The Trouble With Back-Ends

CMS woes: Why publishers can’t publish on the Web

No publication has a better story about back-end chaos than BusinessWeek.

Before it was acquired by Bloomberg LP, the publication sank a shocking $20 million into the back-end development of Business Exchange, a professional social networking site being built atop a proprietary content management system. Employees blamed BusinessWeek’s bloated tech investment for the company’s financial demise and eventual fire sale to Bloomberg, which paid a paltry sum—reported as between $2 million and $5 million—for it in 2009.

“To figure something out like that is a massive thing,” says one former employee. “BusinessWeek is not a technology company, so when they tried to build it, they failed.”

BusinessWeek, however, is just one egregious example of an ugly truth: There’s no such thing as a CMS success story. At least, successes are elusive, which is a problem for anyone in media, as content management systems—the software used by writers, editors, and producers to create digital content for websites—have become as essential as oxygen.

“There’s nobody that can walk in the door for any price tag and say, ‘We have the solution,’” laments Time Inc. CIO Mitch Klaif. “If someone had a silver bullet, I don’t know if I’d have them shoot it at the sites or at me.”

Until recently, those dependent on websites—everyone from The Huffington Post to a Fortune 1,000 brand—had seen little change in the systems needed to build them, says Brian Alvey, CEO of CMS platform Crowd Fusion. “The only innovation in [the last] 15 years was blogging and blog platforms,” he adds.

Unfortunately for these companies, the onrush of social networking—part of a larger shift in which sites are moving from static Web pages to pages assembled on the fly in real time—has overwhelmed the abilities of CMS software. In Alvey’s view, most of those systems could barely handle the existing content mix they were producing, including blog posts, stories from print editions, photos, videos, and online polls. “The tools suck,” he says.

The pain is especially acute for sites built before the emergence of social media. For them, getting with the times is a bit like teaching your grandfather how to tweet. Migrating a clunky site run on outdated, home-baked CMS platforms is so daunting, in fact, that as a result many a site simply turns a blind eye. Salon is just one example of an early Web pioneer that continues to run on ’90s-era technology.

Add a marketplace crowded with content-management options, tight budgets, and a string of media mergers—and the corresponding change in personnel—and the result is that these troublesome tools are being plied in a cultural clusterfuck. The result is a growing number of bloated, tangled CMS platforms reviled by the editors that publish on them, and the IT teams that maintain them.

“A CMS has to serve many stakeholders in an industry that moves very quickly,” says Elizabeth Osder of The Osder Group, a media consultancy. “The reality of CMS is that everybody’s system gives them pain.”

Just look at brands and their agencies. As brand websites increasingly turn marketers into publishers, the lion’s share of projects at many digital ad shops and production houses now involve developing CMS technology for clients, either by retooling out-of-the-box offerings—ranging from WordPress to Interwoven and Sitecore—or building new functionality from scratch.

A whopping 80 percent of projects by Tribal DDB, for example, include CMS work, says head of technology Oscar Trelles. The same is true at Huge, according to Adam Grohs, vp of technology. At The Barbarian Group, some 60 percent of projects are driven by CMS needs.

And agencies often tack new CMS products onto increasingly complex legacy infrastructure, especially for bigger brands. This creates the sort of Frankenstein solutions that can weaken security, force back deadlines, and create headaches for developers.

“What you end up with is a patchwork quilt of core code from whoever maintains the CMS property [at the CMS company] and then custom code that we put in to make it serve our needs,” says Evan Schechtman, technical chief at production house @radical.media. (The self-described “transmedia company” offers a proprietary CMS ominously code named the Grim Reaper.)

With hundreds of new “out-of-the-box” CMS products having sprung up over the last two years, and several mainstream news sources like CNN, NBC Sports and CBS Radio adopting open source blogging systems like WordPress, there’s a tidal wave of CMS changes in the works. “Most publications we talk to are doing a move right now,” says Vineet Gupta, an account director at publishing platform company Daylife.

Technology officers, already under pressure to please editors and/or brand executives, tech teams, accounting, and, oh right, readers, have much to consider: open source or closed? Off the shelf or home baked? End to end or next gen? Silo or multi-vertical? What’s cheapest? Easiest? Most flexible? Most secure? And what matters most?

Condé Nast CTO Joe Simon, for one, recently moved the company to CQ5, a CMS created by Adobe’s recently acquired Day Software. Whether it will pay off for the prestige publisher is unclear. While Simon, brought in last fall, called the system a “much more elegant way of managing content,” the case could be made that CQ5 is a step backward. Adobe’s products do have consistent language and tools, but industry observers note that CQ5’s language and tools are jarringly different from Adobe’s other products.

Regardless, anything is an upgrade from Condé Nast’s previous system, which required the tech team to be heavily involved in almost any Web publishing. The CQ5 system will let editors publish independently of that team, a function the staff at most other digital publications have had for a decade.

The Washington Post is spending $7 million over two years migrating from three separate platforms to Méthode, an EidosMedia-developed CMS popular with daily news organizations. The shift from many to one system altered the way WaPo’s newsroom operates; in a March column, ombudsman Patrick Pexton lamented that the system reduces journalism “into generic ‘content,’ something akin to the unidentifiable filling in a Twinkie.” Managing editor Raju Narisetti maintained that the integration, while rocky at first, has paid off, noting that newsrooms, digitally speaking, “will always be in beta mode.”

Time Inc.—a close runner-up to BusinessWeek when it comes to CMS-icide—is in endless development. The publisher of high-volume websites like People.com and Time.com has been building an in-house CMS system for seven years; and yet the company will probably abandon it, says Time Inc.’s Klaif. The project has taken on multiple incarnations, with the most recent strategy change happening two-and-a-half years ago. But technology waits for no CMS, and only five of Time Inc.’s lowest volume titles have moved onto the system. (Such in-house systems are notorious for being outdated once they get around to being implemented.) The company’s high-traffic sites still operate on old versions of Vignette; others use Drupal, WordPress, or a homegrown system, TIPS.

