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?
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.)