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What’s the state of content-management systems?

Notes by Bill Densmore, RJI Fellow, 2008-2009
(Please use the wiki function to correct, update or supplement these notes)

What drives news and information web sites? “Content-management systems” – CMS. While the presses which print daily newspapers are relatively standardized, CMS are not. There are a dozen or more that are in common use by U.S. newspapers and probably hundreds more – purchased or home-baked – in use.

What do these systems have in common? How are they evolving as the Internet becomes increasingly multimedia and serving mobile devices? Is it possible to have a single system which integrates all the business, editorial, marketing and technical needs of a multi-platform news organization.

The Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute convened a one-day seminar at the Missouri School of Journalism to answer some of those questions. Invited to provide the overview was BGV Media -– Amy Webb, Dorian Benkoil and Adam Glenn. BGV is an independent consultancy that researches and recommends CMS. Afterward, three CMS developers describing their emerging systems – Steve Yelvington of Morris Communication, in Augusta, Ga.; Richard Anderson of Village Soup in Rockland, Maine; and Ralph Gage and Dan Cox of MediaphorMedia in Lawrence, Kan.

Wikipedia has a page which lists features of content management systems.

Amy Webb began the day with an overview..

First decision: Open source, enterprise or make-your-own

Webb says the open-source Drupal platform is free, but setting it up isn’t free because of the lack of good documentation. Once place where it’s good, however, is when you are feeding the same data into multiple websites. The good thing about Drupal is there is a big developer community, and they are all building modules – specialty plug-ins that do special tasks.

Apture has built a module for Drupal.

Reuters has a Drupal-based project called Calais, described as “a rapidly growing toolkit of capabilities that allow you to readily incorporate state-of-the-art semantic functionality within your blog, content management system, website or application.” It’s an automatic system for culling through stories and pulling out relevant words for tagging.

Advice: If you are a small shop and you know Drupal – go with it. If you are a large shop, you need to hire someone who understands Drupal. The approach of for example, students, to publishing, is going to be different from an enterprise perspective. “You need to document the crap out of everything you do.” The developer should keep a daily log, “an absolute description of every nook and crany of that code.”

“If you’re working with an enterprise consultant and there are questions about whether they are willing to give you all that stuff, that’s a sign that you are working with the wrong consultant,” says Webb. “You need to have full documentation of everything about how your website works.” Also, she adds: Anybody who is spectacular at the back end is either subbing out the front end to someone else or they are going to do subpar front-end stuff.” Be careful when you are working with one company that promises to do both.

Dorian advises get some understanding of who owns the intellectual property.

Phase2 Technology is developing something . . . similar to Ellington, also.

Coding in Python is wickedly hard. Jango uses Python.

There are hundreds of CMS – SaxoTech, Clickability. She talks about SaxoTech. It is big in Europe and they also power CanWest.

  • Fully integrated CMS – big in Europe and Canada
  • Not just about content management – workflow
  • Considers project and team management
  • Publishing ffor print, web, mobile
  • Archiving and filtering across vast catalogs of content

Assumptions about enterprise sources

  • Prohibitively expensive, both in setup and ongoing support
  • Not customizable without great effort
  • Not able to keep up with cutting edge

An advantage, however, is that all the workflow aspects of news – from the story-idea meeting to multi-platform publication – is included in the package. “It starts with the creation of an idea.” It allows creating of assignments. “I like SaxoTech. … It’s pretty phenomenal.”

Advice overall: Cut down on third-party tools.

What are people doing with Ning and wikis?

Ning is a very simple platform you can customize without knowing code to create your own social network. Amy Webb is on the board of the Online News Association. It’s social-network site is on Ning because the CMS that ONA uses couldn’t do social networking. “You can deploy Ning if you need to, I just would recommend against it.” Why: Because it creates confusion with your main site.

A word about wikis – There’s PBWiki and there’s WordPress. “You could decide to do your whole site in Wordpress . . . Wordpress is just a platform . . . a blog is just a platform.

