The Trouble With Back-Ends

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

Illustrations: Kyle T. Webster


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 Migrating a clunky site run on outdated, home-baked CMS platforms is so daunting, in fact, that as a result many a site simply turns a blind eye.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 (The self-described “transmedia company” offers a proprietary CMS ominously code named the Grim Reaper.)

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