A next-generation news site management system

For the last couple of weeks I've been too busy to blog much. We're working to build the next-generation newspaper website management system. We have an October deadline, which seems a long way off, but it's not. There's a lot of work to do, including complete site redesigns. We're doing this simultaneously for two newspapers that are 1,200 miles apart, and the closest is almost five hours away from our office. And I'm going to India for two weeks in September. I want to see it largely completed before I drop off the grid.I've been through many content management system implementations. This one is different in several key ways:

  • We've adopted open-source development practices, with open communication and collaboration. At this point it's almost entirely inside Morris Communications, but (shockingly, perhaps) it's the first time developers who work at our newspapers have really collaborated with developers who work at the corporate headquarters. Sad, but true: We tend to work in our own little worlds.
  • We've pledged to release our code, templates and configurations under the open-source GPL license. This means others will be able to follow our path with much less time and effort.
  • We're inviting people from outside the to join in the process. I don't expect much on that front in the next few weeks, as we're pretty much in "busy, don't bother" mode, but over the long haul I think Brian Eno was right: "Every collaboration helps you grow."

We're basing our work on the Drupal platform, which we've previously used mostly for community interaction. In 2005, we built Bluffton Today on Drupal, focusing the site entirely on community blogging. In 2006, we relaunched SavannahNow on Drupal, adding newspaper content to the mix. Since then we've built dozens of community blogging sites for our newspapers, as well as radio station websites, Skirt.com (21 cities so far) and WhereTraveler.com (40 cities so far). This time around, we're going into some new territory. We're integrating a lot more social-networking functionality, which we think is an important tool for addressing the "low frequency" problem that most news sites face. We're going to be aggressive aggregators, pulling in RSS feeds from every community resource we can find, and giving our users the ability to vote the results up/down. We'll link heavily to all the sources, including "competitors."Ranking/rating, commenting, and RSS feeds will be ubiquitous. Users of Twitter, Pownce and Friendfeed will be able to follow topics of interest.We're also experimenting with collaborative filtering, something I've been interested in since I met the developers of GroupLens in the mid-1990s. It's how Amazon offers you books and products that interest you: People whose behavior is the most like yours have looked at/bought/recommended this other thing. It's a difficult concept to apply to news, but if you rank/rate news and blog items on our websites, we hope to offer you links to other items highly rated by people who are most like you. Some of the improvements will be entirely internal. I'm especially excited about a tool that will allow editors to make arbitrary layout changes to key pages without knowing any HTML, and a "dayparting" module that can automatically publish new homepage layouts that are prepared in advance. Our newspapers are aggressively switching to a 24/7 news model, and reporters will be able to post stories, photos and video directly from the field with a laptop and a broadband card.A lot of people wonder why anybody would give away something that's good. But there's a whole "gift economy" that's evolved around software. Companies make money by offering valuable services while taking advantage of shared capabilities. The GPL, which is the software license used by many such projects, requires that you provide source code so that others can modify and improve your work. Derivative works fall under the same license. This is the "common wealth" in action.But is it any good? If you use the Internet, you use open source software. If you're looking at a Web page, it probably was served by Apache, perhaps from a MySQL database and through an open-source application such as Drupal. Google? Linux and Python. Yahoo? FreeBSD, Linux, PHP. AdSense? It wouldn't run without MySQL. Internet startups tend to be very smart about open-source tools. Newspapers? Not so much. But it's time to change our thinking about a lot of things, and this is one of them.


Interesting article. I think that regional news papers have no other chance in the long run than to become a social community online for their region if they want to succeed. They have to integrate the different ad channels [online and print] and deliver real value to their communities - especially the younger part of their targeted base population. Re project management - so far I´m under the impression that in many regards that is not appreciated enough in higher level open sources apps like Drupal. Looking on drupal.org or other relevant sites is pretty a platform to solve technical issues, but rarely for question like "Why do we do this project, what value creates it for us and other stakeholders, what are the cost and incomes generated from it". Due to the high fragmentation of the market into small companies and freelancers it is very difficult to implement proper collaboration and define structured approaches - in other words, project management and the commercial angle probably leave a lot of room for future enhancements in this area.

Look forward to seeing it Steve.

I cannot wait to learn more about it, I've put together several CMS' from Drupal, Expression Engine and several others. It can be a pain, but it is a pleasure down the road. I can't wait to see how this works! Matt

Can you tell me more about your "next-generation news site management system"? I'm talking to a bunch of people at CoPress and we're all very curious!

Our primary goals are to meet the needs of our newspapers as they move from the old model of having separate online departments to the new model of having multimedia news and information centers. Journalists need easy-to-use tools that give them appropriate control and flexibility without having to know anything about coding. The current state of our prototype includes point-and-click, drag-and-drop flexibility in laying out the homepage, section fronts, topics pages, et cetera, which is something we've not had before. We have integrated support for audio, video, Flash infographics, and many other content types, with or without a distribution partner (we use Brightcove for video). While most of what you need is latent in Drupal -- which we have used extensively -- it's not "real" until you do a great deal of painstaking configuration work, and in some cases some additional software development. Then comes theming -- converting news-friendly designs (with appropriate support for standard ad units) into Drupal templates, which is way beyond the skillset you typically find at a newspaper. So we're developing a standard, preconfigured baseline that includes a number of contributed and custom modules, a wireframe layout that can be "reskinned" with some CSS work, and eventually documentation tailored to the needs of newsroom users. The shape of the result reflects my community-building philosophy of journalism. By no means is it limited to "publishing" the "news," but rather will provide tools for deep community engagement including conversation, collaborative creation of community resources, social networking, ranking/ratings and recommendations. We're still in the early stages of setting it up, but I'm about ready to start showing it to people outside the company. We did a brief Webex showing Wednesday afternoon with some folks from our Topeka, Jacksonville and Conway (AR) newspapers that led to a lot of ooh-ing and ah-ing, even though it still looks primitive to my eyes. We've decided to share our work with the community as open-source. We don't have to do that, but we hope to get some benefit out of it ourselves. We hope that others will find ways to improve the result, and will contribute those improvements to the benefit of all. A lot of newspaper companies are using Drupal, but very few have contributed anything back to the community.

I would love to see the product when you are done. Thanks, Mark

I remember reading this post and I can say I was impressed with the outcome.