Why re-invent the CMS wheel?

Today on Twitter, Martin Stabe, fellow journalism blogger and new media journalist, and I were having a good back and forth about content management systems. Martin is a kindred spirit: Journalist through and through and blessed/cursed with technical skills. That’s another post lurking in the back of my head, and as so often, I digress.

Martin said via Twitter:

CMS I’m using requires: minimum 18 clicks, 2 screens and 2 more popups to publish 1 story. Is this normal?

To which I responded,

but I’m sure your click-heavy CMS makes (up) in scalability what it lacks in flexibility, speed and ease-of-use. 😉 (sic)

Does this describe your content management system? How much flexibility have you given up in a false choice for scalability? Are your journalists 18 clicks from publishing? Shouldn’t it be more like three or four clicks? Journalist, sub (copy editor) and then publish?

I have a question for the journalism industry. Instead of sinking literally millions of dollars/pounds/euros into content management systems either in the form of a payment to one of the CMS companies or for bespoke development, why not take one of the open-source systems and become part of the development community?

That’s what Steve Yelvington at Morris Digital Works has done working with and extending Drupal. Today on his blog, he highlighted a developer in Belgium who has extended Drupal to integrate with Adobe InDesign to create a “web-centric CMS that drives print output“.. (A tip I also got from Chris Amico via Twitter, which should be an implicit statement about the value I find in Twitter.) As Chris and Steve point out, there is a detailed write up on the Drupal groups website. It was developed by someone who isn’t a professional programmer but a philosophy major.

Now, trust me, I have first hand experience with third-party software that doesn’t scale to cope with the high levels of traffic and interaction at a major media website. But many large media organisations have smaller sites or sub-sites, which can be test beds to develop and test open-source tools into high-volume, highly flexible content management systems. You can see the New York Times moving in this direction with not only the hiring of great journalist-programmers like Derek Willis but also a blog about their open-source projects that highlights their contributions back into the open-source community.

And the New York Times show that you don’t have to turn over your entire CMS to take advantage of open-source projects. WordPress powers their blogs, and they using open source elements in their codebase.

I think another avenue that news organisations should investigate is adapting blogging APIs for remote access for their content management systems. Not only will it add the ability to tap into a host of tools like Flock, Ecto and MarsEdit, but it also could ease remote access and publishing, allowing journalists to file at the speed of news. Daniel Jalkut of Red Sweater Software, which makes blog editor MarsEdit, told me about a post he has written about using “a standard web-editing API to an arbitrary service“.

Steve worked on the Newspaper Next project and he is a great evangelist about the process of innovation. Innovation isn’t a destination but a never-ending process.

As I quoted Steve last summer:

We need to think of making things that are good enough and not overshooting. We’re taking too long to create ‘perfect ‘ systems that don’t meet needs. We over-invest, over-plan and then we stick with the bad business plan until it all collapses. Come up with a good idea and field test. Fail forward and fail cheaply. Failure is not a bad thing if we learn from our mistakes and correct. Be patient to scale. Impatient for profits.

Apache, an open-source project, runs the majority of the world’s websites (although just barely more than 50%) With open-source development, you’re not in that process alone but can draw on and contribute to constant improvement. Robust open-source projects also have healthy developer communities rich with talent, and as Suw points out, businesses have developed to provide enterprise-level support for open-source platforms.

News organisations should not be seduced by the flashy CMS vendors at trade shows and instead investigate the disruptive innovation possible through open-source development. What are your journalists doing 18 clicks away from publishing? Getting beat by the competition.

Vlogging killed the blogging star

Actually, I think that wedding planning is killing my blogging, but for the last couple of weeks, vlogging has also cut into my spare blogging time both at home and at the day job. The Guardian has just started a vlogging project with Current TV. It’s been fun, if not a little challenging.

