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Jan. 14, 2019, 5 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Heightening the CMS race: WordPress.com and News Revenue Hub devise a toolkit for local newsrooms

“It’s not rocket science to put a CMS together. It is a bit of rocket science to figure out how to make the most effective use of it and create a sustainable business model.”

Around two-thirds of smaller and medium-sized publishers use WordPress as their CMS (that’s content management system for the newbies) — but how many publishers can say they’ve developed a sustainable business model?

The optimistic answer: More in 2019 (the realistic answer: unclear), or at least they’ll get closer to cobbling it together. WordPress.com is launching a new toolkit, called Newspack, for small and mid-sized publishers to streamline their technical decisions — and make choices that add to the potential of finagling a business model. Kinsey Wilson, former digital guru at NPR and The New York Times and now WordPress.com’s president, is leading the initiative, working with the News Revenue Hub and Spirited Media as development partners.

“We’ve seen through our work at the News Revenue Hub how many small and medium-sized news organizations struggle with their websites. They’re limited by everything from stale design and poor user experience to mobile responsiveness and SEO,” said Mary Walter-Brown, the hub’s CEO. “They’re also not always optimized for lead generation or fundraising. Over time it becomes extremely difficult for them to grow audience and serve their readers. It also makes it difficult to implement any kind of reader revenue program — like membership.”

“The goal is to both make sure that the catalog of publishing tools as well as business tools they need to be able to run what one hopes is a sustainable news operation are addressed simultaneously,” said Wilson, who also built the NPR Digital Services to help 100 member stations make these same decisions. “It’s not simply a CMS for a newsroom, but a full business system that enables publishing and monetization at the same time.”

As an open source system, WordPress has 54,291 plugins. That’s a lot of choices for publishers to add to their sites, a game of roulette to figure out which ones actually add to your site’s experience and aren’t security-questionable. Wilson said the team of eight developers is putting together a set of plugins like Google’s Site Kit, automatic backups, anti-spam features, and more to be determined by newsroom partners to help publishers with little to no tech experience get started — and through January 2020, it’s free.

Newspack is funded with $2.4 million from the Google News Intiative ($1.2 million), the Lenfest Institute ($400,000), the Knight Foundation ($250,000), a to-be-identified academic partner ($200,000), and one name that the industry learned a lot about in 2018: Consensys, the crypto venture group that backed blockchain startup Civil Media, is chipping in $350,000. So, yes, the Civil publishing-to-blockchain plugin will be one of the ones offered — but not required — in the toolkit.

Publishing partners who apply by February 1 will be able to use Newspack with no price tag during the grant period — it’s between $1,000 and $2,000 depending on the size of the news organization once the grants run out — but Wilson and the News Revenue Hub are looking especially for local newsrooms with single or double digit staffs.

Local newsrooms have, unfortunately, come in last place in the transition from advertising to subscription-based business models in the digital shift (see The New York Times’ 2.54 million digital subscribers and The Dallas Morning News’ 24,000 digital subscribers). Part of that is decision paralysis in launching, pushing, and running their digital reader revenue options — which is where the News Revenue Hub comes in.

Walter-Brown’s team is now helping WordPress build a proof of concept with Newspack and Spirited Media, the startup network of local news in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Denver. The aim is for six news sites to shepherd in Newspack in the first six months of 2019, with 50 more sites migrating in the second half of the year.

“What will be different about this [compared to the regular WordPress.com experience] is the ambition to take the very best practices from the industry as a whole — not simply the initial partners up and running with us — but we will canvas as widely as we can what’s working with people, what’s not, what’s essential for running a website, and trying to incorporate as many of those features as we can,” Wilson said. “It’s not rocket science to put a CMS together. It is a bit of rocket science to figure out how to make the most effective use of it and create a sustainable business model.”

Calls for platform teamwork are not new — but having someone who can lead the partnership from the tech side with a digital media perspective is, since Wilson, who started at Newsday and also worked in leadership at USA Today, joined Automattic, WordPress’s parent company, in February 2018.

Wilson arrived at the Times as strategy and innovation editor in 2014 (Ken Doctor unpacked the context here) after building a digital content strategy at NPR, including the NPR One app. The CMS market is heating up, with the Washington Post’s Arc Publishing and Vox Media’s Chorus onboarding more and more publishers in 2018. But a CMS geared toward finding sustainable revenue for local newsrooms — well, that gets an extra gold star.

Illustration of the new professional by Patswerk used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 14, 2019, 5 a.m.
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