Posted by: structureofnews | March 10, 2011

Peeking Under The Hood

A smart, thoughtful post by Matt Waite, one of the creators of Politifact, at Nieman Journalism Labs, about the limitations of newsroom content management systems and how that hobbles newsroom innovation and the creation of new forms of news products.

And more than that: It points to the need for journalists to dig into the guts of production if we’re to take charge of our future.

As Matt points out, newsroom systems are built around an industrial process – getting ink on paper and a newspaper out the door at a set time each day.  That makes lots of sense – for a newspaper.   And it’s risky to screw around with it if you value getting a paper out each day.  But it definitely doesn’t help when it comes to trying out new processes and new ideas.

It’s a byzantine series of steps, through exceedingly expensive software and equipment, run in a sequence every night in a manner that can be timed with a stopwatch. Any glitch, hiccup, delay, or bump in the process is a four-alarm emergency, because at the other end of this dance is an army of trucks waiting for bundles of paper. In short, it’s got to work exactly the same way every night or piles of cash get burned by people standing around waiting.

Now, I’m not going to tell you that experimentation is forbidden in the web space, because it’s not. But that experimentation takes place almost entirely outside the main content management system. Story here, news app there. A blog? A separate software stack. Photo galleries? Made elsewhere, embedded into a CMS page (maybe). Graphics? Same. Got something more, like a whole high school sports stats and scores system? Separate site completely, but stories stay in the CMS. You don’t get them.

In short, experiment all you want, so long as you never touch the core product.

In other words, beyond the cultural gulf we have to overcome in most newsrooms, beyond the development of data skills, beyond the nitty gritty of data structure and designing interfaces for the public – we also have to grapple with the core production system embedded in every newsroom.   It’s enough to make you cry.

Of course, projects do happen, and there are great examples of smart data and news apps around.  But Matt’s point is that much of it is happening on the periphery of newsrooms, driven there as much by the technological limitations of the CMS as anything else.  Anything that touches the core part of the news operation – whether modifying the daily story or adding or extracting data from it – needs to conform to the dictates of the CMS.  And that forces everything into a straightjacket and hobbles innovation.

Matt talks about a more evolutionary CMS, one that would be adapted to the demands of each part of the newsroom – sports different from politics different from restaurant reviews, etc.   There’s lots of smart comments from some of ahead-of-the-curve thinkers in this area, and it’s definitely worth reading.  This isn’t the only issue holding newsrooms back, of course; I suspect cultural divides are the biggest problem we face.  But this doesn’t help.

And it does highlight how everything is much more integrated these days, and how much more we need to know about the entire production operation, and be involved in.

It’s not like newsrooms didn’t have people who knew production systems – there was always the production editor and his guys, who knew the operation inside out.  But most journalists in the newsroom didn’t have a clue that they existed, or even what they did.  To some extent, that made sense – after all, all that production stuff didn’t really impact their day-to-day work, whether they were reporters, editors or photographers, etc.  Other people – the printing press staff, among them – actually made the product.

But these days, we make the product.  Or rather, we can, if we want to.  And we should.  We should be involved in the design of new news products, from what goes into them to how we make them to how they get to users/readers.  And if we want to do that, we need to be deeply involved in all the stages of that operation, including getting our hands dirty and looking under the hood.  There’s no point imagining the best app in the world if you can’t get your newsroom to implement it, or if the technology won’t support it.

Not doing that means we cede the creative process to others; and in the meantime, we just keep doing what we’re doing and hope that someone finds a way to pay us to do it.

I prefer Plan A.

Or, as Matt puts it:

While I was at the St. Petersburg Times, we took this approach of rebuilding the core from scratch with PolitiFact. We built it from the ground up, augmenting the story form with database relationships to people, topics, and rulings (among others). We added transparency by making the listing of sources a required part of an item. We took the atomic parts of a fact-check story and we built a new molecule with them. And with that molecule, we built a national audience for a regional newspaper and won a Pulitzer Prize.

Not bad for a bunch of print journalists experimenting with the story form on the web.

Not bad at all.  Imagine what you could do with a whole newsroom working on new types of journalism and story-telling methods.


  1. One question about the evolving CMS is that the big 3 open source CMS communities have increasingly created this type of flexible CMS for the web. The question has always been hooking them to the complex processes that are built into the mainstream print CMS systems.

    What would the system look like, if you went from online CMS to printed product? Would the solution be simpler and less costly. A thought?

  2. […] but there are tons of others.  Yet many of them are built around the periphery of a newsroom’s CMS and publishing platform; the core of the operation is generally still geared towards creating […]

  3. […] sense. It’s not the sexiest thing to talk about, and grand theories will only go so far without a working CMS to power them, but this is critical not only for how-do-we-move-ahead practical reasons, but also […]

  4. […] the clearest definition of what powers all the projects, and essentially puts the issue of the CMS front and center.  And “new forms of storytelling” covers the broadest territory and […]

  5. […] that takes rethinking content management systems, as much as blowing up newsroom workflows and the nature of stories or content that journalists […]

  6. […] out more quickly, than a structured journalism project would, not least because we’d need a whole new CMS.  And getting value to readers is what really […]

  7. […] or not – it will be to embed that into a newsroom’s workflow and technology.  Newsroom content management systems aren’t usually designed to handle stories as structured blocks of information, and newsroom […]

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