I sit in front of a webcam at work, or sometimes at home, and talk about something for a minute. It’s harder than you think. The first thing is to fight off the feeling that you’re making a complete tit of yourself talking at your computer, especially in an open plan office. Also, no matter how silly and excitable I think I sound, actually, I’m finding my delivery a little flat. It’s a fine balance between being conversational, which I want, and sounding too much like a broadcaster, which I don’t want. I guess I’ll become more comfortable over time.

We’ve just started, and I’m hoping that it generates some conversation. I really want this to be something engaging, rather than just video for the sake of video. I did and still do TV, but I want this to be something more like Seesmic, a video conversation. I’d definitely appreciate ideas from vloggers on how to make this a conversation like blogging rather than broadcasting at people over the internet.

A tangle with gravity

I wrote this post yesterday afternoon, but technical problems stopped me from being able to post it. Horizon was, by the way, fab.

Whilst Kev and I were at the gym this morning, we caught an interview with Dr Brian Cox on BBC Breakfast, talking to Bill Turnbull and Sian Williams about an episode of Horizon, What on Earth is wrong with gravity. I’m looking forward to seeing the programme tonight, having already seen a number of outtakes on Brian’s partner Gia’s blog. Thankfully, Gia has grabbed the interview and put it up on YouTube:

Now, gravity is tricky. It’s the sort of thing, like mass, that seem pretty obvious. You drop a pencil, as Bill did, and it falls until it hits a surface that stops it falling any further. We all know what gravity does. What’s less clear is what gravity is, how it works, what makes gravity pull things together. It’s actually a pretty difficult subject to tackle in a six minute segment.

Unfortunately, Bill and Sian – and whomever produced and researched the program – didn’t prepare any decent questions. Gravity is one of those subjects where seemingly simple questions have horrendously complex answers, if they have answers at all. Bill and Sian went for the simple questions, but Brian had only a few minutes – if that, given that they showed two clips of the programme – to try to answer.

Now, to my mind, the job of the presenter in these situations is to act as a proxy for the audience and to ask the questions that the audience want answered. The question that I suspect the audience most want answered about an episode of Horizon is: “Why should I watch this programme?” That was a question that Bill and Sian spectacularly failed to address, even indirectly, because they were focused on small but unanswerable questions instead.

Bill concentrated on dropping his pencil and asking querulously, “Why is it so complicated?” and then giggling like a schoolboy, I suspect because he felt a little out of his element. “I thought it was dead simple myself,” he says.

Brian has some great stories to illustrate his point. Most surprisingly, he talks about how if we didn’t correct for the way that time passes differently in orbit to on earth, our satnav systems would drift by 11km per day. But he’s forced to talk about spacetime without being able to fully explain what spacetime is and, frankly, anyone would be forgiven for struggling with that.

Sian then says, “I’m still not sure what causes gravity.” Well, you and the rest of the physics world. That’s not a smart question to ask, because there’s no answer, and the lack of an answer is going to flummox people. The point of this six minute segment is not to solve one of the universe’s greatest riddles, but to spark a little curiosity in people’s minds. And I can pretty much guarantee that no one woke up this morning and asked, “What causes gravity?”

Indeed, I did a straw poll of my friend son Twitter and Seesmic, and asked, “If I was an omniscient being, what scientific question would you like answered?”

From Twitter:

jrnoded: @suw why 42?
michaelocc: @Suw Is faster than light travel possible?
adamamyl: @Suw: why, on taking government office do incumbents forget they have principles/spines? Or, why int a resignation, a resignation, thesedays
zeroinfluencer: @Suw: How to make an affordable Holy Grail (Assorted Colours)
londonfilmgeek: @Suw Can i haz an Aperture Science Portal gun, kthanxbai
The_Shed: @Suw Are we even close to knowing the truth about anything?
johnbreslin: @Suw: Is this like “does anything eat wasps?” 🙂 how about, where does all the time go (inspired by the Time Snails in “Captain Bluebear”)?
aidg: @Suw Science q for the omniscient: How the universe was created or the story of creation from primordial soup to multicellular organisms.
meriwilliams: @Suw Why is life?
tara_kelly: @Suw Dear omniscient being: is time really as linear as we like to think it is?

