Why news sites don't need specialized blog systems

Written by Adrian Holovaty on June 17, 2003

I just posted this to Poynter's online-news listserv. I was responding to an editor of a major news site who was asking about which blog software to use on his site.

> I'm looking for recommendations for
> good blog software ... I'm open for
> suggestions. We're also looking at building
> our own, but if I can find the right
> software for the right price, we'll go with
> that.

I highly recommend integrating a self-built system into your legacy CMS, if you've got the means to do it. Ideally, if you've got a good CMS already and it's customizable enough, just extend it to produce "blog" output. Honestly, weblogs are nothing special -- they're just another form of article.

The allure of specialized weblog publishing systems is that they make Web publishing easy for non-technical users. Producers of news sites are not non-technical users; producers of news sites have an idea of how to publish content on the Web already -- and they have the tools to do it. (Well, for the most part.) Do you really want to introduce an extra layer of complexity into your site by bringing in *a whole other publishing system* just to manage the weblogs?

An online producer shouldn't have to use a scattered mess of publishing systems just to get stuff done. There shouldn't be a standalone "poll tool," a standalone "blog system" and yet another "main newspaper content system." The goal should be to unify these tools, not to decentralize them.

Comments

Posted by François on June 17, 2003, at 8:11 p.m.:

You are right, and it's true for other types of sites as well. I think that eventually, there will be not much difference between CMS and weblog systems.

Posted by Anil Dash on June 18, 2003, at 12:25 a.m.:

That being said, there are weblog systems (ahem) that are very open in their platform/database/API support and integrate with existing CMSes by supporting customization of the code or plugins. This can save a lot of implementation time in developing weblog-specific features while still preserving the investment and experience in the existing CMS.

Posted by Lou Quillio on June 18, 2003, at 3:01 a.m.:

François: "I think that eventually, there will be not much difference between CMS and weblog systems."

There's already no practical difference in terms of how things are organized, which I think is Mr. Holovaty's point. "Eventually" is now, and there's no need to let commercial forces obscure facts on the ground.

Anil Dash: "That being said, there are weblog systems ..."

With all respect, I think the sophistication of CMS systems small and large is beside the point, and means dick. What's needed is a de facto news source DTD.

RSS is almost there. There's frankly no item that might appear on my personal site (and that could be viewed by me in, say, AmpethaDesk) that NYTimes.com couldn't be serving in identical fashion. Fully-formed <img href>s and a pagination layer would pretty much skin the cat.

None of this means that anybody should rely on XML as a storage scheme, only that whatever is used should capture and dispense (if needed and desired) standardized items. MT could do this now if it wanted to and such standard existed, as could the other small-CMS products that I give attention to (Txp and pM).

The whole question has not a thing to do with CMSes, rather the control that their developers need/want to assert. That's the small, dirty secret that everybody in this space with a normalized database is slow-rolling.

I could crank out standardized feeds today if only there were a standard. Here at the hot edge of cashing in, the standards-promoters are suddenly hangfire. I guess that's business, and I guess the altruists who've carried the space thus far will publicly acknowledge their changed priority. Not.

I have nothing against commerce, unless it pretends -- in whole or in part -- to be something else.

Posted by François on June 18, 2003, at 4:29 a.m.:

Lou: I agree that they're close, but not similar yet. Weblogs miss proper site navigation/structure management, document management, broader range of content types (not everything is a blog post) for a few examples. CMS miss the weblogs characteristics such as RSS and trackbacks, and to support comments usually requires that you add some sort of forum system. And I quite don't get the "commercial force" thing.

Anil: nice plug, and that's right. But as you already know ;-) when a free (or cheap) system does most of what you need out of the box, and in a nicely fashion, it has more appeal than anything that requires integration of different products. Note that the same argument (ease of integration) holds true for a CMS (for some at least), so, vice-versa, Adrian is right in that it's not exactly rocket science to integrate weblog features into a CMS.

I might be wrong, but the fact that the Six Apart folks are pursuing three rabbits at the same time (MT for power users, TypePad for the masses, MT Pro for businesses) is a sign that they're going into a full blown CMS because all those various users will want more than weblogs (I do already for both personal and business use). I'm just waiting for the first signs from CMS vendors (or Open Source CMS projects) that they are entering the weblogs arena. It would be good to hear (from Adrian?) about news sites that have added weblog features to their existing CMS to complete the picture.

Posted by Nathan Ashby-Kuhlman on June 18, 2003, at 4:49 a.m.:

Lou, I am with you 100% that people ought to be using a common interchange format for news items. You should check out NITF, which is for individual stories, and NewsML, which is for packages of stories, photos, etc. These formats make RSS look like child's play -- but then so do the complicated database tables in any powerful CMS.