Are the editors of those high-volume sites happy with Vignette? “Well, they’re familiar with it,” Klaif says. Vignette is limiting, but Klaif sees no stable alternative. People.com broke 180 million page views on the day of the royal wedding—most open-source publishing systems couldn’t handle that traffic or volume of content, he notes.

Time Warner divorcée AOL (approaching the bittersweet two-year anniversary of its spinout) has had no less of a costly, roundabout course. In the mid-’00s, the company planned to unify its publishing platform onto one large CMS called Dynapub. Three years and dozens of engineers later, AOL flat-out abandoned the project.

“When you try to build a product that works for everybody, it works for nobody,” a former AOL employee says. The company eventually bought the platform Blogsmith for around $5 million, and AOL’s content properties migrated there. But with AOL’s acquisition of The Huffington Post, the company plans to migrate once again, this time to HuffPo’s highly customized adaptation of the Movable Type blog software.

At least Time Inc. and AOL are further from the dark ages than Salon.com. The first online magazine runs on the Internet’s oldest, creakiest CMS. “MPS” was built 15 years ago—ancient in Web years. The company put off a migration because it was expensive and time-consuming. Salon’s tech team also held its breath for that silver bullet.

“No one knew if there was going to be an industry standard,” Salon editor-in-chief Kerry Lauerman says. Since none has emerged, Salon decided to migrate to WordPress, an eight-month process it will complete this month.

These stories are far from unique. MSN’s developers are stuck using Microsoft’s .NET Framework even in instances when other options are more suitable; Disney properties operate on GoPublish, a homegrown system built with its own frustrating “Java-like” language called Tea. MTV has made several changes over the years—from uniting every brand on the same platform to letting each of them choose their own CMS platforms.

The rarest of all CMS-using species? The publisher with the “right” one.

Fortunately for AOL, The Huffington Post is one such publisher. AOL’s migration to HuffPo’s customized Movable Type will be a certain upgrade—despite the home page of Huffingtonpost.com looking like an ADD nightmare of bells and whistles. It’s also a raging technical success, thanks to HuffPo’s jet-fueled CMS.

The company’s platform—built over an old version of Movable Type—has developers tweaking it round the clock in every time zone. HuffPo rolls out 10 to 30 new pieces of code each day, says CTO Paul Berry. The secret, he says, is the lack of sales people interfering with the editorial and tech teams, who collaborate on development. HuffPo’s editors “care a ton about social” and its developers are “not just contracted code monkeys,” Berry adds. In addition to absorbing AOL’s Web properties, HuffPo is offering its CMS to advertisers like GE and IBM Smarter Planet as a part of its social marketing ad offerings.

The Onion, being powered by a small but mighty three-person tech team, successfully takes the opposite approach. It abandoned Drupal because it wasn’t scalable enough, and its current CMS is homegrown with help from Django and Python. “The initial impulse is to go with a big enterprise-y system that may cost a lot of money and do everything,” says Jeff Weston, The Onion’s lead developer. But that’s dangerous, he notes, because it overlooks specific needs, while going completely open source can be messy and underpowered.

SB Nation, a network of around 300 sports sites, is often cited as the outlet doing CMS best. The startup, backed by $23.5 million in venture funding, was founded in 2003 as AthleticsNation.com; one of its co-founders is Markos Moulitsas, who’s behind the Daily Kos political site. Since launching, it’s broken into the top 10 sports media properties online, and is valued at a rumored $90 million.

“The company is built on a marriage of talent and technology; the more talented storytellers we have, the more they push the product team,” founder Jim Bankoff told Forbes.com. In April, SB Nation recruited several key players from the tech and editorial team at the blog Engadget after AOL, which owns Engadget, acquired HuffPo. The network’s spate of innovative publishing tools was a key in its recruiting, according to former Engadget editor Joshua Topolsky, who will become editor-in-chief of SB Nation’s new tech-focused vertical. “SBN isn’t just another media company pushing news out—it’s a test bed and lab for some of the newest and most interesting publishing tools I’ve ever seen,” he told PaidContent.org.

Of course, the elusive success stories of SB Nation and its peers are no accidents. Happy back-ends have a few things in common: They cut out the middlemen; they dedicate relentless energy to their CMS; and they stay in front of new technology. Oh, and they don’t really care about silver bullets. —With additional reporting by Gabriel Beltrone

After the jump: What your CMS says about you.

What Your CMS Says About You
Sweeping generalizations and broad, wild assumptions about your back-end

WordPress
You’re a blogger, just like everyone else. You’re probably broke, and spend all of five minutes on your appearance each morning.
Who: Mashable, TechCrunch, GigaOm, every other blog ever

Drupal
Last year’s bright, shiny object. Now, you’re small and slow. You’re also too familiar with bugs.
Who: The White House, Adweek

Crowd Fusion
This year’s bright, shiny object. You’re an early adopter. Look at you, early adopter!
Who: TMZ, The Daily

Joomla
You’ve been hacked. No? You will be.
Who: Outdoor Photography magazine, MTV Networks

Vignette
You love the ’90s. You still have a Myspace account.
Who: Time Inc.

Movable Type
You’re a loner, no-nonsense, Howard Roark type. You don’t have any friends. By choice, though, right?
Who: The Huffington Post, Boing Boing

CQ5
You’re so sophisticated.
Who: Condé Nast

Méthode
You’re newsy and serious.
Who: Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times