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Dec. 4, 2008, 6:58 a.m.

Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be custom CMSes

I want to quickly highlight one exchange in that Aron Pilhofer interview I linked the other day:

Q: Are there any free or open-source products out there that small-town newspapers can use?

A: Everything we use is free and open-source. Our platform is Ruby on Rails backed by Mysql databases running on Ubuntu servers. The cost here isn’t software, or even hardware, which is relatively cheap these days through hosting companies like Amazon EC2 (on the high end) or Slicehost (on the low end).

I mention this because I’m down at Poynter today talking about blogging, and the most common complaint among the journalists here is that their news organizations use proprietary, junky, mucked-up content-management systems for their web sites — and that those CMSes can’t handle features that would be considered basic elements of modern blogging, like tags.

Please, Hypothetical Newsroom Manager or IT Person — don’t ever hire someone to write you a blogging CMS again.

(You are only allowed to break this rule if you can (a) show that your site requires a feature that no CMS can offer, and (b) that that feature could not be more efficiently achieved by writing a plugin or other extension to an existing open-source, free CMS. The fact of the matter is that, at least in blogging CMSes, the free products are as good or better than the paid products out there — and when you hire your local web guru to write yourself a “custom” CMS of your own, it will almost always be worse.

But the big problems with handmade CMSes is that they all age poorly. What your local web guru made may look great when he shows it off for the first time. But web technology is always changing; the biggest breakthrough that will dominate blogging in 2010 likely hasn’t been invented yet. When you adopt a major open-source platform like WordPress (which this site runs) or Movable Type (which I’ve run many other sites on), you take advantage of the fact every new innovation will be brought to those platforms, and you’ll get them for free.

As opposed to your handmade CMS, which only your local web guru knows how to change without breaking — a task which he’ll be happy to charge you hundreds and thousands of dollars to do. If he knows how.

I’m slightly — just slightly — more willing to accept the need for a custom CMS when you’re talking about an entire web site and not just a blog platform. There may be something unique that you need that open-source can’t do for you — primarily close integration with however copy flows out of your print editing/layout system. But when it comes to blogs, news organizations could fix 90 percent of their tech headaches (and create room to grow in the future) by dropping the junky system they paid $25,000 for three years back and going free.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Dec. 4, 2008, 6:58 a.m.
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