While many news organizations have embraced the advent of platform efforts such as Google AMP and Facebook Instant Articles as new ways to reach readers and hopefully generate revenue, developers have been less enthused. The new platform distribution efforts each differs from one another slightly, but all share a penchant for creating new challenges and bigger workloads for tech teams now forced to develop with many more platforms in mind.
At women’s interest site Bustle, the reality of this new platform future helped birth a year ago Mobiledoc, an open-source article format that the site designed to make it easier for publishers to push their content to new formats and platforms. Mobiledoc is so portable because it stores only the content of posts, not their design. This keeps the format both light and versatile, says Tyler Love, Bustle’s CTO. While Mobiledoc works with standard HTML pages, its larger appeal is its ability to work with a far wider range of formats. Bustle has already built the tool into both upcoming redesign and Romper, its site for millennial moms.
Love, who previously worked on similar issues at both Tumblr and Bleacher Report, said that while “there have been many attempts at solving the problem at the heart of Mobiledoc,” opening up the format to other publishers will help it go further than most. “It seemed like right way to approach it was to share it as an open project so the whole industry can move forward building on something like this rather than people halfway solving the problem individually. We wanted something that will continue to get better over time.”
Beyond portability, Mobiledoc was also designed to make it easier to design and embed multimedia elements, which Bustle addresses under the rubric “cards.” Bustle has used the tool to design, for example, before-and-after slider images and interactive flowcharts. Alongside the format, Bustle has also developed a tool called Mobiledoc-Kit, a toolkit for developing WYSIWYG editors with Mobiledoc.
— willrax (@willrax) November 12, 2015
Mobiledoc is similar in spirit and mission to html-to-article-json and Distro.Mic, a format and tool, respectively, that millennial news site Mic created to ease the process of converting HTML-formated articles into formats compatible with Instant Articles, Apple News, and AMP. As with Bustle, Mic open-sourced its effort in an attempt to entice more sites to adopt the format. WordPress has also developed a plugin that generates AMP pages for sites that uses its CMS.
— 201 Created (@two_oh_one) October 18, 2016
Love said that “a few dozen sites” are using Mobiledoc to varying degrees, including The Daily Beast and Upworthy, the latter of has itself contributed to the open-source effort. “On data side, we wanted to be able to ask more intelligent questions about our content,” said Josh French, engineering manager at Upworthy, explaining one of the appeals of the format. “Having your content stored as structured data rather than as a blob of HTML lets you ask more interesting questions in terms of story structure because it lets us attach metadata to individual sections of articles.”
mobiledoc: a rich text editor ecosystem for people who care more about content than being clever with their browser framework
— bad hambre (@jsdnxx) August 11, 2016
These kinds of tools have become increasingly key for news organizations, particularly smaller ones that lack the large engineering teams and development resources of larger publishers. The concern for many smaller organizations is what happens if the technical demands of these new formats are so formidable that they leave some publishers behind.
“The smaller you are, the less you’re able to build this kind of thing in-house,” said French. “Having a community you can go to for support is huge, and knowing that there are actual published specs and that other publishers are using this makes it a little more attractive.”