5 questions to ask when deciding whether to use Drupal or WordPress

The Concord Monitor and the Bangor Daily News have a lot in common. Both are daily papers serving small cities in rural New England. Both want to continue traditions of high-quality local news in a digital world. And both recently built websites using open-source code.

The difference rests in the systems we chose. The Monitor, where I work as Web editor, has been running on Drupal for two years. The Daily News finished relaunching its site on WordPress this summer. Neither newsroom has any regrets, but there are big differences between the two platforms, as Allan Hoffman illustrated in his recent Poynter.org post about switching his blog from Drupal to WordPress.

Benefits and drawbacks of using Drupal, WordPress

After reading Hoffman’s piece and the comments that followed, I reached out to my counterpart, Daily News Web Editor William Davis, to find out what those differences mean in our newsrooms.

Davis and I both described systems that are adaptable and that have allowed us to change the way we deliver information online.

In his case, WordPress has helped streamline workflow by acting as an intermediary between Google Docs and the newsroom’s layout software. (Click here to read more and see a demo of the process.) “We wanted to make sure we could stay on the leading edge of things,” Davis said, “and WordPress so far has really allowed us to do that.”

Davis says WordPress lets him easily adjust photo caption displays and other details that go a long way toward making a site looking polished and unique. Using WordPress, he created a plugin to help the sports department handle scores, and he made custom post types that help organize user submissions, photos and other content.

Davis initially struggled with some of the WordPress plugins. “You have to be careful with how you use them,” he said. “Early on, we got locked in to a couple.” Plugins, by the way, are bits of code developers use to make WordPress sites do certain things without changing the platform’s core. On his development blog, Davis discusses the evolution of a particularly crucial plugin — one that allows a smooth interface between Google Docs and WordPress.

The programmers I work with admit that Drupal takes a little more effort than WordPress, but they say it gives them more flexibility and freedom than any other system out there. WordPress, meanwhile, is clean and quick, and Davis says its simplicity hasn’t been lost as users have developed it for more complex applications.

“It’s much easier to build with than any other CMS in my opinion,” Davis said over the phone.

At the Monitor, Drupal has helped us redefine the way we break news and tell stories online. Drupal is content agnostic, which means we can create pages where hierarchy is based on the importance of information, not the tool that generated it. During Hurricane Irene, for instance, we used a special key word to weave together tweets, individual photos, video and text into a single, rolling stream.

Our site’s design is based on a series of flexible templates that allow those of us with limited programming skills to lay out pages by dragging and dropping blocks that contain lists of content or code. That means we can keep the site looking fresh without involving our developers.

The system isn’t without challenges. The Drupal community has forced me to re-imagine the structure of information, but it has also given me more than a few headaches. There are so many variables that it’s difficult to compare notes with other editors because no one’s system looks the same.

Figuring out whether to use Drupal or WordPress

So which system is better?

Neither.

The question of WordPress versus Drupal isn’t Coke/Pepsi, boxers/briefs, Red Sox/Yankees. It’s about understanding the needs of your organization.

It also helps to have some background knowledge.

WordPress and Drupal are open-source products, which means the code they’re built with is publicly available. There are no fees, but users enter a sort of social compact to share developments with the group. This means thousands of smart programmers riff off each other’s work to solve problems and find new ways to do things online.

Drupal got its start in 2000 at the University of Antwerp, where it was used as a message board before being morphed into a broader system the following year. (You can read more about its history, its mission and its evolution here.) It’s unclear how many sites are using Drupal, but one estimate put the number around 7 million. One of the most well-known Drupal sites is WhiteHouse.gov.

WordPress was launched in 2003 as a blogging platform and was quickly embraced because of its simplicity. Its popularity has grown rapidly and, according to a recent survey, 22 out of every 100 new domains in the United States run on WordPress.

When deciding which system to use, consider these questions:

1.) Are you sure (really sure) you want to build your own website? Open-source is fantastic, but it’s also a lot of work. User communities are helpful, but it can be a challenge to solve technical issues on deadline. Are you willing to write your own training manual? Spend time going to training conferences in person or online?

2.) Can you benefit from some of your colleagues’ skills? Forget the computer for a moment and consider your co-workers. Is someone in your newsroom already a whiz with a particular CMS? Davis came to the Daily News with extensive experience converting college papers to WordPress. We first experimented with Drupal for a community blogging platform and then stuck with it partly because one of our sister papers was using it to power its website.

3.) How much time do you have? WordPress is probably faster to launch, especially if your project is simple. The Daily News spent nine months developing its website and converting to Google Docs. It took us a little over a year to launch our core site on Drupal, and we didn’t touch our other editorial systems.

