Inside EndRun, The Marshall Project’s lean content management system

EndRun's administrator homepage. (Credit: Ivar Vong)

EndRun’s administrator homepage. (Credit: Ivar Vong)

Ivar Vong is all about avoiding frustrating and tedious tasks. And since he started as director of technology at The Marshall Project in June, he’s been focused on saving his co-workers a lot of time in little ways.

“I’m very interested in workflow,” Vong said. “Building tools that are efficient, especially for things that we do a lot, say publishing a post — that’s really important to try to get as good as possible.”

When he was brought aboard, Vong began talking with managing editor Gabriel Dance about what kind of website they wanted to build. He and Dance wanted The Marshall Project to be flexible, to grow to meet the changing trends and demands of the news business. And that meant building something new.

The result: EndRun, a lean publishing system full of little innovations that save time at different points throughout the editorial process. Its name is a winking nod to designers and interactive developers, who often have to make an end run around their respective publishing systems to get non-standard content up and running. At The Marshall Project, it’s the other way around: The CMS is flexible enough that Vong can easily adjust it to accommodate new content.

The examples are numerous. Take EndRun’s import tool, which takes a document from Google Drive and pulls it into the CMS with the appropriate Web formatting. This feature only saves The Marshall Project’s producers a small amount of hassle for every post, but those short snippets of time add up in the long run, Vong said. Same for a photo editing tool that automatically crops images as they’re uploaded into the CMS, with a separate feature for batch-editing captions.

“We’ve really tried to identify the things in that process that aren’t fun and try to make them at least less painful,” Vong said.

Another example is The Marshall Project’s daily roundup of criminal justice stories, “Opening Statement,” compiled by commentary editor Andrew Cohen. Rather than rely solely on Cohen to scour the Web for links every morning, EndRun distributes that responsibility among the entire staff. Anyone logged into the CMS has a bookmark tool on their browser that allows them to flag a link for Cohen’s consideration. Those links are then fed into a database, which Cohen can use when compiling the newsletter. The relevant links are then catalogued and indexed, so they can be used later on.

Maintaining a database of categorized links inside the CMS this way will also allow The Marshall Project to use the information to build new knowledge in the future without having to rely on a third party, such as Delicious, Vong said.

The Marshall Project’s CMS also simplifies homepage design. The featured block, a group of prominent story teases at the top of the homepage, is assembled with a tool that allows staffers to preview the new design on mobile, tablet and desktop. Staffers without any coding experience can pick from a variety of different templates and turn images on and off in less than a minute, Vong said.

The Marshall Project's homepage editor

The Marshall Project’s homepage editor. (Credit: Ivar Vong)

For all those features, EndRun isn’t a “kitchen sink” CMS, a sprawling piece of Web software that can be used easily by multiple organizations. It was designed, Vong says, like a racecar, with niceties stripped away to leave only the essential parts. Months after the site launched, for example, Vong was still building “Top Shelf,” a prominent feature that highlights noteworthy articles on The Marshall Project and elsewhere. The idea, Vong says, is to start with the necessities and keep iterating.

Because he’s built the CMS himself, Vong acknowledges he’s an integral part to its continued development. But he says EndRun will be sustainable no matter who’s at the helm because the CMS is well-documented and built on a commonly used framework, Ruby on Rails.

Because of EndRun’s high degree of customization, Vong says there are no plans in the works to license or open-source it. If it was made available to other news organizations, they would have to do a lot of development work to tailor it to their needs.

“It’s not like a big thing that can do everything you want it to do, there’s plenty of things that it on purpose does not do, and that’s part of its strength — it’s really tailored to what we want to the product to be,” Vong said.