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.

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