4.) Do you like the community? Both Drupal and WordPress fans would tell you that their system has superior documentation and support. Take some time to cruise around message boards, read instructions and ask questions. Can you find what you need?

5.) How difficult will it be to integrate WordPress or Drupal with your other systems? Are there existing plugins for your preferred ad service, calendar database and search engine? Or will you have to create them from scratch?

The most important thing to remember is that Drupal and WordPress are constantly evolving, and that’s a good thing given the state of online journalism.

Yes, Davis and I use — and advocate for — different flavors of code. But our missions are the same: meet our deadlines, serve our communities and push the boundaries of digital storytelling every chance we get.

Tell us in the comments section whether you prefer Drupal or WordPress and why. (Poynter.org uses both WordPress and Drupal.)

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  • alledia

    Agreed Mike. The WordPress vs Drupal choice fails to spot that there’s really a big 3 when it comes to these CMSs. Joomla runs a noticeably larger share of the web than Drupal http://w3techs.com/technologies/overview/content_management/all

    Why? It’s a happy medium between WordPress and Drupal. There’s more
    extensibility that WordPress and a better UI than Drupal (of course, you
    can reverse those and say it has a worse UI than WP and less
    extensibility than Drupal).

    At http://ostraining.com we train people on all three. WordPress clients come in all shapes and sizes but tend to be budget conscious. Joomla clients tend to be non-profits and small-to-medium size businesses. Drupal clients tend to be the bemoths with deep pockets: large universities, multinational companies, large government bodies.

  • http://www.christinawarren.com Christina Warren

    Great article! Mashable uses WordPress and especially with the 3.0 and 3.2 upgrades, it has become more flexible in terms of what it allows us to do. The biggest advantage, from a user standpoint, is that it is easy for practically anyone to pick up. I consider myself very tech savvy and have worked across a number of CMSes both open source and proprietary (Ektron still makes me want to slit my wrists) and it’s true that WordPress is probably the easiest to teach others to use.

    Having said that, it isn’t perfect. Of course, no CMS is. The one thing I like about Drupal, and sometimes long for, at least as our site is concerned, is the agnostic content feature you are describing. While I’m sure we could figure out a way to write a plugin or other bits of code to pipe in select feeds and messages across the site, it isn’t always easy to do that in a way that would be accessible to editors as well as the tech staff.

    Still, I have to tip my hat to the developers at WordPress. I was certainly in the “no, it’s not a real CMS” camp a few years ago. And that was true. Then. WordPress has certainly evolved into a formidable competitor. That said, Drupal is also VERY powerful if you have a clear vision for what you want to do and have the technical support to achieve that vision.

    I’m curious what your thoughts are on Ellington and Armstrong, two of the Django-based CMSes out there. Django, which is Python-based (rather than PHP, which is what Drupal and WordPress use) was created for the Lawrence Journal, so in theory, it has been built from the groundup as a framework specifically geared towards the publishing industry.

  • Anonymous

    You’re right about picking a system that works for your personal preferences or the preferences/strengths of your organization.

    I guess what I meant by “Coke/Pepsi, boxers/briefs, Red Sox/Yankees” is that discussions about CMS options shouldn’t be adversarial.

    Thanks for helping me clarify my statement. What CMS do you prefer?

  • http://twitter.com/nickrtweets Nicholas

    Drupal Gardens is an answer to WordPress in terms of speed and simplicity and is worth a look when trying to decide between the two CMS’s. The advantage of Drupal Gardens in this scenario is the ability to export the entire Drupal site at anytime so you can load it up on your own Drupal installation should the future ever require it.

  • http://cheekymonkeymedia.ca Rick Bjarnason

    We have been using both platforms for quite awhile now, and as developers we need to ask the question “what platform should we use” every time we start a new project. I wrote an article awhile back that outlines some of our thoughts… http://cheekymonkeymedia.ca/blog/rick/drupal-or-wordpress

  • http://twitter.com/Ipstenu Ipstenu

    The question of WordPress versus Drupal isn’t Coke/Pepsi, boxers/briefs, Red Sox/Yankees. It’s about understanding the needs of your organization.

    Actually … that’s exactly what kind of decision WP vs Drupal is.  Yes, you have to understand your needs, but a huge part of needs is understanding usage.  Every NEEDS underpants (yes, I know), but we pick boxers or briefs because of what we like and what makes us comfortable.  Ditto Coke/Pepsi.  We need a drink.  We want a soda.  We choose what we like best.  We need a website, we want a CMS, we choose what we like best.

    I’ve used both Drupal and WordPress. And everything else I’ve at least installed and tried (PHPNuke included).  I use what I feel comfortable with, what I can use with a minimum of effort, and what fits my needs. If something fits all my needs but I just don’t like it, I won’t use it, and then what’s the point?  Personal preference is a perfectly valid reason to list in your ‘needs’.