Posted by Anil Dash on June 18, 2003, at 10:50 a.m.:

Was just going to mention NITF and NewsML. There's a massive amount of overhead on these formats, and you do have to deal with DTDs, which are less elegant than XML Schemas, but they are certainly comprehensive. The issues is that implementing these formats is almost too difficult to be practical, and there are precious few benefits to doing so right now, as I discovered after struggling to get a news organization's CMS to output NewsML.

Basically, you end up with a well-defined, somewhat standard XML output format that you can't do anything with except custom output transformations that you could do more easily just by directly accessing your CMS database.

Posted by glenn1you0 on June 18, 2003, at 11:14 a.m.:

Functional differences between a blog and CMS? Hmmmm..... It's kind of like a knock on the door versus a bunker busting bomb.

If you need work flow, editorial controls, post dating, internationalization, scalability, advertisment management, etc then shame on you for trying to use a blog.

The point of a blog is to be light weight. The point of a blog is to be customizable to the owners whim.

The point of using blog software is that you can upload it to your third-party hosting provider and set it up your self.

Blogs are basically open diaries that appeal to the owner's sense of vanity. Otherwise, why not just post to Usenet or any of the various open forums available?

I think the major distinction is one of personal versus corporate control. Adding RSS to a CMS is almost trivial compared to the rest of the functionality they bring. So why don't they? Because they are in it for the money. How much money would they make by allowing individuals circumvent their front page advertisements? How many vistiors would they loose if you didn't have to come to their site to see what they had?

The trend of blog software authors adding CMS features is a reaction to natural market forces. They'd love to make money from their work. Features are used to justify their price, and so they are incented to make their software all things to all people. Blogs will add CMS features, CMS's will add Blog features.

In the long run, the differences may not be in how they function, but rather, how they are used. There are inexpensive CMS's and forums out there. Ask yourself why you don't use them. There are plenty of news sites out there. Why bother reading blogs when you could be reading the offerings of professional writers?

I think the root of the distinction lies in the answers to those questions.

Posted by Lou Quillio on June 18, 2003, at 11:45 a.m.:

Nathan Ashby-Kuhlman:"You should check out NITF, which is for individual stories, and NewsML ..."

Will do. Haven't looked-in on them for awhile. But it's true there is a problem ...

Anil Dash: "Basically, you end up with a well-defined, somewhat standard XML output format that you can't do anything with ..."

We'll agree, I hope, that text-based knowledge sharing (the presumptive reason for a newspaper site to add blogging functions) is not crying out for additional technologies, rather a light-duty interchange standard that's actually *used*. Something like RSS -- or Paul Ford's arb -- would do the trick, and wouldn't have us waiting around while big content providers figure a profit model.

Posted by Lou Quillio on June 18, 2003, at 12:52 p.m.:

glenn1you0: "Adding RSS to a CMS is almost trivial compared to the rest of the functionality they bring. So why don't they? Because they are in it for the money."

You know, I figured out some years back that I was leaving a searchable online trail of content that others would arrive at through a vector and context of their choosing -- or Google's. So I registered my own very unique surname as a domain, on the logic that if folks were going to find out about me, I wanted my own presentation to be at the top of their query results. The author of this site probably reckoned similarly (though his name is not as unique: everyone with mine is related to me somehow).

If you don't provide your own RSS feed and your content is in demand, somebody will scrape it and there's very little you can do about that. Or maybe you'll make private syndication arrangements with a certain outlet, kidding yourself that they'll remain private. That's a laugh.

In the end everything is available, so it's better to control and brand it yourself. The interchange schema we need -- and will inevitably have -- is being delayed by content producers' denial of reality more than anything else.

Posted by Dave Winer on June 18, 2003, at 1 p.m.:

Adrian asked what I think, so here goes. Manila has most of the features you would ascribe to a CMS, and it's good for business, publishing, education, beginners, experts, bloggers, you name it. This is a weird debate, basically you need it all, that's why Manila does it all. ;-)

BTW, your HTML parser in this blogging system has a bug, it thought my smiley (which has a greater-than sign) was part of an HTML tag. Manila's commenting system would not have been so easily fooled.

One more thing, your RSS feed is simply marvelous. No funk. Excellent.

Posted by Adrian on June 18, 2003, at 1:44 p.m.:

François: "It would be good to hear (from Adrian?) about news sites that have added weblog features to their existing CMS to complete the picture."

Off the top of my head, I know of two news sites that have added custom-built weblog features to their existing publishing systems: The Gotham Gazette in New York City and Lawrence.com, which is one of the sites I work for. (I made the Lawrence.com blog system and add features to it on occasion.) There are a bunch more, but I'm drawing a blank.

Speaking from my experience developing the Lawrence.com weblogs, I found it much, much easier to develop a custom-built solution -- something that worked with our templating system and met our business and technical requirements -- than to hack some existing system that, well, didn't.

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