WordPress vs. an army of clunky content management systems

WordPress vs. an army of clunky content management systems

Summary: Updated below: There's a good discussion on the line between journalism and blogging, but it's also worth noting the technology gulf between media companies and their content minions. In Scott Karp's overall discussion asking whether blogs can do journalism--I think it's all the same and chances are techies don't care anyway--he touches on blogs partially being a function of their Web-native content management systems.

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Updated below: There's a good discussion on the line between journalism and blogging, but it's also worth noting the technology gulf between media companies and their content minions.

In Scott Karp's overall discussion asking whether blogs can do journalism--I think it's all the same and chances are techies don't care anyway--he touches on blogs partially being a function of their Web-native content management systems. Blogs, often delivered via WordPress, have built-in advantages over content management systems such as RSS feeds, comments, trackbacks and inline links.

And when it comes to ease of use, a blog platform beats or average CMS hands down. So why have I been stuck with so many clunky CMS systems over the years? There's a host of reasons, but most of these afflictions come from strange IT management practices.

At ZDNet we use WordPress for blogs, but in previous positions I've almost always had some custom built creation that usually stinks. Sure, these CMS systems may have started out as standard, but sooner or later they turn into this Frankenstein creation. And lookout below if the guy that cooked up the code ever leaves. If there's an open source option that has rich features why would you spend time building the same thing?

One theory I have is that there's some secret "developer full-time employment act" that means these programmers have to do something even if it's just replicating work that's already been done. Kind of like New Jersey where every gas station is full serve (that had to be some full employment gambit back in the day).

Part of this "let's build our own CMS" disease comes from your typical not-invented-here management practices. Here's how this plays out: Geeks get together with media folks that like to pretend they know technology. Then they haggle over requirements, which typically resemble things already out there. But these folks enjoy reinventing the wheel. Then they miss deadlines. In the end, they only to build something that you could get via WordPress--if you're lucky.

Granted, I'm oversimplifying a bit, but not by much.

The conversations go like this:

Geek: What are your requirements?

Media manager: We'd like to have RSS feeds, ease of use, inline links and other stuff.

Geek: I can build that.

Never once does anyone say, "Umm. This stuff exists why don't we just use that?" Enter the Frankenstein content system.

That abbreviated conversation plays out over and over at media companies. Most media companies have numerous CMS systems. One platform? That's just crazy talk--it makes too much sense. Use something that has an army of developers already cooking stuff up--for free? No way we like doing things the hard way.

Will media types ever figure this out? I doubt it. While bloggers are debating the line between journalism and blogging big media companies are still building custom CMS monsters. I was having a few beers the other day with one of the people responsible for building these things--he's a build don't buy it type (even if the technology is open source). His company is a media behemoth that is trying to roll out a CMS to dozens of brands that don't want the new system anyway. So far, the CMS has one or two converts and dozens to go. Silly things like RSS feeds are probably coming--in some future feature list that will be years behind the curve.

Update: Dennis Howlett pinged me about this post to point out that WordPress isn't a CMS and is stretched beyond its capability. He's right, but that doesn't mean that this custom CMS rat's nest at media companies isn't an epidemic. You should sit in on some of these CMS conversations I've been in on. Root canal is a vacation. Also note: We're not perfect by any means and we have a separate CMS to ride shotgun with WordPress so we're as guilty as the rest of the gang.

Topics: Software, Enterprise Software

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13 comments
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  • Opinions Vary

    I'm not sure everyone would agree with Mr. Howlett regarding how far WordPress is being stretched. I'm working on a personal site right now that will use nothing more than WordPress to manage both the pages and the "current news" and articles. With a good set of plugins and a well designed theme, I feel quite confident that this will suit my purpose quite well.

    Is WordPress a full-fledged CMS? No. But, then again, how many people really need that? Not how many people *think* they need a full CMS, but how many people really do? For many, WordPress fits the bill quite nicely.
    ryumaou@...
  • RE: WordPress vs. an army of clunky content management systems

    "Dennis Howlett pinged me about this post to point out
    that WordPress isn???t a CMS and is stretched beyond its
    capability"

    I'd have to disagree with the statement that Wordpress
    is stretched beyond it's capabilities. With some really
    good programming a lot of these free and premium
    magazine themes are serving up sites as good as any
    CMS can do.

    In the process of creating sites for both myself and my
    clients... I've used plenty of different CMS software
    never really feeling comfortable with any. I tended to
    think of Wordpress simply as a blogging platform until
    I came across the Mimbo theme and that opened my
    eyes to a whole host of premium themes.

