Only publishers freed from old-style tech will get the best of the cloud

By: Denis Haman, 03 November 2021

Making the best of technology to improve digital products

Much of publishing is still trapped in a constant cycle of building, adapting, and bespoking open source content management software, wasting time, money, and opportunity according to publishing technology veteran Denis Haman.

Do you remember the first time you heard of “The Cloud”? (And I feel compelled to use air quotes to remind us how novel it seemed back then.) Perhaps you remember the initial scepticism some felt towards it - hard to believe now, with cloud tools arguably at the heart of every technological leap of the last 15 years.

It was in 2006 that Amazon Web Services (AWS) launched the first of its key services to the public - S3 (Simple Storage Service), and EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud) - helping kickstart an era-defining shift by industries and enterprises of all sizes. 

Before then, the prevalent thinking in media was to build and host everything on premises, ideally in the same building as the editorial operation. We saw rack-packed server rooms with noisy air-conditioners spring up next to editorial floors, sealed away behind keypads and doors or – more intriguingly – their blinking lights eerily perceptible behind smoked glass, with a voracious appetite for memory and disks, cool air and electricity. 

And stress! Those vaults cradled not only the editorial treasure - all the content for the papers and sites - but everything for advertising, and to actually run the websites too. I still shiver at the risks we provisioned for: “A single cup of spilled coffee could take down our business!”, I heard more than once. Well, I’m a tea-drinker, but we all understood the disaster scenarios. 

No wonder the media industry embraced cloud advances so quickly. In a world where sector disruption was around every corner, publishing and media could easily see the possibilities of scale, reliability, capability, and crucially the cost flexibility the cloud offered. 

Through good fortune and then conscious choice I can see I have been in the right places at the right times as cloud adoption grew throughout publishing, and lucky enough to work at some fantastic forward-thinking businesses where cloud tools were key to change and growth. I cannot – can any of us? – imagine cutting ourselves off from what it offers.

Old tech, new clothes 

Recently, I had the pleasure of talking with senior AWS staff about what makes publishing so different from most other industries: the dynamism and ripeness for change, the vibrancy of its people, the closeness to the consumer, the way content and ideas open up new product possibilities, and the near-miracle of newspaper production – they literally rebuild themselves every single day! They were enthralled. Is any industry more perfectly served by the cloud and its principles? 

Enthralled but for one thing, which raised eyebrows and questions: how the publishing industry often completely contradicts itself when it comes to one of its key tools, the Content Management System. They were genuinely perplexed that the prevailing approach is still to get a standard “starter’’ CMS - Open Source or licensed, it rarely makes any difference - and laboriously set about rebuilding it with a large developer team to rewrite the way it works, and then keep rewriting and rebuilding it for its lifespan. 

Well, that prompted the enquiries. Do they do that with all of their platforms? How big are their tech teams? How do they maintain this over a long period? Do they just live with the tech debt? What’s the talent pool for CMS expertise? How do you scale it? Where do new publications fit in? Who builds the things that make money? They spent a month on a font for the buttons?! 

It all got us discussing: are CMS the last ‘grand old’ platform that still come via this historical approach, of building, not buying or simply accessing a service? One of my AWS audience summed it up, in what I call the Acquisition Onboarding Paradox: if you use the same techniques and questions in your RFPs to assess and acquire a new technology as you did the last time around, the chances are you will get the same thing, just shinier. The intrinsic problems don’t go away, you just change where you are in the cycle. As she said, “It all sounds very ‘90s.” Quite.

Think a decade ahead, not a decade behind 

As a result, somehow in 2021, building your own CMS is still seen as the normal cost of entry for so many publishers: take a starter, generic CMS, and commence this journey of bespoking and pouring money into it to make it suit your particular publishing business. 

Or go cheap and put up with the shortcomings for your business. Until you have done it a few times, even specifying a CMS is extremely hard: an incorrect decision at the paper planning stage can hobble an entire build for years. Doing it for a publishing business is harder still - after all, it’s not just controlling all the content, it also needs to perform as an office and workspace for teams of harassed journalists and developers too. Building a good one is as hard as it sounds. 