From Seesmic, my question:

An amazing question from DeekDeekster, that I personally would love the answer to:

Jeff Hinz echoes MichaelOOC, but from the opposite angle:

Christian Payne takes the Prince Charles line:

Dave Shannon asks the hardest question:

You’ll notice that no one, not one single person, asked “What is gravity?”.

Then towards the end of the Breakfast interview, they bring up the entirely spurious issue of the asteroid that missed hitting the Earth by 334,000 miles at 8;33am this morning. Cue the stupidest question of the morning: “If gravity is such a big deal, how come that asteroid that Carol told us about didn’t crash into Earth?” That’s like saying, if the sky is blue, how come grass is green?

To add insult to injury, Sian ends up by saying, “See, that’s why he has a PhD and we haven’t, because he can understand these sorts of things and we’re still bamboozled” and Bill finishes up with, “You’d managed a major achievement this morning, which is that you’ve managed to explain something to all of us and made us both feel really thick.”

Poor Brian didn’t stand a chance. How can you manage to extract even a shred of dignity from that? How can you pull back from that and say something that will encourage people to watch your programme?

If the Breakfast team had thought for a moment and actually talked to Brian before the interview about what questions would make for an entertaining and interesting interview, ruling out questions that no physicist alive can answer, and including ones that perhaps the audience actually want to know the answer to, then I suspect things would have gone much better.

But to me, this is indicative of the attitude of the media towards science and technology: “Oh, look at those weirdos over there with their white coats and strange ways of talking. They’re not like us. They’re Boffins.” It’s an attitude based in ignorance and fear, and nurtured by the unnecessarily divisive split between science/tech and the humanities at school and then university.

Yet at times like this, the “I’m too dumb to understand you boffins” attitude is counterproductive. All Bill and Sian have done is put off people who might otherwise have watched Horizon, and pissed off the people who definitely will. Which is foolish, given that they are working for the very same organisation that commissioned Brian’s programme.

YouTube providing another political ‘channel’

TechPresident and The Nation in the US highlight an interesting trend in the presidential elections this year, and that is that YouTube is providing a venue for candidates’ speeches that might otherwise get lost in the mainstream media agenda of the day. They point out that Barack Obama’s speech is the fourth most watched video on YouTube, trailing a couple of Britney Spears, a perennial click champion. On Sunday, his South Carolina victory speech was the fifth most watched video on YouTube.

Ari Melber writing for The Nation says, “Barack Obama delivered a riveting speech about America’s moral crisis this weekend, calling for a united movement to overcome the nation’s moral deficit and mounting economic inequality.” But, he adds:

Great speeches don’t matter if no one hears them.

Kevin Drum at Washington Monthly says that most voters don’t get to see these speeches, apart from a few sound bits clipped up on cable television, which he reads as a disadvantage for Obama. At the moment, the main themes in the coverage of Democratic race is the bare-fisted brawl between Obama and the Clintons, or Billary as Frank Rich called the power-couple. But YouTube is allowing more voters to hear the candidates’ messages instead of following the ‘horse race’ or the story line out of the day’s papers or political chat shows.

Marc Ambinder in The Atlantic points out that Obama focused a lot of his efforts and organisation on winning Iowa and South Carolina and that he won’t be able to replicate that in the next week to cover the more than 20 states holding primaries and caucuses on Tuesday 5 February. YouTube might be a force multiplier for the Obama campaign. His speeches are getting an audience much larger than they would in past election cycles. His own social networking site MyBarackObama.com is helping drive traffic to the videos. It’s a fascinating development in an already gripping US presidential election.

But I also think this is another example of how the end of media scarcity changes the journalistic and political landscape.

