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The year you actually start to like your CMS

“If we do it right, users benefit from a feedback loop that helps make our work more valuable and relevant to them. And no journalist ever again has to wear their clunky CMS as a badge of honor.”

Nobody loves their content management system. It’s a stubborn truism that’s persisted over the 20-plus years I’ve worked in digital journalism. Not long ago, it was practically sport to compete with friends in other organizations to see whose was the worst. (“Oh yeah? Well, mine can’t even do hyperlinks right!”)

But it’s not just journalists who have been let down by these tools over the years. They’ve failed audiences too: Nearly two decades after Dan Gillmor first wrote that “my readers know more than I do,” the software most journalists use to author, edit and curate content is still surprisingly reader-indifferent. And while content analytics tools (e.g., Chartbeat, Parsely, Content Insights) and feedback platforms (e.g., Hearken, GroundSource) have thankfully helped close the gap, the core content management experience remains, for most of us, little improved when it comes to including the audience in the process.

Fortunately, this is changing. The CMS is no longer just an empty vessel that carries content on a one-way trip from creator to consumer. Today’s leading-edge content tools are integrated context, collaboration and insight machines. We’re moving from unidirectional publishing of articles to organizing all our work and closing the feedback loop with our customers. I call this “full-stack publishing”.

Some things your tools will soon do for you — if they don’t already:

  • Automatically find and link relevant background material.
  • Suggest topics and contextualize newly created content as part of a bigger story arc, when relevant.
  • Show which topics, story forms and content types, in the aggregate, are resonating with priority audience segments and help you take action based on that info.
  • Dynamically alert you when there’s potential for promoting your work on other platforms and help you prioritize those efforts.
  • Keep track of the things you’ve published, show you how they’re doing with key audiences and suggest follow-up opportunities.
  • Call out popular evergreen content that could use freshening.
  • Run headline tests and other content experiments directly from the authoring and curation environment.
  • Identify missed opportunities and help you find out where your content fell flat with readers.
  • Enable the creation of mobile-first multimedia narratives and other non-text story forms.
  • Help you productively interact with your audiences and help them inform your coverage.
  • Calculate — at the staff, team and individual level — effort spent on things that don’t serve audiences well (thereby helping you devote more time to the things that do).
  • Elevate your phone from in-the-field last resort to full-fledged content creation and management tool, because the best device is the one you have with you.

Here at the USA Today Network we’re excited about building capabilities such as these into Presto, our proprietary content platform, and helping to unlock the unique collaborative potential of the thousands of journalists in our newsrooms across the country.

But sophisticated tools are no longer the sole domain of organizations with the scale and budget to roll their own. The power of both The Washington Post’s Arc Publishing and Vox Media’s Chorus is available to external customers. And WordPress, which long ago transcended its humble blogging origins, is sporting ever more advanced capabilities, thanks to a dedicated community supported by Automattic and the work of publisher-friendly dev shops such as Alley Interactive and 10up.

Good competition in this space means we all benefit. Together, we can make content tools a force multiplier for great journalism rather than the impediment they’ve often been in the past.

If we do it right, users benefit from a feedback loop that helps make our work more valuable and relevant to them. And no journalist ever again has to wear their clunky CMS as a badge of honor.

Eric Ulken, a veteran digital editor and product leader, is product director for newsroom tools at the USA TODAY NETWORK.

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