    You need to like what you use, or you won’t use it.

  • http://ideas.typepad.com/webu Typist

    The ability to intelligently aggregate local conversations (twitter, youtube or vimeo, etc) on our main site is a very, very powerful argument for Drupal. Or… do we just want a web CMS that is flexible and simple enough to simply embed tools like Storify or Scribd or ScribbleLive? 
    Love to hear if anyone is able to answer Meg’s question. Having used WordPress for the past couple of years for my own blog, I can imagine a newsroom-wide site, but really don’t know if it has the tools we need to do our job this year – and next. And next.

  • Anonymous

    It’s anecdotal, but I’ve had better luck finding dev help for WordPress sites over Drupal sites. WP is more popular and powers more sites, which of course plays into it, but I think it’s also easier to learn.

    And in terms of FTEs, it’s really too hard to say…depends on how aggressive you are with schedules, scope, etc. We had 3 or 4 working on FC’s Drupal sites at any given time, and could have used a lot more :)

  • Anonymous

    Great post, Meg.I’ve spent a lot of time in both the WordPress and Drupal worlds (I currently work for Automattic, and previously ran a couple of large Drupal sites for Fast Company as their CTO), and wanted to add my $.02.One area that’s often overlooked in these comparisons and feature breakdowns is how the platforms differ from a day-to-day operations and maintenance standpoint. That is, 1) is the platform easy for your editors and producers to use?, and 2) technology-wise, how much work is required to keep it up-to-date and well-tuned?These are two hugely important (and often overlooked, or at least under-appreciated) aspects of making a CMS decision, and in my experience WordPress outclasses Drupal on both fronts.The WP publishing interface is optimized specifically for publishing content on the web; it’s attractive, efficient, and gets out of your way. Also, given the platform’s wide deployment, new hires often have prior experience with the software, which means a faster on-boarding process, less time spent training, etc.In contrast, Drupal’s back-end is optimized for programmers. We spent a lot of time at FC customizing the publishing tools (I’ve tested every WYSIWYG editor in Drupaldom, and they’re all terrible), and providing support for internal users.And in terms of software updates, the two approaches really couldn’t be further apart. Major WordPress releases come out every few months, and upgrades (with new features, performance improvements, design optimizations, etc.) are as simple as clicking the “update” button. Drupal releases come every 2-3 years, and any custom code you’ve written typically needs to be rewritten or it will be incompatible with the software upgrade. As a result, there are a lot of Drupal sites stuck on older versions of the platform, unable to upgrade without breaking their functionality.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you, Allan, for the inspiration. 

  • http://www.allanhoffman.com Allan Hoffman

    Great article — glad to see the followup to my piece.

    David: I think you’re point about WP being “easier to administer for the always stretched-thin staff” is really important. A lot of times that’s just the case, and though it’s possible to get up and running with Drupal (esp. if you hire an outside developer), a lot of times the staff just can’t handle keeping up with everything that it really takes to keep a Drupal site in shape for the long-term. Which isn’t to say Drupal’s not a good choice — it is, for many projects — but you need to go into it realizing what it’ll take to maintain it.

  • http://twitter.com/JayCollier Jay Collier

    I evaluated WordPress and Drupal about 2 years ago, and both systems needed add-ons to be usable as traditional  Web 1.0 content management systems. Nevertheless, at the time, I had more challenges maintaining Drupal modules (slow updates to Drupal 6, fewer developers on key plugins) than WordPress plugins. Hosting multiple subsites was also easier with WP and BuddyPress. Has that changed?

    My experience with Drupal 7 and WordPress 3 is that WP is easier for contributors to use — especially with built in user levels which hide complexity until its needed. Perhaps that would speak to its focus on intuitive content creation for community contributors.

  • http://twitter.com/kaelgoodman Kael Goodman

    Great questions!

    On the Q&A site Quora, there are many thoughtful answers to the question “Why are some people using WordPress rather than Drupal?” Here is an excerpt from top answer that sums it up pretty nicely: ”WordPress looks better on the outside (administration UI) and Drupal looks better on the inside (architecture, API design).  WordPress is better than Drupal at blogging, but Drupal excels when you have more sophisticated needs.” You can read the rest of the thread here: http://www.quora.com/Why-are-some-people-using-WordPress-rather-than-Drupal

    Blogs using WordPress:
    http://www.brownstoner.com 
    http://www.princeofpetworth.com

    News site using WordPress:
    http://riverheadnewsreview.timesreview.com/

  • Wes Gray

    Another option is Joomla, still it’s true that whatever you need will determine the best tool.

