Use Ready-to-Wear to Avoid the Custom CMS Albatross

    by A. Adam Glenn
    July 26, 2008

    It’s always tempting to be cutting edge by building custom web publishing tools for a new web site (See Ryan Sholin’s recent Exploring a Range of Development Options post, in which he mentions he’ll be custom coding his new ReportingOn site).

    But as “pseudo-geek” online journalists ourselves, we’ve found real benefits to using off-the-shelf content management tools — especially for a small operation without an in-house web developer, like our project at the BoulderCarbonTax.org web site.

    I,Reporter partner Amy Gahran and I built out our site using WordPress, which we have installed on our Web host’s servers. (Note that this is not WordPress.com — a hosted service that offers little flexibility).


    We’ve added lots of widgets and functionality, and an online forum. Each step took just a few days, required just the smallest amount of expert help, and quickly established for us a cheap, versatile web site, with access to lots of new tools and further enhancements coming down the line.

    Here are some of the things we were able to do with the main site in a matter of days:

    • Get WordPress installed on our account at Bluehost.com. We needed some geek assistance with the server-side stuff, but it all worked out easily.
    • Create a custom banner.
    • Selected and customized a free WordPress theme.
    • Create a page-based global navigation system.
    • Set up feeds and email alerts using Feedburner and Feedblitz.
    • Set up link blogs using del.icio.us.
    • Create forms on the site.

    Later on we added a forum using Vbulletin, an inexpensive but versatile and usable forum software package. Again, we needed some help from a more technical person to get it installed and configured, but since then it’s been working fine.


    We’d certainly never knock all the great creative energies and ideas that come from making something from scratch, solving old problems in new ways, clearing a path for others. We’re just saying that for many projects with limited staff, resources and technical know-how, using ready-made tools have real advantages.

    One big plus with this approach is simply getting the site up quickly and inexpensively (including the cost of your time). That allows you to focus on bringing content to the community, rather than futzing with debugging your tools as you build them.

    Here’s one other consideration with custom design: What happens to your state-of-the-art site in year two or three or five, when advances have overtaken it and you may no longer have the time or resources to update it? Or even if you do, are your initial outside developers no longer around to help bring it up to speed?

    Do you end up with a horrendously out-of-date dinosaur with numerous technical problems requiring a massive overhaul and probably no one around to easily fix it. That’s what happened when the Boulder Daily Camera had to scrap its custom-built community site in favor of a Ning.com site (more on that). The non-custom tool is not only more flexible, but more sustainable and maintainable.

    Other cases in point are news association sites like Poynter.org, which is stumbling over a badly out-of-date custom content management system built several years ago, or the web site for the Society of Environmental Journalists, which is limping along with a system built (for good reason, years ago) using Lotus Notes.

    We’d certainly like to hear from those with more technical expertise than us about the benefits of custom CMSes, or how to overcome the kinds of longer-term problems they can present. But in the meantime … we’ll take ready-to-wear.

    Tagged: boulder carbon tax tracker CMS custom publishing development i reporter
    • What happens to your state-of-the-art site in year two or three or five, when advances have overtaken it and you may no longer have the time or resources to update it? Or even if you do, are your initial outside developers no longer around to help bring it up to speed?

      There’s your first problem: Don’t hire outside developers.

      Building a custom CMS is a not a, “OK. We’re finished” sort of thing and it’s not something that comes in a shrink-wrapped box.

      You hire good, smart developers, tell them what you want and let them work on it, constantly.

      Bonus benefit: When not working on the CMS, they can do bang-up jobs on databases, niche sites, and whatever else comes along.

      We have a team of three developers and three web designers here at The Star and that’s how we’re able to do things like Indy.com and IndyMoms.com (which started with Drupal and had to be re-written to a custom app to get it to a) scale and b) do the things we wanted [and nothing more]).

      And Indy.com, though it launched almost a year ago, we’re still working on it … in fact, I’m testing out a massive new feature release for next week.

    • There is an endless supply of self-indulgent developers who would be delighted to lock you into a dependency on their skills. But the truth is that 99.8% of the functionality you’d need for any website overlaps with the functionality needed for a large number of other sites. Custom CMS development isn’t based on business thinking. It’s based on ego.

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