The Chronicle of Higher Education had an article recently about college newspapers abandoning “template-driven” College Media Network for open-source content management systems (CMS): For College Newspapers, Prepackaged Online Versions are Yesterday’s News.
The article quotes the editor of the Daily Texan about how they now have so much more control over the presentation of the material on their web site:
The site made its debut this past spring semester. The editors can now position stories and headlines where they want them, depending on the flow of the news, and showcase different kinds of media. They couldn’t do that before.
Ms. Winchester said the freedom is invaluable. “Students are working on our Web site, and students are deciding how the Web site will look,” she said.
However, I have to make the point that I have been making for several years: It’s not the CMS. It’s the journalism. A CMS is a tool, just like a hammer, or fire, or whatever other analogy you’d like to throw in there. It doesn’t necessarily help or hinder your ability to tell stories. As Madison McCord, a student, wrote for us a while back, even a hand-coded html site can produce good content and design.
But what use is a shiny new CMS if you’re still producing stale, shovelware-esque content?
For instance, the day the Chronicle story came out, the Daily Texan has a story about downtown parking, and yet there is no link to the City of Austin Transportation Department web page, which I found in a 2-second search of teh Google.
Or, take this breezy summer story about desserts with alcohol in them. The story mentions two specific local establishments that serve these cold refreshments, and yet doesn’t provide a link to the web page of either 219 West or Dolce Vita’s Facebook page, both of which – again – I found via teh Google.
In short, it’s Shovelware (you can read the same story in the PDF of the issue here).
And then there is the issue of site design. When vast numbers of site visitors enter your site through individual story pages (via Google searches or through social network links via Twitter or Facebook), that shiny front page positioning thing misses them completely.
I’m mainly writing this to reinforce something I said in 2007: It’s not the CMS – it’s the journalism. Period.
Web-first means thinking about alternate ways to tell stories. To think about video, to think about audio, to think about maps, to think about alternate ways to illustrate information to grab people’s attention. It means to think about how to create a community around your web site. To eschew traditional journalistic “journalism as lecture” mindset and think about “news as conversation”.
If nothing else, get your students to check out this checklist of things they could be doing online (for free!). If they aren’t doing those things, what difference is a different content management system going to make?
I’m sure there will be more migration to open-source CMS’s in the next year, and new hosting options. But let’s keep the main thing the main thing.