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CMS Talkfest: How to Choose a Content Management System

Notes by Bill Densmore, RJI Fellow, 2008-2009
and Jane Ellen Stevens, 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 -- do. While the presses that print daily newspapers are relatively standardized, CMS are not. Adding to the confusion are the hundreds of CMS providers, each different from the next.

Just how does a news organization choose a CMS? Before choosing a CMW, what questions should you ask? How are CMS evolving as the Internet becomes increasingly multimedia and serving mobile devices? Is it possible to have a single CMS that integrates all the business, editorial, marketing and technical needs of a multi-platform news organization?

To answer these questions, the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute convened a Talkfest, the first in a series of a one-day seminars at the Missouri School of Journalism, to answer some of those questions. Providing the overview in the morning was BGV Media -– Amy Webb, Dorian Benkoil and Adam Glenn. BGV is an independent consultancy that, among its many talents, researches and recommends CMS. In the afternoon, three CMS developers described their CMS – 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 of CMS, and the three main types: open source, enterprise and a category she calls "getting creative".

THREE CHOICES: Open Source, Enterprise, Getting Creative

Open Source

Webb chose Drupal as a discussion point for open-source CMS.The open-source Drupal platform is free, but setting it up isn’t free. Because of the lack of good documentation, you need to hire a Drupal programmer. 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. It's also useful if you're feeding the same data into multiple Web sites.

There are several questions to ask before choosing a CMS. Do you need to:

  • manage multiple organization Web sites?
  • streamline Web site functionalit?
  • share digital assets across multiple sites?
  • easily train people to manage sites?
  • standardize underlying technology?

Everyone wants to take Drupal to the prom this year. 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.

In choosing a CMS, you should remember that the journalism comes first. A CMS should facilitate the publishing. These tools are a means, not an end. You have to take a chance. You have to accept change. You must take a multi-platform approach.

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 cranny 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 Web site 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.

Watch for companies that are developing ways to make it easy for lots of people to use the same system -- Drupal modules to drop onto a Drupal framework. Modules such as blogs, videos, podcasts, events, RSS feeds, twitter feed, online ads, photo galleries, topic-based social communities, content tagging.

Django is another open-source CMS. It's based on Python, which is wickedly hard to code. It's not easy to learn from scratch and then launch a site based on it. You want to work with a tested known entity.

Open source is a good solution if you want to get your content to the Web fast.


There are hundreds of enterprise 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 – it's also about work flow
  • Considers project and team management
  • Publishing for print, Web, mobile
  • Archiving and filtering across vast catalogs of content
  • Prohibitively expensive, both in setup and ongoing support. A news organization can easily spend $150K for setup and $90K yearly for support and maintenance
  • Not customizable without great effort
  • Not able to keep up with cutting edge

An advantage, however, is that all the work-flow 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.”

It starts with the creation of an idea, like a whiteboard in an editors meeting room. People are able to comment. It's easy to create assignments. Take digital assets that go with a piece, as teams of people in different departments provide photos, video, graphics, text. Everything stays together. It's sent to the Web, or paginated and sent to the printing presses. Most open source tools can't handle that yet.

Some enterprise systems have WSIWYG editors. You can design pages. Definite pros for being centralized, core product managed. It's a way to cut down on third-party tools.

Getting Creative

This means cobbling together third-party software: e.g., a blog with a Ning site, and/or a wiki.

Ning is a very simple platform you can customize without knowing code to create your own social network. It's free to a point. Amy is on the board of the Online News Association. ONA has a Web site. It started a social-network site on Ning because the CMS that ONA uses couldn’t do social networking. If you attended the ONA conference, you had to go to the conference Web site to register, but to a separate site to connect with your buddies. Getting creative is not suggested for organization. “You can deploy Ning if you need to, I just would recommend against it.” Why: Because it's not integrated, and it creates confusion with your main site.

For blogging, “you could decide to do your whole site in Wordpress." And, by the way, a blog is just a platform. "Blog" has nothing to do with content. Blogs can be all opinion, or they can be a platform for journalism.

A wiki is a way for groups to edit and share information. This is a way to integrate and manage content.

