‘I’ve spoken to four journalists in four years’ – Why news publishing CMS development needs a desperate rethink

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Have you ever listened to a journalist using a content management system? It usually goes something like this:

*Click*… *click*…*sigh*. Wait. Waiitt. “Oh for fu… oh, it’s working, I think”. *Click*. “Why’s that bit not showing? Oh right, I need to put that in there. I always forget that”. *Click*… *click*… “Oh it’s fuc…. oh… no… erm… oh right. Joe, that’s live now”.

And that’s on a good day. On a bad day, Joe gets told he’ll have to wait because a glitch means the page looks completely insane. Or all the text has been gobbled up never to be seen again. Or a crash at a crucial moment means your entire effort is blasted out into the digital void, leaving the journalist to explain to an editor that it did exist, and it was brilliant, but no, I didn’t back it up in Word because there was simply no time. I’ll stay late.

I’ve said it many times: Online journalism is, in many ways, the purest journalism of all. A medium defined not by constraints, but by possibility. Think about it: TV journalism needs pictures. Radio needs great audio. Print needs, well, a day’s lead time.

But in online, to quote Yomanda, you’re free to do what you want to do.

At least that’s how it should be. Content management systems (CMS) are the most neglected part of the online journalism process, a vital cog that, in too many newsrooms, is allowed to fall by the wayside through under – or over – investment, ignorance or internal politics.

Systems and processes are becoming defined by workarounds and hacks rather than good design and intuitive publishing – and this is a big big problem.

As this brilliant piece in AdWeek puts it, good content management in newsrooms is as vital as oxygen.

Perpetual cycle

A bad CMS hurts. It means people cut corners. It means more time is given to fart-arsing about with HTML code than writing good editorial. It means time that should be spent refining headlines, opening pars and article structure is instead spent wrestling with ‘quirks’ that slowly sap away at a reporter’s motivation to do the job right.

It’s infectious too, don’t forget. A CMS that causes problems means slower news. It means news without due depth as more time is given too production rather than reporting. This in turn means the website isn’t as good, and therefore doesn’t get as many readers, which loops nicely into the journalists feeling hopeless once again.

It’s a perpetual cycle which the bean counters will use to justify cuts in online because “less people are looking at that section anyway”.

What’s more,  in mainstreaem organisations with ‘big’ names, online journalism can often be about convincing the old hands to get stuck in. After a long stressful day, a TV journalist can be convinced to write 600 words of copy. But when he sees that it doesn’t appear for a few hours, and that it barely receives any comments and so on, will be excited enough to do it again? Probably not – and the CMS is at the heart of that disenchantment.

There’s a glaring question that arises from all of this: Why? Why are CMSs not very good? Why aren’t basic problems which – as I’ve just discussed – create wider implications spotted and squashed within days?

“People who decide what gets done pretty much always would put resources into changing what the public sees,” a senior source in development at a major UK news group told me. For the sake of this blog post, I’ll call him John.

John is right, of course. Of the last few re-designs I’ve been a part of, only one – the BBC’s move to its latest new look – also corresponded with a CMS upgrade. This is understandable, a CMS change is expensive, potentially troublesome and requires training.

But the underlying point that many of the decision makers in top publishers put external aesthetics ahead of internal harmony is a fair one. Re-designs are short-term gains. Sites like Drudge show us that content is king – if it’s good enough, a website can look like a donkey’s arse and still gain massive popularity.

‘Four journalists in four years’

Site enhancements can bring a positive energy to a news site. Turning an ugly site into a pretty one will give journos a psychological boost, but they still need help from an improved CMS to make the most of the new opportunities – rather than, as I’ve seen in many places, having to hack their way around an old crappy system to fit the latest facelift.

It’s a question of communication. There is none. Instead, a middle man (often, in my experience, executive editors), pass on what they see as the priorities to a dev team which will duly execute the commands.

But in the same way Philip Clarke probably doesn’t know about irritations with the tills at Tesco, executive editors have a tendency to look at the bigger picture (“We’d like to enchance our live blog offering”) rather than the niggles that bring everything to a depressing halt (“It takes fifty clicks to add a quote box and it makes me want to kill a kitten”).

And that really is the problem. Communication. Not technology, not budgets, not skills – communication.

Even Developer John made this candid admission: “In my four years in the industry I have maybe spoken directly to about four journalists.”

Incredible, isn’t it? Here’s a person who is responsible in a big way for a successful CMS at an enormously influential publisher. And yet, he’s rarely in contact with the people who use the product of his work.

If he was, he’d hear from people like this reporter – who got in touch after I sent out a tweet asking for CMS rants and raves. Again, anoymous, but I can say he works for a weekly within a UK publisher (not the same place as the developer above) of around 150 titles, most of which are newspapers.

“My pet hate is nibs and non-web stories. Each one still has to be categorised, geo-tagged and filed twice before it can be used in print – information that is only useful for stories that will be uploaded to the web.

“We’re told this information are for archive purposes, but by far the most useful way of tagging stories for future search is to ask the reporter to add their own individual keywords – something that is often skipped by a reporter just labelling their story with the useless keyword ‘news’.”

More evidence of corner-cutting and time-wasting. Issues like this can be solved in moments, you’d imagine, but I think I’m not being harsh on my source when I say that it probably never goes much further than a few swear-words at the end of the day. Likewise, the developer who never talks to journos just doesn’t get this information. Both sides are frustrated.

‘Nobody bothered’

While working at the BBC World Service, I’d often grumble about one of its internal systems. Yet despite the existence of a very capable, and very well monitored, bug reporting system – not once did I take any of my complaints further.

I’d say this attitude among journos is common. Developer John told me how his team invited over 200 or so users of their CMS to test out new features.

“Almost nobody bothered – and when we thought it’s fine (because of no requests to fix something) and turned the old version off there was this shitstorm about some minor things not working properly (which could have been fixed in couple of days).”

“Small improvements could make journalists life much easier but if they don’t want to participate they shouldn’t expect much either.”

Strong words – but important ones. Then again, in a busy newsroom, there simply isn’t time to log complaints and bug reports. Time is constrained enough as it is without then having to spend another 10 minutes explaining why something took too long.

Can it be solved? Sure it can. But it’s not a problem that can be fixed by simply flinging money at it. As the issues discussed in this post show, like so many business problems, crappy content management can be overcome with better communication between the people who really matter: the creators and the users.

Journalists need to speak up when something’s rubbish – and not just to their immediate colleagues. They need to make more effort to quantify just why it’s such hindrance.

Developers, for their part, need to observe how journalists work – sit in for a week, a month – and work out why current set-ups are failing.

And, most of all, managing editors and publishers need to take the cancer that is a terrible CMS seriously. Do something!