Knowledge Bridge

Global Intelligence for the Digital Transition

Tales from the frontline: The good, the bad and the ugly

If you’ve struggled with which digital content-management system (CMSCMS (Content Management System)Software tools or web services for creating and amending website content.…

Go to almost any online journalism conference and you’ll hear CMS war stories. Several years ago, Martin Stabe, an interactive producer at the Financial Times, wrote about some of these CMS horror stories, saying:

Gripes about the clunkiness of content management systems are almost universal among online journalists. At one conference I attended a few months ago, several editors compared how long it took to post just one simple story to their websites. One had counted 62 clicks to complete this most basic publishing process.

It’s important that your CMS is flexible both for technical staff and editorial staff – and you’ll definitely want to make sure that it doesn’t take 62 clicks of the mouse just to publish content online.

Here are some tips of what to do and what to avoid collected from news organisations that have lived through it.

Journalists have to be involved in the process

A CMS is a critical element to your future digital success. Dave Lee, a technology reporter for the BBC, looked at the issues surrounding CMS development a few years ago, and he wrote:

A bad CMS hurts. It means people cut corners. It means more time is given to fart-arsing about with HTMLHTML (Hypertext Markup Language)A set of codes called markup tags in a plain text file that determine what…

When you’re doing any technical project, one key element is requirements’ gathering. For a CMS, you’ll have to think about what you want to deliver to your audiences and how you will deliver it. One key element in that process is how your journalists and editors will use the system.

It might seem odd to journalists and editors to want to be involved in developing the digital production method because, in the past, journalism and the production process were largely separate. Journalists wrote stories and handed them off to sub-editors and pagePageA document having a specific URL and comprised of a set of associated files. A…

However, in digital news production, journalism and production processes become more tightly integrated, and the workflow and process has to work for journalists and other editorial staff. This is true regardless of what stage you are at in the digital transition. In the early phase of the digital transition, newsrooms often have a single journalist transferring text from print stories or broadcast scripts into an online CMS. With a single journalist, you want the process to be as efficient as possible.

As your digital business grows, the process gets more integrated. Instead of a single journalist, many newsrooms eventually move to a system in which journalists directly write their stories for digital and print or broadcast platforms. Making sure that journalists are able to do their jobs most efficiently is crucial.

The industry is full of horror stories of journalists being left out of the process.

Stabe flagged up a fascinating collection of academic research, Making News Online, edited by Chris Paterson and David Domingo.

Domingo researched four online newsrooms in Catalonia in Spain. Martin highlighted the struggles journalists had with their CMS.

Reporters usually did not have the chance to participate in technological decisions and one of the strongest internal social conflicts in the newsrooms arose because of the frustrations with the technical features of the tools they used … CMS design did not always fit the needs of journalists, and discouraged them from routines that would have sufficed in other material conditions.

In other cases, they complained that technical routines were too cumbersome and time consuming, working against their wish for immediacy. This led to a relationship of distrust between the journalists and the CMS staff.

And Martin fears that this is feeding resistance from print staff to embracing digital media. He wrote:

I suspect badly-designed CMS backends engender resistance to the online medium among print journalists by leading them to assume that all this digital stuff must be frightfully complicated.

The key thing is to make sure that your CMS and the tools that your editors and journalists use on a daily basis meet their needs. To do that, editorial staff have to be involved.

Journalists must engage with the process

However, bad CMSs are often not a simple issue of journalists being left out of the process. Senior management need to make sure that journalists and technical staff or contractors work together effectively. This may take some effort, and to be honest, very few editorial organisations work effectively across editorial and technical departments. The handful that do have achieved this over years of effort.

Dave Lee looked at the frustrations and  problems surrounding CMSs, and he flagged up a number of issues including communication and collaboration, or lack thereof. Lee quotes a developer, John, who said they had invited the more than 200 users of their CMS to test new features. John said:

Almost nobody bothered – and when we thought it’s fine (because of no requests to fix something) and turned the old version off there was this shitstorm about some minor things not working properly (which could have been fixed in couple of days).

Small improvements could make journalists’ life much easier but if they don’t want to participate they shouldn’t expect much either.

This is a key management issue in the digital transition, and senior management need to make sure that editorial and technical staff communicate effectively and work together well. This is not something that happens without close attention and effort on the part of management, editorial and technical staff.

CMS solutions are increasingly modular

Content-management systems do not need to do everything, and often if you try to make them do too much, that is when the project becomes a mess including going over budget, not working as well as you’d like and leading to a complicated process that journalists hate. At the most basic level, web services can add services without having to modify your core CMS, such as social media curation service Storify or liveblogging tool Scribblelive.

However other services can also deliver key elements of your digital content strategy such as search. Newscoop is an open-source CMS focused on news organisations, and they have added support for the Solr open-source search. [Sourcefabric was spun out of the Centre for Advanced Media – Prague, a project of the Media Development Investment Fund. Knowledge Bridge is a project of MDIF.] The Solr search platform is used by major organisations including Nasa, the White House and The Guardian. Search is a key element in helping your audience find the content they want, and by integrating proven technology such as Solr, Newscoop is supporting organisations like Georgian independent news organisation Netgazeti to deliver a better search experience that will grow as Netgazeti grows, according to Sourcefabric’s Adam Thomas. [Netgazeti is one of the online components of Georgian newspaper Batumelebi, an MDIF client.]

Adopt existing systems rather create new ones

When news organisations look at their requirements for a CMS, frequently they come to believe that their requirements are so unique that they need a bespoke system. This is rarely a good solution especially for small, independent news organisations with small technical development budgets. More news organisations are taking existing systems and adapting them to their needs.

The School of Journalism and Media Studies and the Computer Science Department at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, created NiKA by extending the Drupal open-source CMS to make it easier for journalists to publish their own material as well as allowing members of the public to easily send in eyewitness information and tips via SMS and IMIM (Instant messaging)A method of communicating in real-time, one-to-one or in groups over the…

Harry Dugmore, a professor at the School of Journalism and Media Studies, told PBS MediaShift:

NiKa sorts SMSs and incorporates them directly into the newspaper’s system, automating what had previously been a manual process. The SMS pages let local citizens share their opinions, and see their words in print.

However, even relying on an existing CMS didn’t eliminate all of the technical complexity of the project. In another article about the NiKA project on PBS MediaShift, Dugmore said, “ the software, although open source and free, does need good tech skills to install.” And Michael Salzwedel, the online editor of the NiKA media partner the Grocott Mail, said that the goal was to simplify the requirements in setting up the system so that publishers could easily publish to print, the web and mobile.

This kind of integration is a difficult task, but as more news organisations bring together their digital and print or broadcast workflow, there will be new lessons both about the technology, workflow and organisation that will help you.

What are the lessons you have learned as you chose your CMS to publish to the web and mobile? What worked? What didn’t? What will you do differently the next time you have to change your CMS? Let us know in the comments.

Article by Kevin Anderson

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