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Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson is a social software consultant and writer who specialises in the use of blogs and wikis behind the firewall. With a background in journalism, publishing and web design, Suw is now one of the UK’s best known bloggers, frequently speaking at conferences and seminars.

Her personal blog is Chocolate and Vodka, and yes, she’s married to Kevin.

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Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson is a freelance journalist and digital strategist with more than a decade of experience with the BBC and the Guardian. He has been a digital journalist since 1996 with experience in radio, television, print and the web. As a journalist, he uses blogs, social networks, Web 2.0 tools and mobile technology to break news, to engage with audiences and tell the story behind the headlines in multiple media and on multiple platforms.

From 2009-2010, he was the digital research editor at The Guardian where he focused on evaluating and adapting digital innovations to support The Guardian’s world-class journalism. He joined The Guardian in September 2006 as their first blogs editor after 8 years with the BBC working across the web, television and radio. He joined the BBC in 1998 to become their first online journalist outside of the UK, working as the Washington correspondent for

And, yes, he’s married to Suw.

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Thursday, January 31st, 2008

Why re-invent the CMS wheel?

Posted by Kevin Anderson

Today on Twitter, Martin Stabe, fellow journalism blogger and new media journalist, and I were having a good back and forth about content management systems. Martin is a kindred spirit: Journalist through and through and blessed/cursed with technical skills. That’s another post lurking in the back of my head, and as so often, I digress.

Martin said via Twitter:

CMS I’m using requires: minimum 18 clicks, 2 screens and 2 more popups to publish 1 story. Is this normal?

To which I responded,

but I’m sure your click-heavy CMS makes (up) in scalability what it lacks in flexibility, speed and ease-of-use. ;) (sic)

Does this describe your content management system? How much flexibility have you given up in a false choice for scalability? Are your journalists 18 clicks from publishing? Shouldn’t it be more like three or four clicks? Journalist, sub (copy editor) and then publish?

I have a question for the journalism industry. Instead of sinking literally millions of dollars/pounds/euros into content management systems either in the form of a payment to one of the CMS companies or for bespoke development, why not take one of the open-source systems and become part of the development community?

That’s what Steve Yelvington at Morris Digital Works has done working with and extending Drupal. Today on his blog, he highlighted a developer in Belgium who has extended Drupal to integrate with Adobe InDesign to create a “web-centric CMS that drives print output“.. (A tip I also got from Chris Amico via Twitter, which should be an implicit statement about the value I find in Twitter.) As Chris and Steve point out, there is a detailed write up on the Drupal groups website. It was developed by someone who isn’t a professional programmer but a philosophy major.

Now, trust me, I have first hand experience with third-party software that doesn’t scale to cope with the high levels of traffic and interaction at a major media website. But many large media organisations have smaller sites or sub-sites, which can be test beds to develop and test open-source tools into high-volume, highly flexible content management systems. You can see the New York Times moving in this direction with not only the hiring of great journalist-programmers like Derek Willis but also a blog about their open-source projects that highlights their contributions back into the open-source community.

And the New York Times show that you don’t have to turn over your entire CMS to take advantage of open-source projects. WordPress powers their blogs, and they using open source elements in their codebase.

I think another avenue that news organisations should investigate is adapting blogging APIs for remote access for their content management systems. Not only will it add the ability to tap into a host of tools like Flock, Ecto and MarsEdit, but it also could ease remote access and publishing, allowing journalists to file at the speed of news. Daniel Jalkut of Red Sweater Software, which makes blog editor MarsEdit, told me about a post he has written about using “a standard web-editing API to an arbitrary service“.

Steve worked on the Newspaper Next project and he is a great evangelist about the process of innovation. Innovation isn’t a destination but a never-ending process.

As I quoted Steve last summer:

We need to think of making things that are good enough and not overshooting. We’re taking too long to create ‘perfect ‘ systems that don’t meet needs. We over-invest, over-plan and then we stick with the bad business plan until it all collapses. Come up with a good idea and field test. Fail forward and fail cheaply. Failure is not a bad thing if we learn from our mistakes and correct. Be patient to scale. Impatient for profits.

Apache, an open-source project, runs the majority of the world’s websites (although just barely more than 50%) With open-source development, you’re not in that process alone but can draw on and contribute to constant improvement. Robust open-source projects also have healthy developer communities rich with talent, and as Suw points out, businesses have developed to provide enterprise-level support for open-source platforms.

News organisations should not be seduced by the flashy CMS vendors at trade shows and instead investigate the disruptive innovation possible through open-source development. What are your journalists doing 18 clicks away from publishing? Getting beat by the competition.

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2 Responses to “Why re-invent the CMS wheel?”

  1. Chris Helms Says:

    My news company uses Zope. What sort of a reputation does Zope have among people who actually know a thing or two about other CMSs? I’ve heard Zope derided as nothing but a set a programming tools as opposed to a real CMS. And I just clicked through to get a count: I’m 23 clicks away from publishing.

  2. Kevin Anderson Says:

    Zope/Plone powers some big websites, and I’ve never seen the backend. But it sounds a nightmare with 23 clicks to publish. The problem that I’ve seen time and again is that enterprise class content management systems are focused on scalability not usability for publishers.

    I’ve only got a development environment of Drupal running on my Mac. It’s relatively easy to set up - seeing as I can set it up. But I know some folks who love Drupal and some folks who love to hate it.

    My own view, as I mentioned, is that you don’t have to turn over your entire site to an open-source CMS. I also don’t believe in what I call the Lord of the Rings CMS model - One CMS to rule them all. I believe that that while you don’t want a bewildering array of content management systems for a number of reasons, there is also a good argument to make sure that any CMS you use integrates well together.

    Hopefully some CMS experts will weigh in. Thanks for the comment Chris.