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Content Management for the Masses
You don't have to be rich to run a stalwart news site

Plain text e-mail is arguably the greatest publishing tool of the last decade. That's because whether it's produced by a one-man shop or international media conglomerate, the results look pretty much the same. And that puts the emphasis back on the content itself.

That same empowering spirit is now entering content management systems (CMS), software once reserved for deep-pocketed news organizations to post, update and archive their stories and artwork on the Web.

Some recent announcements by CMS providers signal particularly good things for the small publisher or lone journalist looking to enhance (or establish) their Web presence. If the current trend continues, low budget news sites soon could enjoy systems that rival the best money can buy today.

Until then, publishers working on the cheap have several approaches available to them. None is perfect, but each has some compelling tricks up its sleeve.

A little background

Until the late 1990s, Web sites of most smaller news operations, and even many larger ones, were little more than collections of static Web pages cobbled together by hand or with an HTML editor. There might be a feed of, say, Associated Press headlines. But otherwise, the site was a strictly page-by-page affair, akin to where most journalists' Web sites are today.

As time went on, news organizations, if they could afford it, began investing in CMS. Not surprisingly, the motivation was money: The staff required to code a Web site by hand grows with the scope of the site itself. By late 2000, more than half of content site owners surveyed by Forrester Research Inc. said they were using CMS, and 43 percent of the rest said they were considering it.

The overriding goal of CMS is to separate site content from site design. In practical terms, that means an editor shouldn't have to be -- or hire -- a Web guru to post a story and make sure it winds up in the right spot. And when the story does go up, the structure shouldn't mess with the surrounding page layout.

Topping the food chain of companies that emerged to provide this sort of solution is Austin-based Vignette Corp.

From the start, Vignette customers have shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars for systems that, it must be said, outshined all others. Consider them the Rolls Royce of CMS. And like the Rolls, consider them beyond the scope of all but very large, well-heeled organizations. People deride Vignette because of its enormous fees. But when push comes to shove, the big boys (think CBS, Time, Chicago Tribune) often wind up doing business with them.

Though they initially enjoyed a near monopoly in the high-end market, Vignette today competes tooth and nail with the likes of Interwoven, Documentum Inc., BroadVision Inc. and FileNET Corp.

Again, these players are expensive. But you can use their system features as a target of what to shoot for in your own setup. Among the niceties they provide: Workflow coordination, to get the raw material of articles, photos and other content into the system; Permissions-based updating, to let users with different levels of authority update a site to varying degrees; Visitor tracking, to provide feedback on how frequently and in what order users view given pages; A repository of archived material; A search engine.

The Hosted Turnkey

Spotting a market niche, a chasm really, among the 99 percent of the news-publishing world without six-figure Web budgets, smaller firms have sprung up to provide less costly, and less feature-rich systems. These companies typically charge a few hundred dollars per month to host a site and provide the interface for updating it.

One of those, a place I once worked called Pressflex LLC, decided early on that a driving force in Web publishing would be the hosted database. They were right. Some competitors, most notably Town News/International Newspaper Network, offered a modified bulletin board system, in which publishers e-mailed in their content. But Pressflex was among the first to let users input stories, headlines, photos and relevant links using simple cut-and-paste forms via their browser. The database, in turn, updates the Web site automatically, or whenever the editor says so.

It's an approach that has since been widely embraced, as witnessed by tech publisher Cnet's growing list of Web-based CMS providers.

A shortcoming of systems that provide a single, static template is that beyond a different logo and color scheme, each site looks more or less the same. For a small-town paper in, say, Santa Paula, Calif., that's not a big problem. After all, no one else in town looks quite like them. But for a Web-only journalist or publication trying to stand out in a crowd, more personalization would be nice and will increasingly be demanded by customers

Enter San Francisco-based Atomz Corp. In early May, Atomz, a company best known for its search engine technology, upped the ante with the launch of Atomz Publish, an XML- and browser-based system that falls somewhere between the Vignettes and Pressflexes of the world. Like the latter, it lets editors and writers with no HTML expertise publish sturdy sites hosted on the vendor's machines. And like the former, it has a lot of modifiable bells and whistles, most of which can be seen on Business 2.0, Atomz' showcase client.

The full Publish system starts at $20,000 per year. But according to Atomz spokesman Steve Weeks, a scaled back version called Atomz Publish Express will launch in the next few months for about $4,000 per year, or a little more than $330 per month.

Do It Yourself

Another approach for the would-be CMSer is to grab the bull by the horns and build the damn system yourself. Surprisingly, it's not that hard.

While taking more time upfront, do-it-yourself CMS offers more control than turnkey solutions like Pressflex, Atomz and their higher priced brethren. It's a bit like cooking a meal instead of eating out: It takes more work and may lack some of the panache a professional would add, but it's cheaper and leaves you in control.

Do-it-yourself systems at heart consist of two pieces of software: A database and a Web publishing program. New databases that take advantage of XML are catching on, but for at least the next year or so, an off-the-shelf program, such as Microsoft Access, Filemaker Pro or Corel's Paradox, is plenty good. Just make sure that in the fine print somewhere it says it's Open Database Connectivity (ODBC) compliant (all of the above are.)

