How a small experiment at The Washington Post revolutionized its content management platform
About three years ago, The Washington Post embarked on a complete overhaul of the way it creates and publishes content online.
The project was ambitious. The Post — which then relied primarily on a legacy content management system called Méthode — wanted a platform that could handle articles, video, mobile apps and analytics, something that gave designers and producers the ability to quickly create and edit page templates.
So, the paper brought together a group of engineers, some handpicked from within the paper and others hired externally, and embedded them within the newsroom to see what reporters and producers needed, said Gregory Franczyk, chief architect at The Washington Post. They started with a temporary fix, gradually transitioning sections of the site to WordPress beginning with Wonkblog, which was then run by Ezra Klein.
Then, early last year, Post engineers were faced with a seemingly trivial task: make author pages for staff members without using the paper's cumbersome CMS. To solve the problem, they developed a new platform — tentatively called Pagebuilder — that allows easy creation of page templates.
Because of its ease of use and aesthetic appeal, developers and editors at The Post began clamoring for content built with Pagebuilder, Franczyk said. A makeover of The Post's recipes section came next, followed by Post TV, the paper's video initiative. The platform was then used to build custom articles for the paper's Olympic coverage and spin off a couple of standalone pages.
Now, what began as a simple experiment to improve the site's author pages has evolved into the beginnings of a completely new content management platform for The Post. By this time next year, the paper plans to build the platform out into a suite of Web applications that encompass a variety of functions, including writing stories, planning editorial content and displaying it with a variety of page templates.
Taken together, those Web apps — pieces of software run through a browser — will constitute the paper's content platform, which will be the equivalent of a nimble, flexible content managing system, Franczyk said in an email to Poynter.
"We need software that's on the bleeding edge of technology in media, we haven't found it, so we're building it," he said.
Currently in development at The Post is an application tentatively titled "Storybuilder," that will be the paper's next-generation text editor, Franczyk said. Planned features include in-line comments for editors and change tracking, real-time collaboration and story previews for both mobile and the Web. The engineering team is also mulling other additions to Storybuilder, including a feature that would allow The Post to create an index of facts associated with each story. Using this index, Storybuilder could automatically update every story on a certain topic when a related article is updated, or notify editors when a particular story is out-of-date.
Also in the works is a "full photo-management solution" that will use a content ID system to automatically classify each photo uploaded by Post journalists and put them into a searchable index. The Post also plans to debut a separate content management system for its video that will take over many of the tasks currently handled by third-party software.
Although The Post developed the new platform primarily for internal use, the paper is considering making it available to other news organizations through a combination of open sourcing and subscription. The Post doesn't yet have fixed pricing models in place, but it's likely that news organizations could be charged for access to the apps and for hosting on The Post's platform.
It's possible, however, that "major components" of the platform will be open-source, Franczyk said.
The Post's suite of Web apps presents a more specialized alternative to traditional do-it-all content management systems like Drupal and WordPress, Franczyk said. Because the apps are built with professional news organizations in mind, they will be able to use them out of the box, with little customization needed.
This week, The Post put that claim to the test, announcing Monday a selective testing program with two college news organizations, the (Columbia University) Daily Spectator and the (University of Maryland) Diamondback, which have each used parts of Pagebuilder to create in-depth online features.
By partnering with college news organizations, The Post gets to field-test its offerings in a low-stakes environment, said Shailesh Prakash, the paper's chief information officer and vice president of technology. Traffic is generally lower and fewer pieces of content are posted daily compared to a professional news organization. Plus, The Post gets to connect its brand with the next generation of journalists.
So far, The Post is only sharing Pagebuilder's rendering and presentation templates with its college partners, but the news organizations have already begun using them to spin off full-page feature stories. Staffers at The Diamondback have used it to repackage its three-part series on Jayson Blair, who was formerly editor of the paper. The Columbia Daily Spectator has already used the template to produce two feature packages, including an in-depth takeout of a disappointing fundraising initiative and a longread about diversity in Columbia's theater scene.
So far, Diamondback staffers have run into little trouble using the platform, but they did struggle to fit ads onto the ornate feature pages, said Laura Blasey, the paper's editor-in-chief. Steven Lau, the managing editor at The Columbia Daily Spectator, says Pagebuilder has allowed the paper to make high-quality content without skilled developers, which are generally rare at college newspapers.
“At a college paper, you’re there for four years or less, and I think this partnership with The Post is allowing us to focus on the stories we tell and not have to worry about the technology to do that,” Lau said.
The two student news organizations were chosen for their proximity to The Post's offices — one in New York and one in Washington, D.C. — as well as their respective reputations, Prakash said. The paper is in talks to expand the tryout to other college publications that have expressed interest in the platform.
The iteration and disruptive thinking that helped produce Pagebuilder — and the suite of applications that will follow — is necessary for news organizations that want to stay relevant in the coming years, Prakash said in an email to Poynter.
"Content is king, but the design of the presentation, the speed of the product, the quality of the feature set and the seamlessness with which it is presented across platforms is equally important," Prakash said.