Finding WordPress in the Post-Print News Era

photo credit: Alexis Doyen
photo credit: Alexis Doyen

For the first time in history, more Americans are working for online publications than for traditional print newspapers. In his report on data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, NiemanLab’s Joseph Lichterman succinctly summarizes the slow death of the American newspaper:

It’s safe to assume that newspaper jobs will continue to evaporate. Most small and mid-sized metro papers are struggling to find new revenue as print advertising and circulation decline and online advertising fails to make up the difference.

More publications are making the transition from print to digital news, but even large online news outlets like Mashable, BuzzFeed, and the New York Times are still working towards finding a profitable way forward. The internet has destroyed traditional revenue models for both the news and music industries, and we are witnessing a seminal transformation as they are forced into the digital age.

At the same time, people are consuming more news than ever before because of its increased accessibility online. Niche publications are exploding and large online newspapers are some of the most highly trafficked websites. Most publications that haven’t yet done away with their print versions have already become digital-first newsrooms.

Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, who acquired the Washington Post in 2013, is looking to capitalize on the influx of newspapers entering the digital era by licensing the Post’s new CMS to other publishers. Arc Publishing was built specifically for newsrooms and shaped by the Post’s editorial staff. It includes features like editorial planning tools, a page builder, analytics, storytelling tools, A/B headline and photo testing, metered paywall support, and user-generated content forms.

arc-publishing-wapo

Arc already powers eight university newspapers and a handful of other publications including Argentina’s InfoBae.com, Alaska Dispatch News, and Willamette Week. According to the Wall Street Journal, the CMS will launch on other larger publications like Canada’s Globe and Mail, Tampa Bay Times, and the Sante Fe Reporter later this year.

“For a smaller publisher, the Post can charge around $10,000 a month in licensing fees,” Washington Post CIO Shailesh Prakash told WSJ. “For a larger organization, the figure can rise to $150,000 a month.”

The Post is looking to expand to other publications and has reportedly struck a deal with Tribune Publishing Co. (soon to be known as Tronc Inc.) to be used with publications like the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. According to WSJ, the Post is seeing 60% to 80% profitability on the CMS and Prakash believes that it could eventually generate $100 million per year in revenue.

Although there is no mention of WordPress on the Arc Publishing website, the suite of tools relies heavily on the WordPress codebase. According to Journalism.co.uk’s interview with Greg Franczyk, the Post’s chief architect, the Post uses WordPress for 70% of the content it produces. Arc powers the publishing process and connects via APIs with WordPress and other platforms.

In the announcement on Willamette Week about the site switching to Arc’s content management system, editor Mark Zusman said that the site uses WordPress in a unique way.

“Arc uses WordPress, but with what we can describe in layman’s terms as a flexible ubertheme that allows publishers to build any page from scratch, moving modules around with ease,” Zusman said.

The Washington Post is branding the entire setup as Arc and hasn’t published any information on the website about the licensing of the tools they have created. The Arc Publishing documentation is still a work in progress, and it’s not clear what aspects of the CMS will be made available for use on other platforms.

Open sourcing the suite of tools they have created to interface with WordPress would be a tremendous contribution to the community and could help more publications transition from print to digital news. Smaller publications that are not ready for hosting on an enterprise-oriented platform could greatly benefit from the ability to use the same tools.

Why WordPress Needs a Magazine/Newsroom Distribution

WordPress and other open source software should have a major advantage when compared to the high cost of hosting a publication with the Post’s licensed platform. Major media and publishing companies are running on WordPress, including the New York Observer, Chicago Sun Times, CNN Newsroom, Metro UK, Quartz, New York Post, Fortune.com, and many others. Many of these are hosted by WordPress.com VIP with prices ranging from $5K – $25K per month.

Hosted platforms, despite their high monthly costs, can be more cost-effective than hiring a team of engineers to support and maintain open source software and the infrastructure required for high levels of traffic. However, this puts the bar fairly high for smaller newspapers entering the digital world.

WordPress is the people’s publishing platform and the most widely-used CMS with 60% market share, but it has become a do-it-all CMS. Tailoring it to be an effective editorial platform requires a long list of plugins and the ability to keep them all compatible and updated. Plugins for running a newspaper are not curated in any meaningful way. The WordPress.com VIP list of plugins is as close to that as one might find but it is difficult to gauge their level of support as their authors and sources are scattered all over the web.

WordPress could benefit from a community-curated distribution tailored for newspapers. No two newspapers are the same, but there are basic publishing needs that most share in common, i.e. editorial tools, image galleries, video support, advertising, author management, etc. Having a set of trusted/recommended plugins makes it easier for editorial teams to depend on open source software without being forced to go to licensed platforms for the sake of stability.

Maintaining a distribution is a time-intensive labor of love, as proven by the case of Open Publish in the Drupal community. Open Publish, a collection of modules for creating online news websites, was one of the first and most popular Drupal distributions. It was created and maintained for four years by Phase2, a Drupal agency, thanks to the support of Thomson Reuters.