    The Wordpress backend is just so damn easy to use...
    for the small to mid-sized sites that I've built... I don't
    see any reason to use a dedicated CMS when
    Wordpress has the capability to do what these do and
    more.

    I switched my current site from a CMS to Wordpress:
    http://www.hoodgrownonline.com

    and have never looked back.
    Hoodgrown_Magazine
  • RE: WordPress vs. an army of clunky content management systems

    WordPress is a CMS in the sense that you use it to manage actual content. Most people think of a CMS as being more of a framework, like Joomla, that lets you install misc. components and widgets as if it were designed to handle the extras.
    michaelper22
    • RE: WordPress vs. an army of clunky content management systems

      You never be familiar with i'm sorry? Is beat in lieu of yourself, approximate <a href="http://www.shoppharmacycounter.com/m-582-xanax-zoloft-anti-anxiety.aspx">zoloft</a>.
      super_zoloft
  • RE: WordPress vs. an army of clunky content management systems

    If WordPress would fix its mismanagement of static Pages, it wouldn't be necessary to rebuild it. As a core developer for a website that sees 15,000+ unique visitors per day, I have been there and back again with WordPress.

    With 200 pages, things were fine. With 500 pages, things began to slow down. 800 pages? Slow as molasses. We finished rebuilding the CMS in Rails just before we hit 1300 static pages, which required long-term caching of pages, in order to avoid the painful 25 second pageload time (yes, 25-second).

    http://wordpress.org/support/topic/76243

    Rather than throwing money at fixing a major design flaw in an open source CMS, most companies would rather spend that time and money to carefully build something that will fit their needs.

    I'm a major proponent of developing and supporting open source software, but there is a reality when it comes to the over/under of any project timeline. Working through WordPress design flaws (there are many) leads to unknown timelines and unstable deadlines. Our team was developing passively, rather than actively building a set of best practices and design principles.

    WordPress is a good piece of software, but tying your business to a 3rd-party CMS is risky at best, disastrous at worst.
    Mr_Andrew
  • RE: WordPress vs. an army of clunky content management systems

    As webmaster at a prominent graduate school of journalism where class after class is asking for unique web-based publications, I find myself using WordPress as a CMS on a daily basis, and never being disappointed or feeling like it isn't up to the task. I currently manage more than 70 WordPress CMSs (OK, some of them actually are blogs). There's no faster way to get a publication off the ground quickly. The biggest challenge is explaining to faculty and students how and why it's more than a blogging platform!
    shacker23
  • In-house coders going the way of the 1990s webmaster

    I blogged about this a bit the other day, though of course not nearly as eloquently:
    http://globalmoxie.com/blog/farewell-developer.shtml

    I think Wordpress and other similarly easy-to-use software--including Big Medium, the CMS I created for web designers--have already gone far to solve the content management pain of small and medium-sized businesses. It's just taking time for IT staff to acknowledge it.

    As more CMS-like systems evolve and move up the stack from developer platforms into polished packages that are easy to use out of the box, I suspect we'll see the build-it-yourself trend ease (finally). For many organizations, the in-house web developer will fade away like the "webmaster" role of the 1990s.

    To quote, um, myself from the aforementioned blog post: "Remember the webmaster? The hero of the mid-1990s? The webmaster was the one guy or gal in the office to know enough HTML to update the fax number on your site???s contact page. The modern content management system (CMS) has pretty much eliminated the need for a webmaster. Rejoice! Now everyone in the office knows how to update the fax number. Until recently, though, you still needed the webmaster???s brighter cousin, the web developer, to get your website up and running in the first place."

    You've got it exactly right that there's been lots of wheel reinvention, with the obvious waste of time, resources and, frankly, developer skill. More from the same blog post: "The common content site is no longer a challenging software problem. The basic feature set has been solved. It wastes developers??? energies (and their clients??? money) to tap powerful CMS platforms to assemble these features from scratch every time. I???m not suggesting that the web developer is extinct. Hardly. As a web developer myself, this is an exciting time with an onslaught of new developments. The field is bursting with possibilities -- so many, in fact, that we developers shouldn???t waste our time reinventing the wheel."
    jclark@...
    • Not exactly

      " For many organizations, the in-house web developer will fade away like the
      "webmaster" role of the 1990s."

      As I posted on your site...

      I agree with you to a certain extent but as a web developer/graphic designer
      myself... there's more to the trade than just being able to use a CMS. Especially if
      want PROFESSIONAL RESULTS.