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links for 2008-01-27

Building community on Everyblock

Everyblock.com is now live, and in online journalism circles, the buzz is up there with the iPhone. Brad Flora at Chicago Methods Reporter probably put it best when he said: (UPDATE: sincere apologies to Brad for not including the link to his post in my original post)

The site’s as close to a “rock star” launch as you’ll see in the online news world. Holovaty and EveryBlock designer Wilson Miner are both alumni of the Rob Curley era at Lawrence.com, where Holovaty co-created Django, a popular open-source Python development framework. In 2005, they created the widely-praised Google Maps mash-up ChicagoCrime.org. I don’t think I’ve been in a conversation about online news in the last year without someone mentioning Holovaty and asking what I thought EveryBlock was going to look like.

Everyblock aggregates a number of different types of data including news stories, and public data about housing permits, crime and liquor licences to name a a few and also ‘missed connections’ from Craiglist, photos from Flickr and business reviews from Yelp. Patrick Beeson says that it ‘brings local back‘. And he says:

I know many print, err traditional, journalists are going to scoff that this isn’t journalism. No, it’s the new journalism; the journalism that users can use for their own purposes — EveryBlock itself is a mashup at heart — because they can drill down to what is meaningful to them.

And Patrick goes into whether this threatens newspapers and their business model. I think it doesn’t so much as threaten a traditional business model as it highlights the different ‘jobs’ that people used to use newspapers for and how those jobs are being peeled away by other businesses. Steve Yelvington describes this concept of ‘jobs’ in the context of innovation and the Newspaper Next project that he worked on.

Adrian Holovaty spoke to folks at Poynter about the project.

Tompkins: You have said that you didn’t consider EveryBlock to be a competitor to traditional media. Why do you say that when everybody is competing for eyeballs and time?

Holovaty: Well, under that definition, YouTube, MySpace and, heck, all Web sites, are competitors to traditional media. I don’t consider EveryBlock a competitor to traditional news outlets because we only include news that has to do with specific, granular locations — not citywide, statewide or nationwide news.

This is my initial reaction to a first step in an exciting project. Looking at this in terms of a larger local media strategy, I would say that it is part of the puzzle. I think that data and aggregation are a missed opportunity for a lot of organisations, especially ones in the US where publicly available structured data is relatively easy to get. I think there is another piece of the puzzle that would be important and that is the community aspect. Right now, this reflects activity in a physical community and on virtual communities like Flickr and Craigslist. I am curious about what plans Adrian and his crack team have for building community around Everyblock. If they do, I wonder if they plan to build a way for the community to self-organise or if they will add people, paid or volunteer, to help seed the community. At the moment, I see social data, and I wonder how the site might develop to foster social interaction. These are just my initial thoughts, and some of the answers might be out there already.

But I still think that news organisations are missing opportunities to socialise their content and their sites because of narrow focus on content, site architecture and technology. I see Everyblock as an interesting evolution in terms of a geocoded mashup, but I still see many more unexplored opportunities in building social interactions and social connections around media.

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Newspaper burnout

Romenesko points out a study from Ball State University pointing that more than a quarter of newspaper journalists plan to ‘leave newspaper journalism’. One thing that should be particularly worrying is that the number wanting to leave the profession is higher for younger journalists. The conclusion is that newspaper journalist burnout is on the rise.

When those who said they wanted to leave the profession were asked why, “36 percent said money or salary was the reason, 27 percent said hours or schedule and 19 percent said stress or burnout. Also, a reference to family life was mentioned in 13 percent of the responses.”

One line that caught my attention is that there is opportunity for those journalists who leave newspapers:

He further speculated that many might try their hands at online media, and that those who do want to move away from newspapers but remain in the media have plenty of opportunities elsewhere.

If you’re thinking of leaving newspaper journalistm, feel free to leave an anonymous comment. I’d be interested in hearing your reasons for leaving.

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links for 2008-01-25