The suite of modules made it possible to have a fully open-source powered newsroom up and running fairly quickly. However, as the software became less useful to the agency’s clients, Phase2 slowly phased out its support of the open source project.

“Our business has changed a lot since then, and OpenPublish is not used in the same way we used it for many years,” CTO Frank Febbraro said in response to users asking if the project had died. “All of the innovation we did on OpenPublish was done as part of implementing it for clients. Now, our clients in news and publishing have different needs, and we’re simply using OpenPublish less to serve them.”

Febbraro said that the agency also relied heavily on the community investing in Open Publish to help push it forward but they began to see fewer contributions to the project even after porting it from D6 to D7.

Phase2 eventually discovered that an online news-oriented distribution requires a stronger community of support than one agency can provide. Kevin Reynen commented on the thread to suggest a ‘starter kit approach’ might be a better model for distributions:

I’m a big advocate of using the starter kit approach to distributions over the product approach. Include the modules and some features, but more time is spent on documenting how to configure those than trying to do the configuration for the site builder and on fostering a community around the distribution that can support each other and help keep the distribution moving forward.

This might be an approach that could work for WordPress. If developers who independently (or via an agency) support WordPress-powered newspapers were to collaborate on tools, a digital news starter kit of recommendations could provide a viable open source alternative to proprietary CMS’s and expensive licensed platforms.

At this critical milestone in the transformation of the news industry, where is WordPress in the race to capture the digital news media market? It would be unfortunate if Arc swallowed up newsroom publishing the way Amazon has overtaken online retail and kept all of its tools proprietary in service of its bottom line.

Right now the landscape of news media seems to be moving towards hosted platforms for enterprise customers. WordPress could be more strategically positioned to capture this industry by making it easy to launch a fully open-source powered newsroom for publications of any size. A community-supported online news/magazine distribution could establish WordPress as the go-to CMS for newspapers entering the digital-only era.

14 responses to “Finding WordPress in the Post-Print News Era”

  1. What a superb articles, thanks Sarah

    Distributions are a funny beast in the Drupal world. They have big name recognition and generate a lot of ideas that end up in the core. But only about 1% of Drupal sites use a distribution. They’re kind of clunky and hard to maintain.

    I wonder if WordPress distributions would be any easier in real-world usage?

  2. Great article Sarah. Thanks for sharing information about this important shift in the publishing world which affects all of us who work with WordPress.

    For WordPress to regain the publishing market, WordPress has to stop focusing on consumer marketshare and start to focus on being more useful to businesses. As I’ve said at great length, never ending updates and update pressure do nothing to endear the WordPress platform to anyone building serious tools or managing a business.

    WordPress/Automattic should not be wasting money and diluting itself with VC floats to fund advertising to consumers. WordPress has more than enough visibility. WordPress needs to be more stable and more secure to attract more (serious) users.

    • WordPress itself is stable and secure. Most hacks are due to crappily coded themes/plugins or not up to date WordPress+plugins+theme installations.

      • Cars are not dangerous. It’s only transport trucks, speeders and drunk drivers that cause road fatalities.

        WooThemes, Elegant Themes, EWWW Image Optimizer, Yoast, WordPress ImageMagick integration have all faced major security vulnerabilities in recent memory. All of those companies include serious WP professionals on staff. WordPress is not a religious question but an issue for grown-ups running businesses on what is an inherently dangerous platform, the open internet.

        You are aware the WordPress itself is porting security fixes to versions as far as back as 3.7.14 (last updated May 6 2016)? The whole argument that one has to run the latest version of WordPress every minute is just propaganda to force business clients to spend more money on their websites (as almost every major upgrade requires lots of testing and a fair amount of troubleshooting on sophisticated sites).

        Sticking one’s head in the sand doesn’t make a problem go away. If WordPress/Automattic won’t take security and stability seriously, someone else will (like Jeff Bezos and Arc for instance.

  3. As a WordPress developer for new publisher I fully support (and would contribute to) a community driven project of this nature.

  4. Great, thought-provoking article! A unified WordPress solution for small or medium-sized publishers would be an awesome idea that could also be viewed in an even broader sense – i.e. offering starter packs for other types of websites too.

    • As noted in my comment below, it might be GPL’d, but that doesn’t say you have to distribute it. All it means is that whoever has access to the software must be given access to the source. For PHP software, that’s almost always automatically the case.

      In this case, Arc is an internal product used at WaPo and owned by them. They’re under no obligation to distribute the software or source to anyone else.

      (If they had a self-installable copy they licensed out, ala GitHub Enterprise, they would have to include the source; they could still choose to charge for those copies though.)

  5. I talked about the concept of WordPress distributions being a thing way back in 2009 – https://interconnectit.com/blog/2009/11/14/wordpress-distributions-are-the-future/

    But after a while I came to the conclusion that without core project support, a distribution, like OpenPublish for Drupal, would eventually wither on the vine. Not because there’s anything wrong with it, but because fundamentally people generally go looking for the core and then for people with the capabilities to implement the differences they need.