      I'm always offended by the person who picks up Microsoft Publisher and now
      because they can mix fonts and photos, call themselves graphic designers. There's
      a hell of a lot more to being a designer than that.


      By the same token, being able to use a CMS will not make you a "web developer" as
      there is A LOT more to IT than that.

      There will always be businesses satisfied with shoddy (cheap) workmanship. I see a
      ton of flyers, brochures, postcards, websites, etc that look like they were thrown
      together by someone's nephew, but for businesses whose professional image is
      everything... there will always be room for web developers and designers.
      Hoodgrown_Magazine
      • It's about chasing innovation

        Thanks for your reply. I don't mean to suggest that either designers or web developers are unneeded, only that the challenges for web developers no longer lie in traditional companies with traditional content sites (e.g., marketing, news and magazine sites).

        In fact, [i]designers[/i] are needed more than ever; I don't see technology abstracting away their role anytime soon. As you said, the taste and skill of design professionals cannot be replaced by a WYSIWYG HTML editor. The emphasis of my own CMS, Big Medium, is on enabling designers to implement their own highly unique designs; the CMS bends to their design visions rather than forcing cookie-cutter layouts. I agree with you completely here: Sites powered by software like Wordpress or Big Medium get the best results when handled by a talented designer.

        Web [i]developers[/i], however, are a different case. I certainly don't suggest that a CMS can transform anyone (poof!) into a web developer. But for most sites, packaged software has evolved to the point where it provides, with elegance and efficiency, 99 percent of the polished features and interfaces that most content sites need and want. You can indeed get professional results with this class of software.

        Developers are best deployed (and, in my opinion, happiest) when there's innovation to be done. For most content sites, there just aren't many new problems to solve. Yet as Larry writes here, developers are called upon again and again to reinvent the wheel, building web features that existing software already provides, usually better and certainly cheaper than the homebrew solution. They're solving problems that no longer need solving.

        It's time for them to discover new challenges. Asking web developers to continue making homebrew systems for content sites wastes their skills and organizations' resources. Developers should chase innovation rather than duplicating what's already available. That's good for organizations, and good for developers, too.

        As I alluded in the original post, there are exceptions: Ambitious and innovative companies will want and need to continue to push the envelope, to discover new ways to present, find and mix their content. (In the media realm, for example, I'm thinking of sites like the NY Times, The Guardian, the BBC.) When you're trying to create something truly new, it makes sense to have web developers on staff. Likewise, there are occasions when packaged software doesn't fit a company's business model, and custom code is required.

        That said, most organizations are [i]not[/i] trying to create something new on the web and don't particularly want to. They simply want their marketing site or their news site to work, to look professional, to have the expected features, and that's it. That's fine, and that's where off-the-shelf software fits perfectly, no coding required.

        Happy holidays!
        Josh
        jclark@...
  • RE: WordPress vs. an army of clunky content management systems

    I disagree with Dennis Howlett 100% - Wordpress is perhaps the best CMS out there - it's in NO way stretched beyond it's limits and with a massive development community, there is a plugin for EVERYTHING. With a days effort, any decent developer could turn Worpdress into a super CMS - with user roles, versioning, photo editing, ecommerce - I could go on and on. I'm a full-time web designer/developer and whenever my clients want a CMS I give them Wordpress and they are blown away. On top of all this - it's stupid simple to use.
    jddarling
  • Full-blown CMS's work pretty well, with learning curve

    If what is required is a blog, or a single-focused centre for information, Wordpress is excellent. If a site is required, however, why not use a ready-developed CMS? If the geeks learn one or two, they could easily teach a whole host of users to manage their content using Drupal or Joomla. These systems actually manage content, and work like a website out-of-the box. Geeks can use them by customising themes and plugins. In fact, one company I very nearly used for an expensive project did just that: they customized Drupal CMS for people and were able to produce beautiful sites with a very easy-to-use admin area. With a bit training--which they were easily able to provide--the system was easy to use and very extensible.

    http://www.zachbeauvais.com
    zbeauvais
  • Major shopping site using Wordpress

    Shopping resource website <a href="http://www.freeshipping.org">Free Shipping</a> Dot Org uses WordPress to manage their website. I think it's a good example of using Wordpress to do more than blog.
    kinoli
  • RE: WordPress vs. an army of clunky content management systems

    I've been in a similar scenario. An agency had been discussing the purchase of a $50,000 program that was over-complicated to do their simple job of posting photos online.

    I introduced WordPress (which is $50,000 less).

    The result: BanditTracker.com
    kkevilus