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?
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