    We have our customer base and our toolset made up of open source as well as closely guarded plugins from which we build a standard starting point for websites. To all intents and purposes, it’s a distribution of WordPress. Most companies like ours do the same. And if a plugin comes along and does a better job than one we’ve built, then we drop that and take on the third party – especially if it’s well supported and financed. So if you hire us, or Human Made, or Moove or Crowd Favorite… you’re probably getting a distribution of sorts. If you use WP VIP services, it’s the same – it comes with a suite of plugins that can be leveraged to provide functionality. And a lot is aimed at newsrooms, and many are buying.

    I think the problem is solved. It’s just not turnkey.

    • Interesting argument if a bit self-promotional. It’s helped clarify my own thoughts. It would be very kind David, if both you and WP VIP services could more actively share back to the community which nourishes you. I’m not sure if Human Made, Moove or Crowd Favorite are hoarding software so I won’t include them in that list.

      Where I work we do share our core code. And that’s a matter of policy. What we don’t want to share we don’t tag with GPL (and have been banned from years of WordCamp presentations for a single non-GPL pro plugin – even though the free version is GPL). Private code hoarding is apparently acceptable, even encouraged, both technically and socially. Strange world we live in.

      A shared distribution which is more focused on secure publishing would be a fabulous project. It would need leadership though and from people who are publicly minded. Our BusinessPress project leads in this direction (providing one place to turn on and off all the hidden preferences in WordPress, basic branding and basic fail2ban security integration) but is more focused on SMB sites and not publishing workflows specifically, although BP could easily provide the foundation for publishing improvements. WordPress should be about sharing code and not hoarding it. Sharing is where we all started. Sharing is what makes all this possible.

      • Wasn’t really meant to be self-promoting, but you know how it ends up – becomes automatic probably! You’ve mentioned your projects too. It’s kind of hard not to, right?

        We do share a lot of stuff, but we have a few things we keep to ourselves. It’s still GPL though, and that’s what our customers get. Perfectly and entirely within the spirit and intention of the GPL. We don’t put some of that onto Github or WordPress.org because you wouldn’t believe the support overhead a popular plugin can generate – and if there’s no revenue stream (there often isn’t) then you end up with an increased cost. Especially when some of that code needs to be implemented with care or you’ll end up bringing your site down. Documenting and testing in a way that’s suitable for a general public user is a *big* undertaking, and they do find your github repos eventually.

        Lots of WordPress.com’s stack is closed away from the world. They’re never going to switch to Affero. There’s a reason why – it’s viciously hard (but not impossible) to make money from publicly released GPL code and you immediately equalise yourself with your competitors. And sometimes, to protect your investors and your staff, you have to keep some things secret. It may not be the best thing for society as a whole, but sometimes a balance needs to be struck.

      • I’m not sure if Human Made, Moove or Crowd Favorite are hoarding software so I won’t include them in that list.

        I can’t speak for the others, but almost all of our “platform” (standard plugins we use on sites) are open source and available for everyone to use. We’re in the process of writing up exactly what we use on every site properly so others can take it and run, but they’re all publicly available.

        We do have some parts that aren’t open source, but for the most part, this is just site-specific stuff. There’s stuff we could release though and probably will in the future; just needs to get into a releasable state before we do so. We definitely try and release as much as we can though.

        With all that said though, we don’t have a hugely standard set of tools. Every project calls for something different, so we pick-and-mix depending on requirements.

        Private code hoarding is apparently acceptable, even encouraged, both technically and socially. Strange world we live in.

        I think this is a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison. The GPL only says that if you’re given software, you have to be given the source code too. For sites created for clients, no one except the client has to be given the source. There’s no responsibility for everyone to be given the source.

        We see the benefits of releasing stuff as open source, which is why we do so, but it’s not purely altruistic.

  6. The main problem with the “distribution” idea is that people having core commit rights (or release leads) actively nuke any effort to get support for a package manager into core (Composer for example). Every major framework or CMS nowadays uses it to automate builds, tests and have a machine run deployment cycle. Just not WordPress. There are ways around this (see http://wecodemore.github.io/wpstarter/ ) but as all of this happens alongside core, there will be no high adoption rate in the near future and articles like this one will just describe what already happens behind the scenes and do not draft a real world scenario.

    • Thanks for the link to wpstarter. Lots of good practices in wpstarter which we like as well:

      WordPress files in their own directory, not in root (so messy on a complex site)
      media files not in /wp-content/: what happens when we all move on from WordPress. Why would one want to make media files dependent on a CSM. It’s a kind of sneaky lock-in.

      I agree that WordPress should include an install script like this as part of core. While Core is focused on non-coder, non-business people (coders can handle complexity, business people hire competent help), there’s no reason not to have a very simple script for neophytes with the power under the hood for developers.

      Very nice. Where do we sign up to lobby for wpstarter or similar to be added to WordPress? Are you at WordCamp Europe later this week (it’s home ground for you).

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