Newspaper publishing in today’s online world

I joined a newspaper company in 2001 to help maintain and develop a newspaper CMS system, which the development manager began creating on his own in 1994. In the past seven years, we’ve brought in web browser interfaces, RSS feeds, AJAX data handling, online publishing tools which allow the output to be sent direct to our printers, some 100 km away. The whole pre-production process for online and print output is controlled through our custom CMS. We’ve improved the public site, added loads of functionality and both brought in and removed features which have been cool and which have been faddish. We have around 30,000 visitors per week (it’s a local paper) and the CMS has needed maintenance and work from day one. It’s a great system, customized for our own needs and yet portable, saleable as part of a publishing concept which has been pushed internationally in the German-language newspaper market for the past four years. Editors, journalists, entrepreneurs and business managers have been bowled over by what it can do, and have said that they have never seen anything which can match it.

The newspaper industry is about power and control. Publishers don’t like being told that they’re doing it the wrong way and they don’t like smaller companies coming along and telling them that they can do it better. When it comes to online publishing, companies in Switzerland are slowly coming to terms with blogs, despite the fact that they have been around since 1998 (in their current form, when Blogger became popular). Even the company I work for, who has followed my blogging and personal website development and journalism since I joined them, is still reticent about changing the way they do things and to consider allowing journalists or contributors to run their own blogs. Newspaper publishers promote their products and don’t like to lose control over the overall content. However hands-off the editor in chief pretends to be, there is always a level of control, someone looking over the shoulder of the person writing.

Blogs may well be adopted to keep up with current trends but in a professional publishing environment, they will never take over the role of professional, structured journalism. Journalism is and will always be a team sport. However much personal publishers (or “bloggers”) contribute and however important and relevant they are or become, they will never match the commercial and focused success of a team of professional journalists within a regular newsroom environment. There’s just too much money at stake. Any CMS – whether open-source or commercial – which covers the needs of a blogger, a corporate site manager and a publishing team will continue to be the most sought-after software tool in modern publishing.

(Written in response to a blog post by Mike Davidson about content management systems.)