PETER MARSH

Newspapers & Technology Magazine - - Contents - ▶ SPE­CIAL TO NEWS & TECH FROM PETER MARSH

A long time ago, while Be­ta­max bat­tled VHS for video­tape supremacy, an­other war broke out among sup­pli­ers of con­tent man­age­ment sys­tems for pub­lish­ers. Back then, we didn't even call them con­tent man­age­ment sys­tems. In­te­grat­ing text and graph­ics was still a pipe dream for most in the mid 1970s, so peo­ple re­ferred to these things as text pro­cess­ing sys­tems, or ed­i­to­rial sys­tems, or some­times sim­ply, data­bases.

Dig­i­tal Equip­ment Corp. won the early plat­form bat­tles. Ven­dors like Atex, CSI, Har­ris and Hen­drix/ Hastech de­vel­oped text-pro­cess­ing sys­tems based on DEC mini­com­put­ers. These sys­tems were de­signed to help jour­nal­ists, ed­i­tors and pro­duc­tion Martin Vedej peo­ple au­to­mate the whole col­lab­o­ra­tive work­flow process for pub­lish­ing news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines and trade jour­nals.

Two-party sys­tem

Along came Sys­tem In­te­gra­tors Inc. in 1979, bring­ing to the pub­lish­ing mar­ket a text-pro­cess­ing sys­tem based on fault-tol­er­ant com­put­ers from a com­pany called Tan­dem. The mini­com­puter duopoly war was on. The Tan­dem plat­form was ap­peal­ing to pub­lish­ers be­cause of its fully re­dun­dant “Non­Stop” ar­chi­tec­ture. This meant, in the­ory, that an SII sys­tem pow­er­ing a 24/7/365 news op­er­a­tion would never go down. One-hun­dred per­cent up­time. Dur­ing sales pre­sen­ta­tions, SII would demon­strate how an en­gi­neer could swap out a printed cir­cuit board in a Tan­dem com­puter while it was still run­ning, and the users wouldn’t lose even one key­stroke. Jour­nal­ists, ed­i­tors and IT peo­ple loved it.

Of course, this plat­form war quickly be­came more than just a two-party con­test. Com­pa­nies like Dig­i­tal Tech­nol­ogy In­ter­na­tional (DTI) latched on to the in­dus­try’s pref­er­ence for a news­room sys­tem that could op­er­ate con­tin­u­ously with no sin­gle point of fail­ure. Us­ing Sun Mi­crosys­tems hard­ware and UNIX-based soft­ware, DTI de­vel­oped an ed­i­to­rial plat­form that boasted com­plete fault tol­er­ance due to its re­silient dual-server ar­chi­tec­ture. DTI was also one of the first in­dus­try sup­pli­ers to of­fer pub­lish­ers the choice of run­ning on ei­ther Sun/UNIX or Win­dows NT servers.

A new plat­form war

While other ven­dors con­tin­ued to de­velop con­tent man­age­ment so­lu­tions based on server tech­nolo­gies from com­pa­nies like Data Gen­eral, Unisys, IBM and oth­ers, an­other revo­lu­tion was hap­pen­ing di­rectly on the front lines — the users’ desk­tops.

Peo­ple in all in­dus­tries, and across all walks of life, were choos­ing be­tween Mi­crosoft Win­dows per­sonal com­put­ers and Ap­ple Mac­in­toshes. It was 1984, and the PC vs. Mac mi­cro­com­puter war of­fi­cially be­gan. Ex­ist­ing con­tent man­age­ment ven­dors re-ar­chi­tected their sys­tems to take ad­van­tage of these desk­top plat­forms. Dumb ter­mi­nals were re­placed with PC or Mac work­sta­tions. Sev­eral up­start com­pa­nies en­tered the fray with con­tent man­age­ment sys­tems that re­lied on souped-up PC or Mac com­put­ers as their back-end servers.

