What is a (news) CMS?

C.M.S., an acronym for “Content Management System,” is a term that has become ubiquitous in the open source web software world. Ranging from systems that manage a small set of static pages to full-fledged “enterprise” content management solutions (ECMS) like Typo3 or Alfresco, the term “CMS” has become a catch-all term for any web software package that can produce a website.

Historically, the Content in CMS referred to an organization’s warehouse of documents and information, both for public and private consumption. Most ECMS suites handle tasks like document review workflows, business process management, archiving, access control, and other powerful tools for actually managing content.

For most personal and small business websites, such huge tools are overkill. Over the past several years, there has been an explosion of simpler “CMS” systems to address this market gap. There have also been tools targeted for specific niches, the most well-known of which is the blogging CMS WordPress.

Because the content management needs of these non-enterprise ventures are minimal, most of these CMSes focus the majority of their effort on “themes” and “plugins” and other ways of managing the public visual appearance of the website. In fact, the rich ecosystem of themes and plugins is one of the reasons that WordPress continues to thrive. People call these systems “CMS,” but really they are using the term as a new word meaning “web interface for managing the presentation layer and piping content into it.”

News organizations, finally beginning to realize the need for a more agile web presence, have begun using such CMSes for their websites. Where news organizations differ from most business and personal websites, and even most blogs, is that they are constantly publishing new content and do not linger on the past. Yet few “CMS”es really provide management and production tools that these newsrooms need.

Some organizations have begun to go “web-first,” meaning that they first post their content on their website and then later bring the content “down” to their print editions.

Web-first versus Print-first

Web-first versus Print-first

Why is the production process tied to the delivery process? Although “web-first” is often lauded as the correct step forward for many organizations, is hitching your wagon to your web CMS really any better than when it was hitched to your print CMS? Either way, you are limiting your production processes to those supported by the delivery system.

When the next big delivery platform comes along, is your organization going to pick up shop and change to make that the “first” delivery target? Are you going to go through the painful process of migrating your legacy content, rewriting your themes, retraining your staff, and rethinking your workflows? Why are we letting the delivery platform hold our content hostage?

News organizations should instead be “content-first,” and use tools that promote content above all else. We need first-class tools for managing the production process, and then for archiving, analyzing, referencing, and otherwise taking advantage of our past work.

Yes, your content will end up in multiple different delivery vectors. Each of those delivery platforms has its own infrastructure supporting actual presentation of the content (InDesign for print, WordPress themes/plugins for web, Objective-C for iOS). And each of those delivery platforms will have staff members who specialize in them and their capabilities (P&D staff for print, web designers and developers for websites, UX/UI designers and programmers for iOS). Let your content production staff (reporters, editors, photographers, etc.) have their own specific toolset optimized for content production.

Content Hub & Delivery Platforms

Content Hub & Delivery Platforms

News organizations are in the information business. Without tools to leverage their information archives, news orgs can’t live up to their potential. Without tools to analyze and cross-pollinate content, what opportunities are being missed? Without tools for internal and external collaboration, how can news orgs share resources, reduce redundant coverage, and leverage public insight and input?

As news organizations with legacy Java ECMS systems from the 90’s begin to look towards the future, and as college newsrooms continue to adapt to the web and new business models, I think the time is right for a new generation of tools and services designed for streamlined, efficient, collaborative, and forward-thinking content production. We need to spend less time reinventing the presentation layer (“web CMS”) and instead focus on news content production systems (“NCPS”).

I intend to throw my hat in that ring, and I hope others will join me.

9 Responses to What is a (news) CMS?
  1. Daniel Bachhuber

    Spot on.

  2. Curtiss Grymala

    I agree in principle with what you’re saying. However, I think the “Web-first” approach is probably still the best approach to take. I don’t think this is so much a matter of needing a better Web CMS, it’s a matter of needing better print-publishing tools that can use the tools we have readily available through the Web (XML, CSS, etc.). Those tools are open and flexible and can be used for much more than just presentation on the Web.

    The entire idea behind XML (and to a lesser extent HTML) was to create a markup language that was open, flexible and semantic; devoid of presentation and style when done correctly. The style and formatting, then, are done separately from the markup.

    Once the content is produced in XML or HTML, it can be easily repurposed for multiple platforms with the simple addition of stylesheets (CSS or XSL).

    Unfortunately, though, tools like InDesign (which you reference in your flow charts) simply aren’t set up to extract and style XML or HTML content easily.

    So, I guess what I’m saying is that it’s not the tools we use that are necessarily the problem; it’s the way we are using them.

  3. Stijn Debrouwere

    “Unfortunately, though, tools like InDesign (which you reference in your flow charts) simply aren’t set up to extract and style XML or HTML content easily.”

    Really? You can import any XML and get started right away with “Map Tags to Styles”, and InDesign has a whole bunch of advanced XML features and things like XSLT transforms on top of that. InDesign + XML is a match made in heaven.

    In my experience, the trouble starts right in the CMS. If you’re using a WYSIWYG editor, XHTML output is either not well-formatted, so InDesign can’t import it, or it’s heavily markup-based (a title isn’t marked up as a title, just as bold text etc.) Additionally, assets (like infoboxes or images) are bunched together with the body copy, giving you very little control over placement in InDesign. And really, I could list a zillion other problems with using most out-of-the-box CMSes to drive multiple platforms, or even multiple presentations on the same platform.

    As a side note: it’s true that some form of cascading styles would be nice to have in InDesign (“layout titles in the culture section like this, but titles in the news section like that”), but you could actually do that pretty easily through a little script.

  4. Curtiss Grymala

    Note that I said “extract *and* style” in my initial comment. Extracting and placing the XML is only half of the battle. Styling it (for instance with some sort of cascading styles) is the other half (actually, it’s probably more than half).

    Unfortunately, your comment speaks more to the way people use CMSs than the actual system’s capabilities, and you will find the exact same issues when copying/pasting from a Word document with your article’s content into InDesign that you would have importing the content from a CMS. If the user is not accustomed to using semantic items to mark up their content (headers, etc.), they’re not going to use them in Word or in a WYSIWYG CMS editor.

    Again, we’re talking about the way the tools are used more than we are talking about root issues with the tools themselves. You might as well tell me that someone needs to design a better hammer because our current hammers really suck at hammering in screws.

  5. Stijn Debrouwere

    Hmm, defining what is and what isn’t a “root issue” is tricky business. Web CMSes expect that you’ll (first and foremost) publish to the web, and most of them use WYSIWYG editors that lead to semantically worthless output… but then again, as you rightly point out, Curtiss, it’s certainly not impossible to swap out the editor in a CMS, or, heck, mark up content in straight XML, or output to PDFs or mobile apps or whatever. But it’d be so much nicer if a CMS would actually lend a helping hand and, y’know, help us manage all that stuff. And none of the CMSes out there really do.

    Some other opinions:

    http://jeffcroft.com/blog/2006/sep/20/personal-content-management/
    http://www.holovaty.com/writing/fundamental-change/
    http://blog.programmableweb.com/2009/10/13/cope-create-once-publish-everywhere/

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  7. Greg Linch

    I really like this concept. Also, what I think is most important is how Max looked at CMSes and publishing at a different level.

    I’d bet that every web CMS discussion at an organizational level that I’ve heard or read about is along the lines of “What’s a good web CMS?” or “How can we improve our web CMS?” And, when looking at options, “Is this a good web CMS or a bad CMS?” (binary thinking) rather than asking, “Is a web CMS even the right tool?” (abstract thinking).

    We should all do that more often. Just like Stijn’s “Information Architecture for News Websites” series, this is a great rethink piece.

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