News for Digital Journalists

June 14, 2011

Content management ecosystem: Why many publishing tools are better than one

Is your content management system holding your news org back from digital media opportunities or efficiencies? Maybe it’s time to consider your content management ecosystem strategy, as Matt Thompson of Star-Tribune.com suggested this week.

The Bangor Daily News’ recent switch to WordPress may point the way forward…

In his Poynter article, 4 ways content management systems are evolving & why it matters to journalists, Thompson observed that journalism, and news orgs of all kinds, are moving from “content management systems” to “content management ecosystems.”

“We’ve finally begun to accept that no single CMS can handle all of a digital news organization’s content functions,” Thompson wrote. “A good content management system today is designed to interact with lots of other software. There’s now a genuine expectation that a CMS will play nicely with videos stored on YouTube, or comments managed by Disqus, or live chats embedded from CoverItLive. Other environments such as Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr come with their own suites of tools. And increasingly, what we call a ‘content management system’ is actually a combo of multiple tightly-integrated systems.”

For example, Thompson noted that NPR’s Argo blog network, which he helped develop and launch last year, uses the popular free open-source CMS WordPress “as a baseline. But we wanted to accomplish several things that WordPress wouldn’t make easy, so [project teammate Marc] Lavallee blended WordPress with Django. This allowed us to seamlessly link the Argo platform to services such as Delicious and Daylife, with minimal friction for users of the software.”

Meanwhile, this week the Bangor Daily News (a family-owned leading daily paper in Maine) completed its switch to WordPress as its core CMS. Their new editorial/production process combines a several free and commercial applications, both cloud-based and conventional.

“It’s a unique system we built, for the most part, from the ground up, and we believe we’re the largest newspaper running entirely on WordPress,” wrote online editor William P. Davis.

Davis explained in an interview that BDN reporters now compose their stories directly in Google Docs. This content then is collaboratively edited and updated in real time, so everyone knows what’s going on and has access to the most current version. BDN introduced this part of the new editorial process in January, and newsroom staff have adapted well to it.

“Using Google Docs eliminates redundancies. We used to have with multiple versions of stories in different places,” Davis said. “It’s much more streamlined and less confusing. And now reporters can add in their own links right from the beginning.” He noted that the paper’s previous print CMS was a 1990s-era system from ATEX, which allowed journalists to do little more than type in text.

The paper used to have an entirely separate proprietary CMS for digital publishing—and the two systems could not communicate directly. Davis said there were staff members whose main duty was to copy content from the print CMS, paste it into the digital CMS, and recreate links and tags.

Under the new process, final edited stories are imported directly from Google Docs to WordPress using XML-RPC. WordPress now supports all of the paper’s digital publishing—but for print, content is pushed to Adobe InDesign. In other words, print publishing is procedurally secondary to digital publishing at BDN. This flipped-around workflow allows BDN to specify different headlines for online and print versions of a story—a strategy that maximizes search traction while also optimizing print layout.

WordPress is far more amenable than a typical print-focused CMS to customization and integration with other tools and services—as well as functions such as embedding, semantic analysis, and social media support. Making this switch vastly increases a news organization’s long-term options.

BDN hopes other news orgs will learn from their example. Davis wrote: “Over the next few months we’ll be extensively sharing how we [made this change] and open-sourcing much of the project. Our goal is to help other newspapers set up an easy-to-use, low-cost content management system. The setup is actually quite simple and easy to implement.”

Despite this helping hand, it’s likely that many large news orgs will continue to cling to print-first proprietary CMSs due to institutional inertia, size-induced unwieldiness, the psychological commitment that comes with any previous large investment, and control-focused corporate culture.

This is especially likely for major investor-owned newspaper chains which have implemented central CMSs. Ostensibly, these closed, proprietary systems were implemented for the sake of efficiency and quality control—but too often they end up hurting news orgs by requiring more labor while limiting flexibility and adaptability.

So it may be that for many of today’s news giants, their CMSs will prove to be their Achilles’ heel.

The News for Digital Journalists blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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