By: Keith Jordan
A cornerstone of your digital publishing strategy is what content management system, or CMS, you use. It’s a complex decision that depends on your requirements and resources.
The wrong choice can limit your flexibility as needs evolve. For media companies, there are three common choices that have pitfalls.
Going it alone
Newspapers and magazines often build their own publishing software. There are advantages in doing this: It gives the publisher lots of flexibility in defining requirements, and it typically uses in-house developers, which avoids new cost commitments.
However, it also means that your developer will need to update the system as new needs arise. For example, when the next hot social media site emerges, how will you integrate support for it into your site? When you redesign, can you add new meta-data to support your new look?
For a custom solution, this type of flexibility depends on the time and abilities of your in-house developer, or whoever is in that role in the future.
Print system add-on
The company that sells the software your team uses to lay out newsprint pages may also sell software that publishes your content online. This has one very big advantage: It’s designed to work with the same data, so it tends to be stable and reliable on the back end. It’s also created by companies that are used to working with print publishers and their specific publishing needs.
However, there’s also a key disadvantage: It probably means you’re picking an online CMS based, in part or in whole, on factors that have nothing to do with the CMS. You’re picking it for cost-effectiveness, integration, and probably because it’s one less buying decision you’ll need to make. It’s rare for any buying choice to work out well when it’s made for reasons other than the quality of the product itself.
Why not just use WordPress or Movable Type? They work great for blogs. Why not for an established publication’s site?
This is a discussion that particularly occurs within smaller newspapers. These packages are great. Better yet, they’re free. Someone with minimal technical skills can launch a WordPress site in minutes or hours.
The gotcha here is that, out of the box, these software packages are not intended to handle things like story assignments, a copy desk step, photo credits, article and photo expiration dates, and some of the other common needs of established publishers. These packages can be extended to meet those needs. But doing so requires more knowledge and effort than you may have expected when you chose this software.
Despite the pitfalls I outlined, any of the three options I just listed can still be smart choices. Doing it yourself can be a wise move if you have lots of in-house resources. Your print system’s online component may be as good as or better than other options. WordPress or Movable Type may be good enough out of the box if your needs are simple.
There are two other major options:
• Pay someone to customize a good open-source CMS, such as Drupal or Joomla, to meet your needs. In the future when you want to make changes, it’ll be relatively easy to find someone who can do this, whether on your team or as a contractor. The disadvantage is that you won’t have dedicated support unless you hire a company to give you that support.
• Pay for a CMS. This should include customization by the company that sells the CMS to meet your needs. This usually adds more upfront costs, but also adds ongoing support by people who will pick up the phone when you call. You’ll probably also get upgrades to allow for popular new features.
So, what to do?
For a simple site with a small budget, you may find that you can do more than you expect with an off-the-shelf installation of an open-source CMS. For a large site with significant resources, building it yourself or paying for a good third-party CMS may be worth the cost.
The key is for you or someone else on your team to fully understand your needs and how they match the available options, and then make an informed decision that’s right for you.
Keith Jordan is managing director of Upstream Digital Media, a consulting business that focuses on editorial site launches, redesigns, and workflows.