Newspapers and Blogs: Speedbumps Along the Way

I’ve read the various accounts of the Bloggercon event with interest, as both a blogger and as a member of a team that makes free and open source content management software.

And I tend to agree with my pal Amy Langfield skepticism about newspapers and weblogs. Even if newspapers suddenly got on the cluetrain, there are a number of speedbumps along the way to making newspaper websites and blogs work together side by side.

The technical problems alone in integrating blogs into newspaper websites’ content – and don’t get me started on the print side of things – are pretty daunting.

Problem 1 has to do with platforms and interoperability. Most content management systems that run newspapers – and newspaper websites – were conceived of as self-contained islands. The mentality was: we have a staff of our own reporters, and maybe we have a couple of wire feeds. What else do we need?

As far as I can tell, most systems were hardwired for only a couple of input types. And rewriting this will take work. Work that costs money. And considering that most newspaper websites aren’t exactly money spinners for their respective owners for various reasons, I think publishers will be reluctant to throw money at solving this.

Even newspaper weblog pioneers like Dan Gillmor have had any number of glitches along the way in trying to integrate blog (or blog-like) content into their papers’ sites. I’d venture to say a lot of the trouble has to do with making systems like Cofax (the open source software which underlies Knight-Ridder’s Single Content Platform) work with blogs.

Which leads me to Problem 2: Integrating blog content into existing workflows inside the newsroom. Do you just agggregate a raw RSS feed, slap up a disclaimer and hope and pray everything goes well? Something tells me that won’t work.

I hope bloggers understand that editing is not the same as spell- and grammar-checking. And that editors are not just doing that.

I’d say that the biggest value-add in the newsroom is prioritization. It’s a down-and-dirty process where many different people confer on which stories get which placement. Do we lead with the latest Fallujah story, or do we go with the McDonalds’ CEO heart attack?

Simply aggregating RSS feeds on a last-in-first-out basis will not go over well in the newsroom’s culture of prioritization. Besides, users can already do that in many different ways – from Yahoo to Newsisfree to the various aggregators.

Providing newspaper website visitors with prioritization from the various weblogs in their constellations will be a value add. But doing this won’t be easy, because this will probably mean some kind of integration into the content management system’s workflow components.

Workflow is one of those buzzwords that’s tossed around a lot these days. It simply describes what happens to an article when a reporter passes a story to an editor, who passes it to another editor, who passes it to the layout editor, who passes it to the night editor, who signs off on it.

The system isn’t technically-driven. It’s people-driven, and goes back as far as there have been newspapers. It has to do with having different sets of eyes looking at an article from various angles for various things; style, accuracy, prioritization, etc.

For our part, the CAMPSITE team is currently working on ways of integrating feeds into the workflow, so that different kinds of content – be they in RSS, NewsML, or any number of other formats useful in the newsroom – can be integrated into the papers’ sites.

CAMPSITE’s current workflow system is pretty simple, having three phases: New, Submitted and Published. We’re working on making this more flexible for newsrooms, so that it more accurately maps the way newsrooms work, and also allows editors a degree of control over things like prioritization.

CAMPSITE already allows PHP plugins, which would mean that a news site could use a blog software package written in PHP and integrate that into the site’s content. My friend and colleague Micz Flor’s Fluter site has integrated the Phorum web forum software to great effect, for example.

And because our software is free, a major barrier to entry – cost – is quickly lifted. But it’s not just us. There are plenty of other open source content management system teams working on the same problems.

Instead of giving us the buzzword of the day, bloggers would be well-served to try to understand the culture of the newsroom, as well as to understand the current systems that power these papers.

Then the dialogue with the newspaper editors can be a lot more constructive. I’d say it’ll a lot more useful than kicking the Gray Lady around one more time.

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