    Wes Gray
    Bitstudio
    http://www.bitstudio.com

  • Anonymous

    The number of developers really depends on how often you anticipate making changes to the innards of your site. If you’re taking the Crockpot approach — set it and forget it — you can get away with fewer developers or maybe even hire an outside consultant. If, however, you’re viewing your CMS as a tool to help you evolve the way you tell stories online, you want someone in-house who can make changes on the fly.

    I sit about 25 feet from our resident Drupal expert, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. His expertise with the code has allowed us to try storytelling techniques I couldn’t have imagined five years ago.

  • http://www.newsinc.net/ David M. Cole

    I have been building web sites for small businesses and non-profits since the mid-1990s. I decided in 2004 to stop hand-coding larger-scale sites and evaluated Drupal and Mambo. Despite what at that time was 25 years of computer programming and development, I could not wrap my head around Drupal.

    At the time, the rap was that Drupal was favored by systems types and Mambo was favored by less sophisticated computer users. I took umbrage at that characterization, but I went with Mambo anyway, which a year later forked to Joomla. I chose the Joomla fork.I have built more than a dozen sites — including one for a magazine over the last four months — on Joomla since then and recommend it to people who need a particularly sophisticated site, with lots of features and a willingness to pay for some of those features. While many extensions (modules, plug-ins, et al.) are free, many of the better ones cost money, especially those providing ACL and membership.

    About three years ago I needed to build a quick site that had really limited features. I installed WordPress and loved it. As befits something with less power, it is markedly easier to install and maintain. I particularly like the ability of WordPress to handle its own updates and the updating of plug-ins.

    Eighteen months ago when a non-profit I was consulting with wanted to upgrade its Joomla installation, we had a long discussion about whether to go with Joomla or WordPress. When we mapped out all the features that were needed, we decided we could use WordPress, which was going to be easier to administer for the always stretched-thin staff.

    That group has been up on WP for about a year and has no regrets.

    As Meg says, it isn’t Coke v. Pepsi … you need to know what you’re going to do and what the software itself does.

    HTH.

    dmc

    PS: I also have a fondness for Plone/Zope, but on the difficulty spectrum it makes Drupal look like Angry Birds.

  • http://ideas.typepad.com/webu Typist

    We’re looking at moving off of our chain’s home grown asp.net-based web cms and WordPress, Drupal and Joomla are high on our looksee list. Since we would, of necessity, have to hire in some development talent no matter what direction we take, I wonder if anyone has any thoughts on the depths of the talent pools for the different open source CMS’s? And for a medium-size city (600,000) site (5 million monthly page views), any thoughts on the ongoing developer FTE’s we should expect?

  • Anonymous

    Great question! We’ve created multiple tiers of users within Drupal for everyone from site administrators to reporters to community commenters and bloggers. Each level sees a slightly different tool bar.

    We’ve also done a lot with Twitter integration, but we’re pretty careful about which feeds get piped in. Many reporters tweet for work, and I have the ability to approve their individual tweets for aggregation on our home page. We’ll also occasionally grab feeds from trusted sources in the community. The local fire department, for instance, used Twitter to share updates during Hurricane Irene.

    Drupal allows us to pick and choose individual tweets from a feed and to place them based on taxonomy.

    Perhaps someone else can explain if there’s something similar in WordPress?

  • Anonymous

    I’m glad you mentioned Joomla, Mike. Do you have any personal experience with the system? What do you see as its strengths and weaknesses? 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Saunders/603809847 Mike Saunders

    You might want to look at Joomla, which has many of the same advantages of WP and Drupal, with some additional flexibility. http://themobiusnetwork.com/pdfs/idealware_os_cms_2010_1.pdf

  • Anonymous

    Another question: Do you have a fixed set of content contributors, or will every community member also be a contributor?  Drupal has had necessary tools and permission controls to make any community member a  potential contributor baked-into its core from the very beginning.  That is why some people refer to Drupal as more than a CMS, but as “community plumbing”.   WordPress can only manage community contributions by adding a collection of plugins that have been packaged into releases like “Buddypress”, and there are questions about the reliability and scalability of using WordPress this way.

    Admittedly, the ascension of social networking sites like Facebook has removed the requirement for most websites to provide for their own community contributions.  Most websites limit contributions to a set of authors and move community contributions over to Facebook.  But if you want to build a private community, it is hard to beat Drupal.Overall, a good set of questions to consider.  There is no one-size-fits-all.  For my money, since I am committed to devoting a significant amount of my time into developing multiple sites for multiple needs, Drupal gives me the flexibility I need and allows me to apply my accumulated knowledge to address any number of specific needs.  But if I wanted to build a great blog with minimal time, it would be WordPress, no question.