Q: Amy, what’s you impression of the stability of these hosted blog sites?

A: What if the host doesn’t support in the future? Where is the server? How is it being maintained? What about content migration?

Other things to think about if using someone else’s infrastructure

  • Who owns the information?
  • Who’s liable for malfunctioning open-source tools, missing files, or plaigerism or libel issues?
  • Can you trust your server farm or hosting company? What’s your plan B?
  • What about illegal/copyrighted content? Ads gone wild?
  • Example: Pornographic ad on Philly.com served by their ad-serving company

How to start your technology assessment

  • Do you have technical staff with enough knowledge and time to work with an open-source system?
  • Are you on a tight launch deadline?
  • Have you budgeted for pre-launch, post-launch fixes and ongoing maintenance?
  • Are you a single or multi-site shop?
  • Are you preparing for semantic tags and social networking?

Get help, start from the back and world forward to the user interface. Design for 12 months ahead, plan to launch in three months after that, and “prep for an extensible future that comes quicker than you anticipate.”

Make a list of every function that your website needs to do

What is every conceivable thing you want and how is it going to work?

Create a narrative taxonomy

  • Local
  • Context in from TBD
  • Semantic tags, image search, multimedia
  • Taxonomy important to you
  • Archiving, serving, etc.

You can’t select a new CMS without anticipating change

  • Big, disruptive, wonderful change. Make sure your vendor is also anticipating change.

Social aspects

  • Make sure your content is syndicated to Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere. Make sure it is more than just RSS, it can be syndicated to different platforms.
  • Accept that current services may not be popular tomorrow, and plan for it.
  • Allow others to fully connect with your content, share it and serve it..
  • Pluck is a third-party provider of social tools – you can default to them or other third-party providers rather than set it up yourself

Example: Apture enhancement of Baltimore Sun story about American Idol

  • Putting multimedia into an otherwise boring text account
  • “This thing is doing a better job than the providers are. And this was built by a dude who had some free time.

My sites: Aggregate or die

She says news sites are going to have to aggregate content from anywhere – or die. “Why use me to an aggregator? Why not aggregate yourselves?”

Is RSS a friend or foe? Example: Automated Content Access Protocol in Europe blocks RSS.

You have to syndicate your content. Will your CMS provider offer an aggregator that will allow a user to customize their experience on your site – allow them to bring in other content. “It is OK to have other content on your website as long as you keep your people there.”

What’s going on with mobile?

  • Webb reviews innovations in mobile phones and devices outside of the United States.
  • Ulocate suggests content to you based on where you are located.
  • The iPhone is neat – but what’s coming next?
  • Finding restaurants, watching news, getting breaking events that are targeted

Two-dimensional bar codes (“Q-codes”)

  • About 2-D (two-dimensional) barcodes -- you can embed content – “print hyperlinks” – the come in all shapes and forms. You take a picture of it with your mobile phone, which then scans the bar code and gives you information back from it. They are everywhere in Japan. They are on food packaging.
  • BBC is using them on their website
  • They are being used for editorial content
  • New York Magazine had an ad for Ralph Lauren which included a 2-D barcode.
  • Firefox has a mobile barcocode creator.
  • Application – put a 2-D code in an ad as an upsell to more information

Apple’s new multi-touch Mac

A patent application from Apple published April 28 describes this.

Following the consumer

  • From computer to phone, to TV to Tivo – anywhere
  • You are a content provider, information gatherer and aggregator.
  • There are no long print, online or broadcast distinctions anymore


  • Don’t develop yourself into a corner
  • Don’t work with a company that is not flexible
  • Always create extensive documentation


First: Steve Yelvington, Morris Digital Works

New site design and site management

Understand the problem – Trying to solve a technical problem, not a business problem.

We have huge, huge audiences, but the occasional user audience is the big part of that, the loyal user audience is very small.

