Tool Review: Content Management Systems for newsrooms
Three digital newsroom heads share insights on off-the-shelf and customised CMS’s for independent online news media
There are various Content Management System’s (CMS), software used to manage the creation and modification of digital content, that newsrooms adopt for their digital presence. News focused newsrooms often invest a lot more resources and technology in how their “store fronts” look and feel, but also improving the news flow within news desks.
If you are new to this field, this tool review could help you get started. The CMS you choose depends on factors that include your requirements, skills, budget and resources. A number of independent newsrooms use off-the-shelf CMS’s, which they then customise according to their specific needs. These needs can range from implementing a system which increases the speed in which digital content can be transferred between a reporter and the news desk; prioritising stories; adding a donation plug-in; or one that allows for headlines rather than a string of numbers to be included in a page’s or article’s url.
We review and share some of the tips from three editors on which CMS their newsrooms are using.
WordPress at Amabhungane
WordPress is one of the most widely used CMS’s in the world. Sally Evans, digital coordinator at amaBhungane, a digital independent investigative journalism publication in South Africa. The publication previously piggy-backed on Mail & Guardian’s CMS but have since migrated to WordPress with the current site. Evans shares how amaBhungane use and have customised WordPress for their publication.
How does amaBhungane use your CMS? We run our entire website using our CMS. We have, and continue to add more applications to our dashboard/backend — which are either run totally from the CMS or they act as a channel to some of our other, separate platforms.
Amongst many other uses, we use the CMS to display a widget for our ‘Evidence docket’ which is embedded into our ‘story’ pages, although we only use it to display a clickable URL to DocumentCloud, so we don’t store the data on the site; similarly, we use the CMS to allow the public to send us tipoffs or to get in contact with us; and more recently, with the help of developers, we have built a payment portal which we run from our dashboard in conjunction with third-party applications and plugins supported by the CMS — for example PayFast and PayPal.
I am sure there are more things I have left out! But we rely on it a lot!
What are the positives of using this CMS? As amaBhungane’s digital coordinator, I was responsible for ensuring that the transition to the new site was as undisruptive as possible (easier said than done haha). It is great to have more independence over our website’s backend (although there are cons to this too, see below). Our CMS is open-source, so one pro is that it is less complicated, and in fact quite easy to move to our website to a new developer.
While our CMS offers ready-made templates, it also supports quite a wide range of plugins, which allows us, at least to some extent, to create a more unique style, suited to our organisation’s needs.
I have also found that as our website needs grow at amaBhungane, our CMS seems for the most part to be compatible with a lot of third-party applications. For example, when it comes to creating images or embedding codes for podcasts or videos, more often than not I will get a specific embed option that I can simply copy and paste into whatever content I am working on in our back-end.
My experience is that more and more ‘non-technically inclined’ people are starting to engage — at least at some level with a CMS. So, a definite pro is that others on our team are able to use my home-made how-to guide, to upload content if I am unavailable for any reason, and without too much angst. Our backend is fairly straightforward when it comes to the ordinary business of updating and populating the website with content.
When it comes to the security of our website there are both pros and cons to using a ready-built CMS. Software updates to the system and plugins, mean that our CMS is up-to-date. (But security might be more of a con, see below.)
And lastly, from amaBhungane’s point of view, there has been an increase in the availability of lower rates for non-profit organisations, so that is a pro as we are able in some instances to benefit from more expensive and more broadly used plugins that are supported by our current CMS.
What are the negatives of using CMS? While our CMS is quite straightforward to use, and it does offer hundreds of already-built templates for websites, we wanted to customise our website to amaBhungane’s style and image. And without having a tech wizard on the team, we still had to rely on outside developers to help us create and build a more unique layout and style.
While the standard security features of our CMS software are pretty good there is a massive need to ensure you have additional layers of security software that not only adds more costs, it adds more complexity to the usage and operation of the CMS because of the additional plugins and third-party services needed to maintain the integrity of these additional layers. And I do think there might be more risk in using a larger, more main-stream CMS as they could be seen as “easy” targets which therefore leads to a higher risk potential for security threats.
During the conceptualising and design process for our website I did find that our CMS was designed with blogs and businesses in mind. The CMS isn’t really in sync with the needs of a news/reporting website. But in the last couple of years, I think that gap has grown a bit smaller.
