WordPress.


Basic cost: $240 per year

InDesign is the industry standard for print design.


Website: Textutil manual on Mac Developer Library
Cost: Free (included with Macintosh computers)

Via Mac’s Terminal utility, Textutil can be used to convert the Word DOCX files into HTML. At this time, we do not have a Windows alternative to recommend.


Website: About Pandoc; Installation Guide
Cost: Free (installation can be complicated)

Via Terminal, Pandoc is “the swiss army knife” of converting files from one form of markup to another including HTML and markdown. We had to install the ICML conversion capability separately. A straightforward ICML extension in Pandoc is forthcoming.

Flying Narwhal applications

We’ve developed two simple shell script applications for running our Textutil and Pandoc conversions. We are not prepared to release our code at this time, but you are welcome to contact Kaitlyn Till or  Shed Simas for more information.

The Flying Narwhal System

Flying Narwhal Workflow

Content flowchart from contributors to the Hub, and from the Hub to the publishing platforms.

The Flying Narwhal system assumes magazines receive content primarily via the web, rather than mailed-in print submissions. Other content may be created in-house. Text submissions are expected to come in as Word documents or Google Docs. In both cases they need to be properly formatted with CSS style definitions (rather than in-line styles) to prep for the next steps. This process should begin after most of the editorial process is completed.

From your local Dropbox, begin by using Textutil to convert the Word DOCX files into HTML, and Pandoc to then convert it to HTML5. Textutil preserves document styles, but this is unwanted as each document will be styled separately in each platform; the Pandoc conversion to HTML5, as well as updating the markup, also does a very good job at cleaning up the code. The Flying Narwhal application Get Wings runs both of these conversions at once.

While the Textutil conversion will preserve some basic formatting, such as italics, it will not preserve other formatting, notably headings. To facilitate styling later, we recommend adding heading tags (h1, h2, and so on) to the HTML.

This HTML file will serve as the central hub file from which all others will be created. Pandoc commands can be used to convert it for publication in all platforms, separately or at once. The Flying Narwhal application Let It Fly runs all conversions together.

For print

To prepare articles for print, Pandoc’s ICML extension should be used to convert the HTML file to InCopy Markup Language. The ICML can then be placed into an InDesign template for production. ICML files work like image links: they are not actually in the InDesign file, only referenced. This allows writers and editors to continue working on a file while the designer gets started. Once the article is finalized (and re-exported to ICML), the designer only has to update the link for all changes to show up.

For web

A Pandoc command can be used to write a text (TXT) file that uses Markdown syntax and place it in the folder for Post via Dropbox. While Post via Dropbox has a few setting options, we recommend the use of its “Simplified posting” mode, and setting the default status to “draft.” This way, publication times, post authors, and other important post metadata can be edited manually before the article goes live. Unfortunately, Post via Dropbox has one important limitation: unlike ICMLs in InDesign, the plugin is not able to update existing articles. If a change needs to be made, the article will have to be reuploaded separately, and any metadata will have to be manually re-entered.

For Padify

Content that will go into a Padify digital magazine needs to be in standalone HTML — that is, it does not need an HTML declaration, a head and so on — and placed in a dedicated Dropbox folder that will upload to Padify. Again, a Pandoc command can handle all of these requirements. Padify also has the same limitation as Post via Dropbox: although the feature is called “Dropbox sync,” the connection in one-way. If changes need to be made, the article will need to be uploaded and styled from the beginning.

Forthcoming Features

Going forward, we hope to make The Flying Narwhal overall more robust. This initial version of The Flying Narwhal system is intended for text-only content; a workflow solution for images and multi-media is in the plans.

We also intend to modify our existing applications to make them more powerful. In order for The Flying Narwhal to be  truly useful as a workflow system, we would like to be able to create different versions of an article for each platform from the same HTML file. Class declarations can be used to define what part of the content is for print, what is for the digital magazine, and what is for web. For example:

<h1>For the love of books</h1>
<h2 class="webhide">Living with books in a small space</h2>
<p>As a dedicated bibliophile, Sharon knew that moving from a shared rental house to her own microloft in Gastown would prove a challenge. But there was really just one big question: <em>where do the books go</em>?</p>
<p class="padhide">It was only after she’d unpacked in her 280-square-foot home and assessed the stacks around her that she fully realized just how creative she would have to be.</p>

The class “webhide” can be used to remove the H2 from the web version of the article, but will be intact in print and on the digital magazine. Similarly, the “padhide” class can hide the second paragraph in the digital magazine without affecting the print and web versions. While this is easy enough with the web and with Padify, since the CSS property display:none can be applied to these classes when they need to be hidden, we have yet to develop a solution for ICML.

We also intend to lobby third parties to develop the features necessary for making The Flying Narwhal seamless. Most importantly, this means requesting that Post via Dropbox and Padify develop true file syncing, so that changes to the original file can be pushed through to WordPress and Padify without affecting styling, metadata, and so on.

Further, we hope that John Macfarlane’s ICML extension for Pandoc will be included in the official installation soon. However, the ICML conversion code still needs work: it does not preserve paragraph classes as paragraph styles (which we have seen other ICML conversions do), which can be useful for styling in all platforms; and we noticed problems handling special characters.

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