  • Need to radically grow our loyal audience
  • News alone won’t get us there
  • News and town square and community resources
  • Everyone has to be involved, not just the “web team”
  • We need tools that ‘uncork the bottle” and empower the entire staff

They are doing away with separate web teams across the Morris network. Jacksonville.com is first, CJOnline.com is second. The Cabin.net is third.

Old world vs. new world – greater diffusion of knowledge and authority.

Reporters can post directly form the field. Koz Community – a good idea that was before its time. Will use Drupal’s groups-management capability to allow formal groups to enjoy many of the same benefits that Morris will. As simple as putting up a basic page and linking off to an existing website or using Jacksonville.com for complete services.

He thinks social networking tools common on Facebook or MySpace and elsewhere will be very viable on local sites. If you are a blogger, you automatically get a profile page, for example. You can provide a photo and some background information on yourself. Staff members will be required to participate.

Major points

  • Anyone with permission can update from anywhere, anytime, immediately.
  • Web-first multimedia: Text, images, audio, video
  • Easily create special packages/layouts for special events, topics pages, etc., without knowing HTML
  • Community blogging, buddy lists, social networking
  • Self-publishing tools for community groups
  • Ranking/rating, commenting, recommendations
  • Serve as a hub for navigating to other websites in the community (RSS aggregation)

Collaborative development process

The goal: Produce a standard configuration of Drupal that everyone can use everywhere. It is a configuration they intend to make publicly available. The enhancements and improvements will be contributed back to the open-source community.

  • Open source (free) software base
  • Open, fast-track development process
  • Began with extensive training in Augusta
  • MDW, Jacksonville.com and CJOnline.com all contributing time, energy, resources, ideas
  • Produce something everyone can use everywhere

Creating special-topic pages

“Pulling everything together about a topic is going to become I think a major function of online content producers.”

As a result, they create topics pages. The old way required some techno literacy – the pages tended to be hand tooled or built on the fly. The new way is that any editor can make and populate a special layout or page, and you don’t need server access, HTMl or scripting languages. To do this, they use a Drupal capability called “panel.” You add a page and then create a layout from a menu.

Then you get a form, where you give the name a name, a title and a patch directory.

“We’re putting in the hands of designers and editors design flexibility. Section fronts and the home page are produced in the same way. That allows speed of deployment never had before. You can create templates to help guide production and standardize results.

Target is high end. They are not planning to make money on it. They are giving it back to the open-source community.

“Putting them into action on a website is not a small process.” “A newspaper will still need people who are literate enough in technology to know how to administer a server.” “Most newspaper companies that have technology departments are going to be able to take advantage of the toolset we release.”

Richard Anderson – VillageSoup.com – Rockland, Maine

Anderson’s company received an $800,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to develop a freely-distributed open-source software system called the Village Soup Platform to develop VillageSoup Common’s around the country. “We agreed to let it go open source . . . these platforms while being open source, are not for everybody – there is a cost to implement them.

Have 18 sites under contact to become part of the VillageSoup Common.

Target is five- or six-newspaper owner companies among the 5,000 or 6,000 weekly newspaper owners in the United States. They will will come up with a fee for monthly service for operating the site on a hosted or otherwise basis. Users (businesses) will make money on hosted websites, banners and buttons.

Dan Cox – Ellington CMS – from Lawrence, Kan.

http://www.ellingtoncms.com/ http://tabo.aurealsys.com/archives/2006/01/19/ellington-the-django-powered-cms/

Came out of the Lawrence Journal-World CMS. The created a new company called xxx media. Some of the clients are the Lawrence Journal World, the Washington Post, Scripps, the Las Vegas Sun and the Napes Daily News. Scripps has about 15 license that their newspapers run. The San Diego Reader is using it, along with the San Diego Union-Tribune (for their speciality projects only).

It includes embedded photos and video, and a video gallery. It includes user comments.