Our CMS software remains quite skewed to supporting the needs of business, sales/transactional or marketing-style website, and less supportive of the kind of applications that organisations like amaBhungane need. For one thing, we are a not a revenue-driven organisation — we rely on public support and donor funding. And while we have managed with the help of experts to adapt some of the applications supported by our CMS, to our specific needs (as mentioned in the Pros section above) it is difficult to find a “perfect” product or application.
Another con (but also a pro to some extent) are functions linked to publication scheduling and automation which are not attuned to the specific needs of a news publishing organisation. Although it is likely that with the help of outside developers some of these kinks can be ironed out, but when there are so many things on your list, you do have to prioritise and therefore the potential for delays in actioning even simple functions remains.
In some instances, I find that the growing pressures we face as a news organisation — to maximise our website’s visibility and search ranking on Google — is beyond the scope of tools offered by our CMS, (which, although it does support dozens of applications that offer SEO services etc to achieve those things) it remains a battle to reconcile those Google needs (whether one likes it or not) to the specific style and model of our content.
I am not even sure if there is a solution where even a customised CMS would have the ability to be compatible with Google while allowing us to maintain our integrity in terms of our specific needs as a news site.
Should newsrooms invest in customised CMS’s or rely on existing platforms? This is quite subjective, as it really depends on each newsroom’s financial resources, internal expertise and individual organisational goals and needs. In an ideal world where money and resources were not an issue, a customised CMS is a no-brainer.
The need for customising a CMS to the specific needs of a newsroom, such as security and style ultimately increase your monthly costs, even if initially an existing CMS platform seemed a more reasonable financial option. Costs will increase. For example, at amaBhungane, if we didn’t invest in our editorial team and expert investigative journalists, we’d not have much need for our own, highly customised website. It remains a balance of priorities.
Although I am pretty certain that most larger newsrooms already invest heavily in customised CMS’s because of the multi-capabilities they need and which they can’t necessarily get from existing platforms or it really no longer makes any sense to use off-the-shelf CMS’s.
I do think that as our needs, at amaBhungane, for more customised functionality and features increases, a customised CMS would be the ideal. But I am not actually certain of what the cost differences between the two options are? Specifically, for a non-profit, donor-driven, small investigative unit such as ours. I have not had much, or in fact even any real experience with a fully custom, built from scratch, CMS so I am possibly at a disadvantage when it comes to knowing which would be best?
But I suppose that ultimately yes, I would say that investing in a customised CMS is something every newsroom should seriously consider if not immediately invest in. I am just not sure I have enough information on both options to give an informed response.
Wordpress at Daily Trust
Another publication that uses Wordpress is the Daily Trust in Nigeria. We spoke to its Editor-in-Chief Naziru Mikailu. He says previously they used Joomla and 4C Plus for the publication, but have now been using Wordpress. Mikailu says using Wordpress is “convenient, easy to use, and helped deal with problems experienced in the past”.
How do you use this CMS at Daily Trust? Wordpress is used for publishing, drafting and scheduling. Each user has a user account, with a specific level of access to determine what they can do on the backend. There are drafters and editors and publishers, video makers all with different levels of access. So users without the need for photos and videos don’t have access to functionalities involving photos and videos.
What are the positives of using Wordpress? It is customisable, user friendly, with an intuitive GUI. New users need little walk around to learn how to use the CMS. Anyone with a Wordpress blog already has a hang of how things work on the backend.
What are the negatives of using Wordpress? A lot of the functions are widely known to every user. So what you are using may not be really different from what competitors are using. You have to make the exception to ensure both your front end and backend are not on the same server or domain, otherwise, someone could type wordpress.com/… and get straight access to your backend, if you don’t take the necessary steps to protect your backend. The point of it is, attackers can attack both your front end and backend, if they are both on the same server, so it makes sense and costs more to have each on different servers.
Should newsrooms invest in customised CMS’s or rely on existing platforms? Emerging newsrooms can use existing platforms. They are cheap and functional. Newsrooms that have come into their own should consider customised CMS’s, especially if they can afford a good in-house developer who can tweak codes to suit the newsroom’s needs. Convenience and ease of use with CMS are fine, but security and originality are a consideration for customised CMS.
