About the Great CMS Quest (and that AdWeek piece)

10 Aug

An article on AdWeek has gotten more than a little attention this week. It talks about Content Management Systems – the big hunks o’ technology that drive websites and print publications – and how most of them, well, stink.

It’s prompted some hilarious email threads, and more than a few bad memories, among some of us who’ve been at this digital-journalism thing for awhile.  But the piece misses some crucial points, I think.

First, journopreneurs should just ignore it. It focuses mostly on the difficulties in finding a single system to produce both traditional products and digital. Digital-only operations don’t have a traditional product to worry about.

So lash together a site using WordPress and a theme you like, and focus on building great content and an audience. Yes, as the piece notes, open-source systems can get creaky when put under enormous loads. Worry about that when you’re doing millions of page views a month.

(By that time, the Knight-funded Armstrong CMS might solve the problem for you. It’s already quite good, and could become the open-source solution for news if a large-enough community adopts and supports it.)

Second, I’d note that most of the legendary failures cited in the piece (and a couple others I’ve seen up close that are safely hidden in corporate files somewhere) have this in common: They start with existing print workflows and try to staple on web functionality.

That’s a huge mistake because of the differences in how consumers use the different media. The web is fluid. It requires – and benefits from – constant updating. Print is static – all efforts are aimed at a single time of publication, perhaps with some slight variations for regional editions.

Forcing one production team to adopt the other’s workflow doesn’t work. Keeping separate systems for the web and the legacy product is a pain for reporters and editors.

Hence the quest for the mythical Perfect Solution (which apparently is hiding with the unicorns, chucacabras and Super Bowl-champion Minnesota Vikings teams).

The perfect, of course, is the enemy of the practical. So I humbly suggest you dump the idea of One Perfect System. Instead, create ways for your separate print and digital systems to talk to each other.

We won’t get too geeky here (largely because I hit the limits of my technical knowledge pretty quickly). But ask your technology team if they’ve thought of breaking up the problem into a (meta)data layer, an abstraction layer and a presentation layer. If your geeks don’t know what that all means, tell them to find out – or fire them and hire people who do. (They really do exist.)*

(*And to save Scott Karp the trouble of commenting, look too at middleware solutions that can link content from your web system back to your print CMS. It’s far easier, and at least 1,000 times cheaper, than that Unicorn-designed Perfect Solution someone is trying to sell you.)

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