The Future of News

Ryan Thornburg

Why Do We Need a CMS?

A bit of career advice for anyone in an online news organization: Never get roped in to leading the creation of your site’s new content management system. Yes, you may realize that the business rules that underly the CMS will determine who has the power to make decisions in your newsroom, but CMS projects are like storming the beach at Normandy — even if it’s successful, many involved in the operation will not survive.

With that optimistic image fresh in your mind, let’s look at what CMSs do and why your news organization needs one.

Why do I need a CMS?

First, everyone else is doing it. The McClatchy papers have Digital Workbench, the Fayetteville Observer and Wilmington Star-News use the Software Construction Company’s SCC MediaServer, the Asheville and Greensboro papers use Saxotech. In 2006, Media General plunked down a somewhere near $400,ooo for a new CMS for its properties. Several of the state’s smallest papers use TownNews.com. The Daily Tar Heel uses College Publisher. OrangePolitics.org (and The Onion and The Virginian-Pilot) use Drupal. The Independent Weekly uses Gyrobase. The University of Miami student paper uses WordPress. The Lawrence Journal-World uses (and created) Ellington.

But aside from popularity, you need a CMS so you can:

  • standardize the visual appearance of your site
  • re-use the same headlines, story text, photos and other content simultaneously on several of your site’s pages without having to build each page by hand.
  • create workflow efficiencies across media.

What Does a CMS Do?

At its most basic, a Web content management system is a database of content and metadata combined with visual and conditional rules that govern how the content is displayed in various settings.

A CMS usually has these components:

  • A database
  • A collection of cascading style sheets
  • A collection of content display rules based on various conditions described in a programming language such as PHP.

Where Can I See CMS Examples?

The easiest way to play with a CMS is to sign up for a blog on WordPress.com.

There are several sites — including OpenSourceCMS.com — that will let you play with various open-source content management systems so you can see their strengths and weaknesses.

Where Is the CMS? Is it on the Internet or Something?

Content management systems are software applications, just like Microsoft Word. But they run on Web servers instead of your local computer. Very often you load content on to the site simply by filling out a form in on a Web page and/or uploading files from your local machine. If you can attach a file to a Gmail (or Yahoo or Hotmail) account, you can create, edit and manage content in a CMS.

So the first thing you need to do is get some space on a Web server where you can host your CMS. Be sure you can have access to the database, server configuration files and any other programming languages your chosen CMS needs in order to run correctly.

Few newspaper publishers have any interest in shopping for a host that is fairly priced and has the right version of PHP running. That’s why several companies offer all-in-one hosted solutions. You give them the credit card number and they take care of the rest. Some examples that are appropriate for small publishers are:

Design and Other Customization

In order to make your site pretty you will need to customize it’s layout and format. This is done first through by applying a “theme” to your CMS and then by installing and configuring various additional pieces of code, often called “widgets” or “plugins.”

To do this, you need to hire a designer who has experience with user interface and information architecture design of news Web sites. Don’t hire someone who doesn’t have experience working with a news site.

Your designer should do this:

  1. Work with you to understand the mission of the site and the ways that various audiences will use the site and the work flows that content creator/editors will build the site. These are called use cases.
  2. Define a finite set of page templates. Each template will display content based on a set of rules that is common to all pages using that template. Examples of templates for a basic Web site would be:
    Homepage, Section Front (or Category Index), and Article Page. There could also be templates for things such as user comments, photo slide shows, restaurant reviews, search results, etc.
  3. Create wire frames of each template.
  4. Create black and white design comps that show where text and visual elements will appear on each template. These design comps usually include logos and other graphical elements.
  5. Create color comps.
  6. A final version of the page with an associated style guide.

Many of you, dear readers, are thinking to yourselves right now that you might just skip from step 1 to step 7. If you do this, you will discover that you’ve not clearly communicated with your designer or programmers. You will cause problems and frustration that make people unhappy. See “beach at Normandy” analogy.

A Final Word of Caution

The death of every well-meaning CMS deployment project comes in the battle between the need for universally standard templates and the need for maximum flexibility. News editors want standardization so they can hire people who don’t have technical skills, but who have strong news judgment. But they also hate being locked in to templates because many of them grew up in print newsrooms that value creativity and originality in layout and design.

If you have a staff that has any sort of creativity, be prepared to hear “But what if the mayor is assassinated on the day the of the state football championship and we want to lead the site with a video and user comments and a breaking news banner instead of a static lead text blurb with a dominant photo?”

And be prepared to have an answer.

2 Responses

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  1. Good post. I am kinda scared to death of leading this effort. I don’t know how tech savy our future online staff will be so I don’t want to cut down on creativity whatsoever, but we do need things to be standardized for organization sake and because of the learning curve.

    Nicole

    February 21, 2009 at 11:44 pm

  2. Newsrooms and CMS Selection…

    I had the distinct pleasure of storming Normandy with Lieutenant Thornburg.  And while one could argue the success of this content management system (CMS) selecting campaign nobody could argue the need for a CMS. Publishing content without a CMS is as…

    Incessant Rantings

    February 23, 2009 at 10:36 pm


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