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CMS: pre-made or roll your own?

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Madison McCord, web editor of The Communicator at Spokane Falls Community College, makes the case for college media organizations developing their own content management systems in a comment on a previous post:

Where are the sites that are not built using any type of template (word press, College publisher) but instead are building and managing their sites in-house? I am a strong believer that we are all students, and should be learning everything about site design and management instead of using a plug and play system. Granted, it takes more time, but the experience of doing it puts those further ahead of everyone else.

I am the web editor, and co-designer of The Communicator Online, the student news site at SFCC. This last spring myself and the other designer sat in our newsroom and built our website from scratch. We enter every item by hand into the code, a tool that we can now use in the future. And just to prove that our site is no worse than any using WP or CP, we are currently an ACP Online Pacemaker finalist.

I just think that too many sites don’t care about what their students are learning, which is the whole point of being a college student

Edit: Someone pointed out that it’s not clear from the e-mail whether McCord is talking about a CMS, or hand-coding HTML using something like Dreamweaver or a text editor. If they are creating static web pages, then that’s a step backward, rather than forward. I’ll discuss that problem in a future post. If they are static web pages, then the CMS discussion below doesn’t pertain to SFCC, but it’s worthwhile.

There are actually a number of schools that are now running on, or are in the process of developing, a home-grown content management system (Va. Tech, Michigan State, NYU’s Washington Square News, Yale, UCLA, Florida International). Some of them are using Django to build their site. Others are working with Ruby on Rails or PHP. Then there’s the mysterious Populous project, which was supposed to be released this summer.

I do think it’s a little unfair to say that “too many sites don’t care about what their students are learning …” Developing a CMS takes a lot of time and careful thought. Time and thought that have already been expended on CMS’s like WordPress or CP or whatever.

I first used WordPress when it was in 1.xx form, and to see how it has changed since then amazing. The amount of plug-ins and add-ons (not to mention themes) that are available is also something that can’t be dismissed.

And wrangling a CMS to do what you want to do with it (whether WordPress or College Publisher, Drupal or Joomla) can be just as challenging for a developer as building something from scratch. There are plug-ins to write, ad management systems to explore, features to test and themes to tweak. A CMS can be “plug-and-play” if that’s what you want. But it’s also a canvas to explore skills in HTML, CSS, PHP, Ruby, or whatever language you care to learn (I’m speaking to web dev types here).

There is a larger issue with building a CMS from scratch, as well, which I’ve seen up close: developer continuity.

Let’s play out this scenario: You have a talented web developer who spends almost a year developing a content management system from the ground up. It’s well-documented and has many of the features of contemporary open-source CMS’s.

But after a year or two, the developer graduates and takes a job in the industry. Now he/she is no longer around to continue to add to the code, and the web staff who come along afterward are busy keeping the site running, so they can’t update and fix things that are broken or could use some extra code. They can’t adapt to new technologies and social media add-ons that come down the pike (social media additions, for instance).

Or suppose there’s a security hole somewhere in the code? Who’s going to fix it? Who’s going to poke around to make sure malicious hackers can’t get into your database or server setup? The biggest CMS names out there have people who are doing just that so you don’t have to (just look at the number of .xx updates WordPress pushes out.

You could spend some money on an outside developer to address those issues. But in this economy, who’s got money for that? And that developer would have to spend time learning the set-up as well.

Like I said, I’m happy for any school that can develop their own CMS. I wish them the best of luck. But I’m less interested in reinventing that particular wheel and more interested in pushing the storytelling envelope and getting legacy media staffs working in a “web-first” mentality.

Edit: McCord writes, “And just to prove that our site is no worse than any using WP or CP, we are currently an ACP Online Pacemaker finalist.” I don’t know that CMS goes into the decisions of judges. Dennews.com won an online Pacemaker last year, and we’re a finalist again this year, but we’re still running on CP4. In some ways, this reminds me of the Quark Xpress/InDesign debate from 2001. It’s not the tool, but what you do with it that counts.

Update: Max Cutler in the comments points to courantnews.com – an open-source college media cms built on Django for those who are interested in participating in a roll your own style CMS project.

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