April 1, 2004

A CMS doesn’t replace an editor

Jeffrey Veen—Why Content Management Fails:

Over and over I’ve heard the same complaint about these projects, “Turns out, after all the budget and time we spent, we really didn’t need a content management system at all. We just needed some editors.”

Put editors in charge. You need an editorial staff in place to make the content on your site as interesting and consistent as it can be.

Set up a process something like this: An editor manages all content on the site. Give that editor a staff of writers to send out into your business units. These writers act like reporters in the field, working on stories that they submit to a copy desk.

In my company I’m the editor. That’s probably going against Jeff’s advice; his essay does go on to say that this shouldn’t be an IT responsbility. But when there are only fifty employees, everybody has to wear several hats. And since I’m the one who’s done the most study on writing and marketing for the web, I put on my editor/publisher hat whenever I dive into the web site. Also with such a small company, I don’t have a “staff of writers” at my beck and call. So what it usually boils down to is repurposing material that the marketing department is pumping out. Either that or twisting the arms of the project staff to get them to write about what they’re working on. And everybody here lives in MS Word, so that’s what I always get sent. Even if it’s just a single photo, they’ll create a Word document and insert the picture and send it to me. I then have to needle them and track down the original JPG.

But doing Word-to-HTML conversions is all code monkey stuff. Mostly what I have to do is clean up what they’ve written and make it suitable for our website. Everyone is entrenched in the mindset of creating stand-alone documents. So everything I get, everything that’s supposedly meant to be part of a larger whole, always starts out with “RCI is a multidisciplinary consulting firm…” and “Since 1978 we have…” Well, all that mumbo jumbo is the first thing on our homepage. We don’t need to repeat it on every page. So, every time, I have to strip it out. Sometimes I’m lucky and the author’s just copied and pasted a whole paragraph verbatim. Then I can just highlight and delete. But sometimes I’ll get a document where all the introductory blah-blahs about the company have been woven in with the details about a specific area of expertise. And then I’m faced with the chore of extricating the good stuff, the stuff our audience hasn’t heard before, from the basic “What is RCI?” info. After that’s done there are usually more editing tasks to polish up the writing, and then of course digging into the HTML for formatting. The result is a website that looks coherent and focused, rather than being a jumble of unrelated documents.

So editors are crucial for a website. It’s perfectly fine to have employees from each of the departments be your writers; I usually request that somebody involved with the project does all the writeups, because they have the insider information that I don’t have access to. But letting what they’ve written go on the site, unedited, is a recipe for a disjointed site. Jeff isn’t attacking CMSs in general, he’s attacking the process where companies think implementing some kind of distributed publishing system makes the need for centralized editorial control obsolete. Jeff’s giving a one-day seminar on just that topic May 20th in Chicago. Probably going to be good stuff.

Filed under The Computer Vet Weblog

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