We're All Publishers Now

Nov 17 2014

Last weekend I had myself a proper Twitter rant.

It began with this: “We need to talk about newsroom efficiency, a phrase right up there with ‘cruel kindness’ or ‘deafening silence’ in its oxymoronic quality.”

Newsroom efficiency is a little bit of a white whale for me. I know most newsrooms can never be made completely efficient, nor should they, for the kinds of inspiration needed for doing journalism isn’t available in predictable forms. I have no illusions about the messiness of what we do.

There was a time when efficiency didn’t matter as much, or even much at all. Our timeframes were elongated, not compressed. Our budgets were fat, not lean. Perhaps most important, the duties of reporting and editing the news were tied to its production process only by a printing and delivery schedule. If the presses stopped working, there was very little reporters could do about it. Production - publishing - was someone else’s problem.

Those days are slipping away fast.

Virtually every journalist today is closer to the tools of publishing the news than at any point since the hand-pulled press of colonial times. We can push buttons and our words, images and graphics appear on the Web. A story’s afterlife - what happens when it has been published - is something that we can revise and extend. These are hugely important changes; they alter what is possible for all of us.

Too many of us ignore or downplay this. We don’t know the means of production, and don’t want to know. It’ll get done by someone, right? That much is true - if we continue to be detached from the tools that publish our journalism, it will get done by someone else. It’s just that that someone is likely to be literally someone else.

We cannot remain strangers to the means of publishing. In other words: for your own sake and that of your co-workers, learn to use your CMS.

(I’ll pause here for an obligatory eye-rolling.)

Yes, the CMS. The software we love to complain about, the deleter of edits, the thing that crashes when you can least afford it. To the extent that reporters and editors think about their CMSes beyond epithets, it usually involves something like this: “If I could make one Christmas wish to developers, it would be for a better content management system.”

Well, you can’t spell “better content management system” without “you.” I mean, you can, but not in practice. Reporters and editors need to be better, stronger users of their publishing tools, not just to be effective at their jobs but to shape and inform the growth and improvement of those tools. You can summon all the developers you want, but if you don’t actually use what they build, they won’t know how to make something useful for you.

I’ve had to use a number of CMSes in my career, and very few of them could fairly be called “great.” But even the worst ones - the ones I dreaded opening and tried to avoid - contained surprisingly useful features. If you, as a user, participate in the development of your CMS, you’re gonna end up with a more useful CMS. If you don’t, you’re holding yourself and possibly your colleagues back.

You might ask why this matters so much. Who cares if I file a story using email, Word or Google Docs rather than my CMS? Here’s why: unlike publishing systems of the past, the modern CMS publishes directly to the Web. That means that you are a publisher. And that means that you can become a better publisher, knowing how to add links, where to place photographs or graphics, or how something will look to a reader on a phone.

Perhaps you didn’t sign up for this. You wanted to be a writer, an editor, a photographer, a graphics editor. And you can be. Now you’re also a publisher, too, and the longer we shrink from that responsibility, the more problems we’ll all have.

No CMS is perfect. That’s why we need to use them, so we can help shape them and use them to put our best journalism in front of our readers and know how they are reading it. Choosing not to use your CMS is choosing not to be a part of that process, and unlike the past, when someone else did the publishing for all of us, it’s our responsibility.

Not everyone will become a power user. Not everyone needs to: any piece of software with a reasonably broad set of users will need to accomodate them. But if you never know how it works, you’ll never be able to make it better for yourself, your organization and ultimately your readers. You can’t be a tourist visting your own workflow.

Here’s what you can do: start using your CMS if you don’t. Then, find out who works on it and tell them what you like and don’t like. Chances are they would love to hear this kind of feedback. Ask questions: Why can’t I do this? Would it be possible to do this other thing?

I started this rant with “newsroom efficiency.” Here’s how that factors in. Right now, the people who don’t use the CMS are being supported by people who are doing that for them: they are copying and pasting, clicking buttons on a story that isn’t theirs and will never be as important to them as it is to its creators. Imagine what they could be doing, the work they could be creating, if they didn’t have to do this. Maybe they would think of a new way to tell stories online. Maybe they’d have the room for that inspiration to strike, the kind that leads to amazing stories.

But this isn’t a zero-sum game. You’ll be better off, too, having more control over what you publish and a bigger role in building our future. You’re a publisher now.