Com­pa­nies like Sax­otech, Miles 33 and Dewar brought to mar­ket PCbased con­tent man­age­ment so­lu­tions us­ing Win­dows PCs as ed­i­to­rial work­sta­tions and NT ma­chines as servers. Ba­se­view, P-Ink, Quark and oth­ers coun­tered with sys­tems that were en­tirely Mac-based.

One of the most revo­lu­tion­ary — but un­for­tu­nately, least suc­cess­ful — con­tent man­age­ment so­lu­tions to emerge from this era was the In­for­ma­tion In­ter­na­tional TECS/2 sys­tem. Orig­i­nally built by the Mor­ris News­pa­per Group, TECS/2 was a PC-based ed­i­to­rial sys­tem de­signed around the Pro­teon to­ken ring net­work. The idea was that the server could never go down be­cause there was no server. Each jour­nal­ist’s sto­ries were au­to­mat­i­cally backed up on an­other PC some­where on the net­work. If that jour­nal­ist’s PC failed for any rea­son, he or she could find the backup copies on an­other PC on the net­work. Lo­cat­ing these backup sto­ries turned out to be one of the big­gest chal­lenges, along with the Christ­mas-light ef­fect that of­ten oc­curred when one node on the to­ken ring net­work went down.

Nev­er­the­less, dur­ing this desk­top era, our dig­i­tal democ­racy con­tin­ued to flour­ish. Pub­lish­ers had the free­dom to choose a con­tent man­age­ment sys­tem that fit their busi­ness needs as well as their mi­cro­com­puter plat­form pref­er­ences.

Flash for­ward to the web

The rules changed again around the turn of the cen­tury with the ad­vent of web con­tent man­age­ment tech­nol­ogy. Com­pa­nies like Vignette, In­ter­wo­ven, Polopoly, Ek­tron and oth­ers de­vel­oped pro­pri­etary sys­tems that en­abled pub­lish­ers to man­age the pre­sen­ta­tion and de­liv­ery of con­tent on their web­sites.

Back then, these sys­tems were typ­i­cally in­ter­faced with a pub­lisher’s ed­i­to­rial CMS to ex­change con­tent be­tween on­line and print chan­nels. Most of these so­lu­tions were in­stalled on-premise in a com­pany’s com­puter room or data cen­ter, but some — like Click­a­bil­ity — were hosted us­ing early soft­ware-as-a-ser­vice mod­els.

A few pub­lish­ers, hear­ken­ing back to the days of Mor­ris, de­cided to build their own plat­forms. The Elling­ton sys­tem is one ex­am­ple. De­vel­oped by the Lawrence (Kan­sas) Jour­nal-World for its own in­ter­nal web con­tent man­age­ment needs, Elling­ton was spun off into a sep­a­rate di­vi­sion called Me­di­aphor­me­dia, which pro­vided sales, sup­port and ser­vices to other pub­lish­ers look­ing for a plat­form built specif­i­cally for news me­dia com­pa­nies.

Pro­pri­etary even­tu­ally gave way to open-source tech­nol­ogy, and a new plat­form duopoly en­sued. Pub­lish­ers now had two ba­sic choices: buy a pur­pose-built CMS so­lu­tion where the ven­dor is re­spon­si­ble for cre­at­ing, mod­i­fy­ing, man­ag­ing and ex­pand­ing the source code, or select an open-source sys­tem where the source code can be in­spected, mod­i­fied and en­hanced by the ven­dor and/or by the pub­lisher’s in-house de­vel­op­ment team.

The open-source op­tion grew in pop­u­lar­ity over the past decade or so, thanks largely to the ex­ten­si­bil­ity of these plat­forms and the global com­mu­nity of de­vel­op­ers con­stantly en­rich­ing the source code to add new func­tion­al­ity. Fa­vored open-source con­tent man­age­ment so­lu­tions in­cluded Word­Press, Dru­pal, Joomla, TYPO3, Ma­gento and many oth­ers. Of these, Word­Press and Dru­pal quickly emerged as the pre­ferred plat­forms of choice among news me­dia pub­lish­ers.