A number of media outlets have decided to use or build in-house, customised CMS’s and adding third-party tools. At Arena Holdings, one of South Africa’s leading legacy news organisations, the various publications use a customised CMS called CosMos. We had a chat with Riaan Wolmarans, head of digital media at Arena about CosMos.
How do the publications at Arena use CosMoS? CosMoS runs all our major websites: TimesLIVE, SowetanLIVE, BusinessLIVE, HeraldLIVE and DispatchLIVE. Journalists can create their articles in CosMoS (or select articles from external feeds from news agencies etc) and enrich those articles with graphic elements, videos, embeds from social media and so on. The article then follows a comprehensive newsroom workflow process in CosMoS for editing, sub-editing and digital production checks before it is published. CosMoS then also lets the website production team manage the site itself in terms of story placement, appearance and more. Furthermore, for sites associated with print publications, CosMoS can send fully edited and sub-edited versions of articles to specific pages of the next edition, which are then finalised laid out in a separate print production suite.
What are the positives of using CosMoS? Because Arena Holdings built CosMoS from scratch in partnership with Cape Town-based F8 Development, it is designed to fit our wide range of digital editorial requirements perfectly. It has been designed to be easy and intuitive to use: a journalist can be trained in less than two hours to create and file their articles on CosMoS. The structure and design of the underlying software also makes it relatively quick and simple to expand CosMoS’s capabilities (for example, to create useful API links to an endless variety of other digital services). Large parts of our digital production process are now automated via CosMoS, so our web teams have more time to focus on the actual content rather than wasting time on menial production tasks. Furthermore, it plays a central role in reinforcing the concept of “digital first” in our newsrooms as we aim to publish frequently and comprehensively on our fast-growing websites while improving the quality of our online journalism at a time when we have several active paywalls on our titles.
What are the negatives of using CosMoS? It has been a challenge to design processes in CosMoS to interface with our existing print production process (to enable the smooth and steady flow of edited copy from digital to print) and to adapt our newsroom workflows accordingly. However, because CosMoS is an in-house product, we have rolled out several rounds of improvements to these processes as more and more of our newsrooms start working in such a fully digital-first way. The evolution of CosMoS continues as the requirements of our websites and print titles change over time.
What are some of the changes and plans for Cosmos? The first large website we launched on CosMoS was BusinessLIVE in 2016. It will also be the first website that will receive an extensive update to keep track with the improvements made in CosMoS since then and with changes in the broader industry. For example, more of our readers than ever before consume the news via mobile devices, so our web designs, mobile optimisation and production processes have to cater seamlessly for that. The digital advertising landscape is also evolving and CosMoS needs to work around the latest developments in, for example, programmatic advertising — to ensure we can serve such advertising efficiently without affecting the load speeds and overall quality of our websites. We also have some fantastic ideas for brand-new features on the redesigned BusinessLIVE, which will also require some updates in CosMoS, of course. So, in essence, as our digital world evolves, so does CosMoS.
Should newsrooms invest in customised CMSs or rely on existing platforms? It’s not a case of one or the other. For some newsrooms, in particular smaller or less well resourced newsrooms, an existing platform such as WordPress would always make a lot more sense economically and in terms of human resource requirements than a customised CMS. But for a larger publisher, especially one with in-house technical capacity, a customised system can be extremely valuable — especially when it comes about as a full and equitable partnership between the editorial and technical teams. If you are running some of the country’s biggest websites, it is worth the investment to ensure you remain competitive and offer your readers digital products that are ahead of the curve.
There are many more content management system’s that can be used by newsrooms across the continent and this list is not exhaustive. Other platforms include: Drupal, Joomla, Dreamweaver and many others .
We especially want to invite readers to contribute and comment: Which CMS have you or are currently using? What are the best features digital editors should look out for on a CMS? Please share these in the comments below, directly via email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or join the discussions on our Facebook page and Twitter.
Want to stay up to date with the latest journalism and media innovation news from the African continent? Subscribe to our newsletter.
Tool Review: Newsletter platforms for newsrooms
Three digital editors share best practices of editorial newsletter platforms they use in the newsroom
Tool Review: Analytics platforms for newsrooms
Which platforms do newsrooms use to measure online content performance?