For workflow purposes, there are many disparate objects. There is search functionality in Jango (the framework on which Ellington was built) to find and bring together those elements. For example, this means that objects can be reassembled in different ways – for example, record objects associated with staff photographer Thad Allender can be assembled under his name from all the stories they were initially created for.

You can set up a custom RSS feed on any set of searchable objects.

The story interface is designed to simplify how you post stories so you don’t need any code. Also, it outputs to any platform – including reformatting for a cell phone.

Additional comments by Ralph Gage of LJW

Gage, who is general manager of The World Co., talks about the build-it-yourself philosophy. Adrian Holovaty created Jango, which LJW turned over to the open-source community and has developed a foundation to manage that. They are developing Ellington in that mindset. Their business philosophy is to deliver news 24 by 7.

He talks about a story based on the Feb. 23, 2008, shooting in the head of a 5-year-old girl from a stray bullet. The story is in every imaginable format – text, photos, multimedia video. “The whole package came out to our community web first.” They want their reporters to break news on the web so that it is out there first.


COX: The overriding philosophy is that a journalist who doesn’t know any code can go in and create a storytelling piece.

GAGE: “It’s just a better tool to create information to our community” . . . To reporters: “We’ve tried to preach to them that the story content should dictate the format in which that is presented. Storyteller allows us to use the best of all that media to convey information to our viewers and readers.”

DISCUSSION (after lunch)

Dorian Benkoil next moderates a discussion with colleagues Amy Webb and Adam Glenn, taking questions from participants.

Jen Reeves, an editor at KOMU, NBC Channel 8 in Columbia, Mo., the university-owned commercial station, talks about the challenge of social networking and interactivity in the traditional media environment. In the Columbia market there’s a distrust of YouTube, for example.

ADAM GLENN -- Students don’t want to engage with user-generated content in part because they figure they are getting an education to be a “professional journalist” and are developing elite expertise. He tries to convey that among the new jobs in journalism is as a community editor, who helps find the context in information. It’s a culture shift.

AMY WEBB – She suggests to go to Avid and push them to give you what you need. For what KOMU is doing, WordPress might honestly work OK. There is also something called AnyStream which does multiplatform stuff. “The reality is you could yank yourself right off that CMS tomorrow and it wouldn’t cost you anything to go with WordPress – there would be migration expense . . . so there is an alternative.”

1. Discussion topic: Social networking

  • Which tools matter now?
  • How ‘social’ should your site(s) be?
  • How much content control should you give your users?
  • How do you definie social success?
  • How do you plan for what’s next?

AMY WEBB: She discourages use of Express Engine. It is difficult to migrate to. There is a big developer community and a lot of plugins, but it is cumbersome. You have to have a lot of tinker time put aside to make it do what you want to do. Any reputable CMS provider will give you reference customers.

MATT THOMPSON – Most systems are built around content management, or advertising serving rather than social networking. That’s the challenge, as he sees it. Can you work with two systems each of which does its task properly.

AMY WEBB: You can rebrand Ning and acquire it as a private platform. Is there an easier way – she seems to suggest no. “There is no CMS that is ideal . . . in the best of all worlds what CMS would I use? I would use Drupal – it is open source. But on the other hand I can fully customize it, I can bend it to my will. In my case because it can be fully customized that makes sense. But unless you are in that situation and you are a one-person shop, you are not going to find a CMS that meets everyone of your needs. It is never going to be there. Because every single person has different expectations. …. So what you want to find is a company that will work with you, so that as you grown, they will grow with you. And it is in their best interests to do that.”

What is developing is not new CMS companies, but niche companies who are building frameworks on top of open-source CMS.

The general consensus is that you can’t get what you want in a single system or company’s offering.

ADAM GLENN: “You don’t have to supplant journalism. Journalism is retracting and leaving a vacume.”

2. Discussion topic: Marketing and advertising

  • What are your on-site needs?
  • How can your site market itself?
  • Which third-party tools do you need to consider?

(discussion continued, but Densmore had to leave at this point)