Of the other three, Access is probably the easiest for most people to use, as it looks and feels like the rest of the ubiquitous Microsoft Office family. Also, Access 2000 and later versions have a one-click conversion tool that can 'upsize' a database to Microsoft SQL Server format. SQL, or structured query language, handles large collections of data more efficiently than simple desktop programs.

The database itself is a collection of records-usually one per story-that contain information fields such as 'creation date,' 'headline,' 'body text,' 'section,' 'author' and so on. Other fields might include a unique story ID number, which most database programs can generate automatically; a 'frontpage' checkbox, to identify stories that should go on your homepage; and an 'unpublish' checkbox, which lets an owner remove a story from circulation without deleting it.

For the uninitiated, this may sound like Greek. In fact, getting your feet wet with a database isn't much harder than starting a new spreadsheet file. And all of the database programs mentioned here provide step-by-step instructions for newcomers.

Suffice to say that getting a basic database together from scratch is less than an afternoon's work. Then it's simply a matter of cutting and pasting in your stories. For those with Microsoft Access for the PC, you can download a sample stories database here to get you started.

When stocked, the database serves as a warehouse of articles that a Web publishing program like Microsoft FrontPage, Macromedia's Dreamweaver, Adobe GoLive or (my favorite) NetObjects Fusion will draw on to auto-generate pages. You design templates, for example, of what you want the front page and inside story pages to look like. Then you link the templates to your database and shazam! the programs generate the HTML for you. Formatting and publishing 100 stories is as easy as formatting and publishing one.

Microsoft and Macromedia offer additional, more dynamic tools for connecting databases to Web sites and for performing further publishing tricks with the results. But the tools-ASP and ColdFusion respectively-take some time to learn and are not for the faint of heart. Get comfortable with your first homegrown CMS and then consider exploring these technologies.

Son of Blog

Maybe the most exciting advance in CMS over the last two years has been the development of Web log, or blog, technology. While not originally intended as CMS, that's just where the programs are headed.

As typified by Blogger, most blog systems were built to give users a cheap and easy way of posting daily thoughts on anything and everything. A key part of the blog experience is linking to and providing commentary on stories or other content elsewhere on the Web.

'It's sort of like mixing music and sampling,' said Nick Denton, CEO of Moreover Inc.

Moreover makes its money providing business intelligence to corporations, but is probably best known for the free news feeds it provides to Web sites. Last fall the company launched its own blog system, called 'NewsBlogger', in conjunction with Pyra Labs, the creators of Blogger.

'You can look at it as an information food chain,' Denton said. 'An article is produced, then Moreover indexes it and brings it to the attention of a Web logger. And the Web log owner then adds selection and commentary to that to create a repackaged (product).'

In fact, most blog systems aren't much more than fancied-up FTP programs. And rather than a complete Web publishing solution, they are something you would weave into an existing site. Still, a lot can be achieved using one or more of even these basic systems.

Hylton Jolliffe, who runs Corante, a news site covering technology investment, has incorporated no fewer than eight blogs into his operation. The system, Jolliffe said, lets freelancers from around the country add and update stories to the Corante site, but only within the blogs they're authorized to use.

'Blogger and other such tools have streamlined the self-publishing the Web had always promised but ironically wasn't yet delivering on,' Jolliffe said.

And blog providers are tripping over themselves to add more oomph to their programs.

At the front of this movement is UserLand Software Inc., whose Radio Userland is among the most robust. Tech pioneer Dave Winer founded Userland, and Winer's own blog, Scripting News, is popular among code writers.

Radio is a scaled-back version Userland's full-fledged CMS product Manila, which includes archiving, streaming news, permission-based updating and workflow tools. A good example of the program in action can be found at journalist Glenn Fleishman's 802.11b site, which focuses on wireless technology.

Radio, which is in an extended beta state, can currently be downloaded gratis. Eventually, the company plans to charge about $100 for the software, or $15 per month for a hosted version, according to Userland President John Robb.

'Free services are going away,' Robb believes. 'That was the old 'new economy' business model. Woe to the reporter that sets up on a 'free' service just to see the company that provides it go out of business in six months.'

That sentiment notwithstanding, there are impressive free services available, including Greymatter, Dotcomments, Free Conversant and many others, for the truly cash strapped.

Looking forward

As CMS technology progresses, journalists and small publishers stand to benefit enormously. And it's likely that no single solution will emerge as the way to go. Do-it-yourself software will likely adopt functions of turnkey systems, and turnkey systems will almost certainly add some form of Web logging. Hybridization is underway that blurs the line between high-end publishing systems and what can be had for cheap to nothing.

'The real game is breeding unique uses and users for this massive, transparent, instantaneous, global tool for communicating and computing that we currently call the Internet,' said Pressflex founder Henry Copeland. 'Winners won't build technology or even business models, but new modes of thinking and acting and thriving.' Updated: June 30, 2001