It’s no wonder then the WordPress and Drupals of the world are such common start points. “If we’re going to have to rebuild the whole thing, we might as well start with one that’s free!” is a common refrain. 

Hmm. “Free.” Skilled CMS developers are very much not free. Even less so if they have publishing expertise. And what other costs is the business accepting? Years of implementation and maintenance commitments? Lost opportunities? Content that stays unseen? 

The list of other things that can go wrong with ‘free’ systems rapidly adds to their price tag. I commissioned some research for this article in June 2021 and, shockingly, of 102 WordPress sites run by publishers, many of whose names you would know, a disturbing 72.5% had detectable and known security vulnerabilities. Less than 32% were even on the latest version! 

We repeated the exercise in mid-October 2021 to allow for a new version of Wordpress which came out in September, leaving more than a full month for our scanned sites to make updates. The results were a little better - 57.28% are still showing well documented issues, and 48.54% are now on the latest version. This suggests that those who updated between scan one and scan two seem to do so just once a year, not after every version is released. Interestingly, a number of the publisher sites previously on WordPress had moved off it between scans. 

From these reports, some patterns are starting to emerge: organisations that do stay up to date either run a generic, vanilla version, therefore bereft of publisher specific capabilities, or are very large organisations with sizable internal technology teams.

A symptom of another problem 

As we pointed out earlier, the real solvable issue here is not these starter CMS and the consequences of following that decision path, but rather it is the whole approach to this problem we have as an industry: our failure to separate the Content Management problem from the customer-facing proposition. The cost and complexity is a by-product. 

This approach is not just inefficient and pricey, worst of all it is strangling speed and innovation in the industry when it needs it most. The battle to break a news story can be won or lost by seconds: how can we tell our editorial teams it can take hours or days to change a page layout? 

Commercial teams craft campaigns and subscriptions around fast-moving events: how can we tell them it might take months or years to build the new products they are crying out for? Ultimately what we’re all dying to know is, where’s our share of the speed and savings the cloud has given everyone else?

Product companies, not tech companies 

Publishers have always been product companies, with every edition, every issue, every piece of content. We’ve never been tech companies in the sense of creating tech like Google or Apple. We create content, and we use tech, and stretch it and demand more from it. But what we sell, and succeed with, is our content, our ideas, and talking to our customers. 

We need to realign to this truth now more than ever. After a brutal Covid period, budgets are tight, and the competition for subscribers and advertisers is tougher than ever. Sitting still, or sleepwalking into old and stifling technology habits, is a recipe for extinction. 

So the question is: are you a publishing company, or a CMS company? Maybe it should really be, how much money do you have to throw away?

Friends don’t let friends build CMS 

I may sound down, but I’m actually at my most optimistic for years. Signs of change are here, and new higher-pace lower-risk approaches are starting to become more widespread and – vitally – more accessible to publishers of all sizes. 

Those old hand-me-down requirements documents with hundreds of outdated questions are being ceremonially burnt, and the decisional habits which led us to this point are shifting. 

The realisation is growing that publishers and media companies don’t have to be CMS companies any more. Or CRM or paywall companies for that matter. Like those, content management problems are solved problems and there are SaaS solutions to choose from. 

Just as cloud hosting and tools have become standard, these configurable, flexible SaaS CMS will become the norm. The companies behind them will thrive by delivering the sort of service and tools a dream team of in-house expert publishing devs would ask for, at a fraction of the cost. And the questions you ask of them will be at a far higher level: how can I launch new sites in a week? How do I double my output of content? How do I halve my costs? 

Your writers and engineers will thank you for it. And so will your readers and customers. Now they all get to reap the benefits the cloud has been bringing to everyone else for years. 

It might be a bitter pill for some to swallow, I’m sure. Old habits die hard and the sunk-cost fallacy often looks safer than making a real decision. But, business success and soaring readerships will tell their own stories. Ultimately your content is what you make revenue from – not how many days and dollars you poured into a one-off CMS or paywall solution. 

If Netflix and Apple don’t feel the need to build their own data centres, then publishers don’t need to be CMS companies. Choosing the right fit will still require investigation and a good understanding of your objectives, but I truly believe that for publishers the effect can be as dynamic and energising as cloud computing has been.

This article was also published in UK Press Gazette.