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

A: These are questions to ask: 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 when using third-party software:

  • Who owns the information?
  • Who’s liable for malfunctioning open-source tools, missing files, or plagiarism 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? (if so, hire a company)
  • Have you budgeted for pre-launch, post-launch fixes and ongoing maintenance?
  • Are you a single or multi-site shop?
  • Will your site be mobi-compliant?
  • Are you preparing for semantic tags and social networking?


  • Start from the back and work 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.”
  • Create a narrative taxonomy. Make a list of every function that your Web site needs to do. What is every conceivable thing you want and how is it going to work?
  • Design is the END of the process.
  • The final version of your site is never the same as the thing you launch.
  • You should have a detailed, page-by-page, function-by-function handbook to the entire site. Plan for it to be 50-60 pages long. It describes the functionality, not the looks.
  • The last section should be a list of items and, more importantly, explanations for everything you anticipate the site doing for 6 months, 12 months and beyond.

Trends On the Horizon

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


Amy's referring to Twitter, Facebook, etc. Expect seismic change.

  • 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..
  • Open-source CMS are quicker to offer modules than enterprise system. But enterprise systems may be willing to work with you.
  • Getting creative: Third-party providers, such as Pluck, provide social tools. You can default to them or other third-party providers rather than set it up yourself.

Example: Apture

Apture's enhancement of Baltimore Sun story about American Idol, which can put multimedia into an otherwise boring text account. The example's on Amy's blog -- [mydigimedia.com] “This thing is doing a better job than the providers are. And this was built by a dude who had some free time.

Aggregate or die

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

Watch for third-party "my aggregator" services launching in early 2009. Multiscreen "my versions" that work across platforms.

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.”


  • Amy shows eight-year-old iMode phone from Japan. On this phone, you could buy tickets for the bullet train, look on the Internet, check for traffic and transportation schedules and delays.
  • 3G phones can stream live TV, find a nearby restaurant, watch the news, receive breaking news.
  • Ulocate suggests content to you based on where you are located.
  • Broadcast companies using new CMS that will enable them to syndicate content on air to mobile phone in a way that makes sense.
  • Super-micro-thin screens for mobile phones.
  • 5.0- megapixel camera, GPS enabled, recognize face...snap photo of you, will tell me who you are if I don't know who you are.

Two-dimensional bar codes (“Q-codes”)

  • About 2-D (two-dimensional) barcodes -- you can embed content – “print hyperlinks”. It makes print publications of all kinds interactive. You take a picture of it with your mobile phone, which then scans the bar code and gives you information from a url. They are everywhere in Japan. They are on food packaging.
  • BBC is using them on their Web site
  • They are being used for editorial content
  • New York Magazine had an ad for Ralph Lauren which included a 2-D barcode.
  • Scan QR code, gives you a map.
  • Firefox has a mobile barcocode creator.
  • Application – put a 2-D code in an ad as an upsell to more information.
  • Makes magazine and newspaper stories bookmarkable.

Another thing to watch

Apple’s new multi-touch Mac. A patent application from Apple published April 28 describes this.


  • Breaking news moves from computer to phone, to TV. Tivo a word, go to Twitter.
  • A journalist is a content provider, information gatherer and aggregator of the best sources.
  • There are no longer 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.

He thinks one news organization for community of 30,000 people or less.

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 Mediaphormedi. Some of the clients are the Lawrence Journal-World, the Washington Post, the Las Vegas Sun and the Scripps family of newspapers, including the Naples Daily News and the Ventura County Star. Scripps has about 15 licenses for their newspapers. The San Diego Reader is using it, along with the San Diego Union-Tribune (for their specialty projects only).

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

For work-flow purposes, there are many disparate objects. There is search functionality in Django (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 – 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.

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 Django, 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 24-7.

Storyteller is a module designed to simplify how reporters post stories so that they don’t need any code. Also, it outputs to any platform – including reformatting for a cell phone.

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.” Their reporters break news on the Web so that it is out there first.


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 not much use 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 multi-platform 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 Expression 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 vacuum.”

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)