Print organisations will need to open source their systems: New year convictions

Cookie cut or good business? Network template CMS's - Picture from Flickr by Toucanradio
Cookie cut or good business? Network template CMS's - Picture from Flickr by Toucanradio

The second of my new year convictions is Print organisations will need to open source some or all of their content management system if they want to stick with corporate templates.

Why? Because it hampers attempts to upskill journalists and softens the brands that are supposed to be so valuable

Let me explain (ahh, go on.)

By corporate templates I mean the practice of centrally controlling websites and rolling out the same core design across all the group publications.  The most recent example of this that I’ve seen in the UK is the recent roll out of Archants new template.

The motivation for this practice, on the surface, seems pretty logical

  • A standard template ensures the brand identity is managed effectively

Brand awareness

Thats’s an intersting one for me.

I’m constantly being told that the brand value that the local newspaper has, the identity within the community, is key, unique in fact. So why spoil that with one size fits all websites?

I started the post with an example of the latest in a line of network templates take a look at the site below by comparison.

This is the website of the the Champion newspaper group who, apparently bucking the trend, have just announced that they are about to launch a new, free weekly newspaper in Mersyside

The Champ News
The Champ News

It’s worth a visit so that you can explore the whole thing. In particular take a look below the scroll and have a look at all the widgets and free things stuck in there alongside all the free hosted video (I recommend the Visit Southport video where all the grey sky has been replaced with wonderful blue)Not going to win any awards is it. I think it has a bit of charm but is way below par. That said is it any less navigable or useable then Archants new template?

IT and ads drive CMS not content

The other reasons for ‘network templates’ often given are:

  • IT provision is easier to manage if it is all in one place
  • CMS backends essentially render geographical control of the systems redundant

and finally and most importantly for newspaper groups

  • advertising and commercial activity can be managed, packaged and sold as a national concern across a network

What this really means to the people who are using the system is a response and development time, wildly out of line the assumptions of the constant news flow and demand for innovation in the industry. Put simply, if you want a dipity timeline or a youtube video, you can’t have one until we have rolled it out across the network.

It’s limited flexibility for least risk. That’s a lowest common denominator approach and it stifles creativity.

Limiting creativity

I could speculate on the reasons for this slow development mentality. Maybe it is technical. Maybe the systems are built to interface with the print systems which would baulk at anything other than text. Maybe the IT people don’t trust the journalists. But whether its the curse of print legacy system (and the models they sustain) or the cautiousioness of IT people. That’s not really the point.

What this limitation in the capacity for flexibility does is take any activity to take journalists forward with digital skills and puts a big ball and chain on it. A really frustrating, rusty, hulking printing press of a ball and chain.

I only need to look at the increase of twitter followers, new blogs and fresh faces that have appeared since christmas to know that journalists are really fired up about online. They love twitter and blogging and RSS. Once they get excited by slideshows or video or maps they want to try them.  The avalaunche of new apps that appear on the web news of which spread through their newly followed feeds appear as a tweet are the biggest most exciting toy box imaginable. They have stories they want to tell.

Then they go in the office and it grinds to a halt.

That great stuff they tried on their blog the night before needs a form signed in triplicate, a request to central support and good dollop of patience. By then the stories dead and a little bit of the excitment has died with them.

The tenacious ones will stick with it and innovate. They will eventually get Dipity or a Google maps through the system and approved for use and really fly with it getting much earned kudos and immitation. Others will bypass the system all together and use open source blogs and website tools to get their content across getting no less praise.

Open sesame

That’s why I say print organisations will need to open source some of their systems.

What I would like to see is more print organisations integrate open source software in to their networks and keep it open source. Not take it and ‘stitch it in’ removing all the functionality. That means they can benefit from the fast moving developments in the community and support the innovation where required.  I can’t believe that proper implementation of an existing system like wordpress or moveable type is no  harder to support than a ground up creation of a similar system or the heavy handed integration of many.

Better still some or all of the elements of a companies own CMS could be made opensource. Look at the benefits the BBC get through projects like Backstage.

Many will argue, and perhaps with some justification, that the innovation does get through and IT are responsive (I’ve been scrupilous in my efforts not to attack IT people here). But even if the space is there for the innovation that newly upskilled journos are bringing to the newsroom the ubiquity of ‘network’ templates does little to protect a brand.

Essentially there is no excuse not to be a little more open.

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14 thoughts on “Print organisations will need to open source their systems: New year convictions”

  1. Good post. The CMS systems themselves can be the source of the problem. How may big companies are tied in to 'enterprise' solutions that looked good 6/7 years ago but just cannot keep up these days. They're just not extensible enough. But they could be. Try telling an IT manager who has spent tens of thousands of pounds on a system over the years that there are free open source alternatives out there now that are leaner, meaner and much more adaptable..

  2. Thanks for stopping by Jack

    I agree. That's why I say that it may be better for orgs to opensource some of their own tech rather then dumping the stuff they have invested in wholesale. I think there can be a middle ground. That said, getting people to share after years of owning may be tricky. But not to do it seems to fly in the face of a the received wisdom and weight of experience

  3. I disagree. The problem is not opensource vs commercial licenses. The problem is “how flexible are the common design and technical framework”?

    If a common design framwork leave little place for local adjustments its sad. That can be done in Drupal as well as in Escenic, Fatwire, Polopoly or other systems.

    I manage a departement that runs 35 titles on a common design and technical framework. We use both commercial licenses and opensource software (see ex: http://www.dt.no and http://www.f-b.no)

    Our main reasons for a common design framework is to enable small papers to move fast. A good concept in one city is probably a good concept in another city as well. But some concepts run in one city only.

  4. Hi Henning. Thanks for the comment

    My point wasn’t that the opensource Vs commercial is a problem. A well run commercial operation is just that. It works because it is open and well designed for the purpose.

    My point was that the motivation and strategy for corporate templating (different from a corporate system) is, in many cases, so broken and at odds with efforts made in other parts of organisations that and open or semi-open strategy is the only option for quick improvement.

    If you train journalists to engage with open or community ware source -dipity, cover it live. Then you should not be surprised when your staff want to mirror some or that activity.

    It sounds like you have a good balance there. A common starting point with flexible stuff for those who want the next step.

    I’d be interested in knowing a bit more about the model.

  5. You’ve just started following me at Twitter, thanks :) I’ll keep my followers posted on our product launches and examples of good local stuff on our papers.

    Seem to me that our basic strategy for a common design framework is very different from the one you posted: “A standard template ensures the brand identity is managed effectively ”

    Our strategy is simply to ensure that local papers with limited recourses are enabled to keep up with the digital development.

    Here’s an example of an integration with coveritlive:
    http://moss-avis.no/section/SPORT12/1379

    All article with article comments is also an example of integration with open-source, mixing editorial content deliverd by Saxotech with a custom made article comment solution, example: http://dt.no/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090114/NYHET/477376901/1063/NYHET

    Another example: this one with an embedded video from our custom made web-tv publishing system (and comments)http://tb.no/article/20090114/NYHETER/35333771/1011/NYHETER

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