Building content management systems vs. innovating content workflow processes

Lee Simpson
Jan 3, 2014 · 4 min read

Shortly after starting work at The Guardian I was assigned to the Digital CMS team — a work-stream tasked with developing the future of content management and publishing tools for the organisation’s new ‘digital first’ initiative. The initial brief was to re-imagine the liveblog production tool; an in-house application that had already gone through several iterations as the team built on better technology and a greater understanding of what liveblogging meant to the newsroom.

Soon after I started the scope of the work grew. As plans for the next generation website and mobile applications progressed to cope with the changing needs of both readers and the newsroom, it was obvious that a more flexible and robust tool was required to enable journalists to produce the kind of articles that were needed.

So much has changed in the ‘electronic publishing’ landscape in the last year. For every month of 2013 there was a hot new writing application, hip new publishing platform or collaboration silver bullet for writers, newsrooms and media organisation to run through the mill. Tools and applications for content publishing had matured in such a short period of time, individually they lacked the cross workflow power to be of complete use to a newsroom like The Guardian’s, but collectively it was starting to look a lot more interesting.

The software requirements for a modern, paper producing newsroom, are vast. The needs of the newsroom are increasingly difficult to define due to the nuances in production processes across desks, publications and offices, a moving target that is getting faster by the day.

At The Guardian we set out with the clear intention of building tools for a sub-set of journalists we call writers, the person we would consider responsible for authoring the body of an article. But after a week of workshops focusing on software solutions to editorial processes, we soon saw pain-points in sub-editing, picture editing, the commissioning process and post publishing content management. Pain-points that served to highlight clear divides in the expectation of what a ‘digital CMS’ really meant to the people we were building it for and where the true value lay.

When looking at the array of new applications aimed at enabling better writing and production of the written word — each of these tools exist to meet the requirements of a specific section of the publishing workflow, why should a newsroom invest anymore time and resource into building tools of its own?

Many writers at The Guardian already favour apps such as iA Writer, Google Docs and MarsEdit over the in-house tools they’re provided with, so why stop there? Poetica has done a beautiful job of creating an interface with the specific purpose of collaborative editing — it’s functional, already alleviating some of the pain-points we found during workshops. Then there’s Spundge, an application for curating media (social, images and video) around a piece of content, allowing different members of a team to input collaboratively using their specialist knowledge and skills, another existing bottleneck in the article production process.

When you look at the content management in these terms, thoughts turn to the idea of internal development teams perhaps focusing their efforts elsewhere.

What about a solution that allows journalists to use any application already in the market? One that best fits the tasks they’re required to carry out and their persona preference? What if there was an editorial process that supported this way of working?

A standardised mechanism for handling content from draft to publish (and beyond) would allow us to take advantage of tools being built by other software houses dedicated to solving the problems at individual stages of the content publishing process. Similarities can be found in the bases of programming workflow — dedicated systems and tools for each step of the process.

The lifespan of software developed in-house is decreasing due to the rapidly changing requirements of the business and it’s internal users. News organisations would be wise to focus on supporting and enabling innovation in publishing workflows with smarter more flexible APIs, rather than pixel shifting user interfaces in an attempt to keep up.

As we move from traditional newspaper publishing to a digital first mentality maybe it’s time to stop thinking of the newsroom content management system in terms of a single piece of software. Instead think about the increased importance of process and workflow as a way for media organisations to stay relevant and competitive, applying technical resource to working out ways to string existing tools together to meet the needs of the newsroom at an organisational level, rather than at a user level.

Thanks to Matt Andrews for helping out with this.

Thank you for reading —

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Lee Simpson

Written by

Head of TV & Entertainment at @ustwo. Previously: @guardian, @ostmodern. Advisor: @ignite100, @Amaliah_Tweets

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