With Word­Press, a pub­lisher gets a web con­tent man­age­ment plat­form that’s quick to in­stall, easy to learn and straight­for­ward to man­age. Word­Press also has mar­ket share on its side, pow­er­ing over 30 per­cent of the world’s web­sites. Dru­pal-based sys­tems can be more com­plex to im­ple­ment, but this com­plex­ity of­ten trans­lates into greater con­fig­ura­bil­ity for large, multi-site en­vi­ron­ments. In ad­di­tion, the launch of Dru­pal 8 gives Dru­pal the edge when it comes to web­site cy­ber­se­cu­rity pro­tec­tion, data breach de­tec­tion and real-time re­port­ing.

Cou­pled, de­cou­pled and head­less CMS

But wait, there’s one more thing to con­sider. In the demo­cratic world of web con­tent man­age­ment plat­forms, pub­lish­ers can now choose be­tween three de­ploy­ment op­tions. With a tra­di­tional or cou­pled dig­i­tal CMS ar­chi­tec­ture, the back end is tightly linked (or cou­pled) to the front end. Con­tent is cre­ated, man­aged, and stored on the sys­tem’s back end. Web­site de­sign, ap­pli­ca­tions and other dig­i­tal as­sets are also stored on the back end. Jour­nal­ists write and pub­lish on the same back end that web­site vis­i­tors are view­ing. The front end in a cou­pled CMS en­vi­ron­ment is mainly re­spon­si­ble for pre­sen­ta­tion — i.e. dis­play­ing pub­lished con­tent on the site’s HTML web pages.

By con­trast, a de­cou­pled CMS ar­chi­tec­ture sep­a­rates (or de­cou­ples) the back-end data­base from the front-end pre­sen­ta­tion layer into two sep­a­rate com­po­nents. Con­tent cre­ation and stor­age are man­aged in the back end, while con­tent de­liv­ery and pre­sen­ta­tion are man­aged in the front end. With a de­cou­pled ar­chi­tec­ture, jour­nal­ists cre­ate and edit con­tent in the back end, just as they would in a cou­pled CMS. The dif­fer­ence here is that a de­cou­pled ar­chi­tec­ture takes ad­van­tage of web ser­vices and APIs (ap­pli­ca­tion pro­gram in­ter­faces) to de­liver this con­tent to any front-end web de­sign on any de­vice and any dig­i­tal chan­nel.

For pub­lish­ers that want to build or in­te­grate their own front ends, the head­less CMS op­tion is of­ten most at­trac­tive. A head­less ar­chi­tec­ture is akin to the de­cou­pled model, as both con­sist of a con­tent man­age­ment and stor­age back end where con­tent is de­liv­ered from the data­base through an API.

The main dif­fer­ence lies in the pre­sen­ta­tion layer. A head­less CMS can con­nect to any pub­lish­ing front end, mean­ing con­tent can be de­liv­ered to any de­vice or dig­i­tal chan­nel. In ef­fect, it’s the In­de­pen­dent Party of the CMS de­ploy­ment tri­opoly. Be­cause con­tent is not bound to a pre­de­ter­mined user in­ter­face, a head­less CMS al­lows the same con­tent to be pub­lished in­de­pen­dently to a web­site, an app, a wear­able de­vice or any de­vice con­nected via the In­ter­net of Things (IoT).

So many op­tions, so lit­tle time!

The point is, news pub­lish­ers to­day have more con­tent plat­form choices than ever be­fore. This is vi­tally im­por­tant to an in­dus­try crav­ing a tech­nol­ogy so­lu­tion that gives jour­nal­ists and ed­i­tors a sin­gle view and a sin­gle point of ac­cess to all con­tent. In the old days, this sim­ply meant text. But now it means ar­ti­cles, archives, graph­ics, im­ages, video, au­dio and all so­cial me­dia as­sets de­liv­ered to al­most any In­ter­net-con­nected de­vice imag­in­able.

Con­tent will al­ways reign supreme. But, the plat­form on which it runs will re­main a demo­cratic process where free­dom of the press meets free­dom of choice.

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