The Inside Scoop on CMS at The New York Times


The publishing industry may be rethinking its business model, but this much we know — It’s dead serious about getting CMS right. The New York Times is the latest publisher to lift the veil on its digital publishing operations with a refreshingly open look at the platform it affectionally calls Scoop.

The blog post by Luke Vnenchak, director of content management systems at The New York Times, provides juicy details on the current state of the platform as well as the future ambitions of the Gray Lady.

These details come on the heels of the much-discussed New York Times Innovation Report, a rigorous self-examination of its own digital strategy. Anytime I read about how publishers approach content management, I’m amazed at the differences in maturity, commitment of resources, and content-first focus compared to “non-publishers” that treat CMS as an extracurricular hobby to run a website.

We’ve all heard the old maxim that organizations need to “think like publishers,” but the reality is few are actually acting like publishers in the way they structure technology and content operations.

Of course it’s a touch unfair to compare your run-of-the-mill B2B enterprise with content marketing ambitions to a publisher like the Times, which, according to the blog post, publishers 700 articles, 600 images, 14 slide shows, and 50 videos a day. Let that sink in for a moment – An average Thursday at the Times tops the last five years of our blood sweat and tears at the CMS Myth. The scale is simply staggering (Although I am proud that we don’t pump out those ad-inventory-sucking slide shows).

Scoop supports more than 1,000 users including reporters, copy editors, photo editors, and producers. Luke indicated in a comment that the CMS team itself includes 20 folks including managers, engineers, and architects. Remember when your request for an additional full-time content management engineer got rejected? Yeah.

Here’s the areas I found most interesting.

Separating content management from delivery 

Scoop is a decoupled CMS, meaning separate systems actually deliver and present the content. This is different from most modern web content management systems, which are more monolithic in nature and intended to control both management and presentation layers. The decoupled approach brings many advantages, Luke says:

Unlike many commercial systems, Scoop does not render our website or provide community tools to our readers. Rather, it is a system for managing content and publishing data so that other applications can render the content across our platforms.

This helps the Times invest in areas like its content APIs and more easily allows it to support multiple platforms and sites. In fact, the Times has a job opening for an API Architect and Engineer. How many organizations can claim to have that kind of specialized role on hand? The blog post explains:

Scoop’s publishing job is not done until it has provided APIs to power our web and mobile platforms. This is an area that has significantly changed over the years as the number of platforms we support has grown. In January, we launched a new publishing API named PAPI to support the updated site architecture that came with our site redesign.

Acting digital first

As we learned in the Innovation Report, the rich tradition and culture of the Times has been a liability in its ability to fully embrace digital. Even though Scoop was initially created in 2008, it is now being viewed as a digital-first platform that will eventually drive the print operations as well.

Perhaps the biggest change has been the reversal of our publishing process. The original idea was that articles would be written in the Microsoft Word-based print system, CCI, and then sent to Scoop, where a web producer would add multimedia, tag the content and publish it on Today, instead of writing articles in CCI and then sending them to Scoop, our journalists can create articles in Scoop and publish to web and mobile first before sending them to CCI for the print newspaper. We call this change “Digital First” — a multiyear project that will make Scoop the primary CMS for both print and digital by 2015.

This isn’t to be taken lightly at an institution such as the Times. There’s a reason we still use the phrase “Stop the presses.” Luke writes:

Once upon a time, editors used to plan out the print edition of The Times by printing out story lists and circulating them among the various desks in the newsroom. Many trees were killed in this archaic and inefficient process.

Power to the metadata 

Longtime readers of the CMS Myth know how I feel about metadata. The Scoop is hard-wired to encourage intelligent tagging of content types. We know again from the Innovation Report that there’s been a laborious process to go back and redefine relationships and metadata for more than a century of archived content.

In an era when most modern web content management systems are still architected around a website’s navigation system, the Times is enabling its journalists to bake smart relationships into its content from the get-go.

The Times has been categorizing content based on subjects, people, organizations and places since 1851. Today, tags are automatically suggested based on the content of the article using sophisticated algorithms that can tell the difference between “Georgia” the state and “Georgia” the country. Editors use those suggestions to tag the article. They can also manually select additional tags from the taxonomy or request that a new term be added. Our digital taxonomy team evaluates those requests, maintains the suggestion rules, adds new terms and reviews how articles are tagged on a daily basis.

Again, on my staffing-envy — A dedicated digital taxonomy team? Come on now.

The Times is clearly supporting both the bundling and unbundling of content, allowing it to be assembled into different formats and packages. Safe to assume they are card-carrying members of Team Chunk.

Images, slide shows, videos, charts and graphics can be generally associated with an article, or placed between specific paragraphs. If an item isn’t specifically placed, is programmed to “sprinkle” the multimedia into the body text to avoid collisions with placed images and ads.

The future of Scoop

Even though the Times has a custom-built, digital-first publishing platform with more specialized roles than we even knew existed, they are clearly not satisfied with the current state. In fact, the Innovation Report suggests the Times’ CMS lags behind other leading digital-led publishers like The Huffington Post.

Luke shares many future ambitions and enhancements, the majority of which have to do with improving the author experience for its journalists and editors.

We will soon release a new article user interface that will include field-level locking and real-time collaboration. In this new UI, editors will be able to see who else is working on the article and which fields each editor has locked. When an editor saves a change, it is updated for all the other collaborators in real time.

He also discusses the impact of mobile and how the platform needs to evolve, not just for the mobile reader, but for the mobile author.

With the majority of our traffic shifting to mobile devices, we want to give our editors the same level of control over the presentation of content in mobile that they have today on the web. We are re-evaluating our current approach to come up with a less labor-intensive way to convey the importance of each piece of content, and to structure the data in a way that can be more directly applied in different layouts on phones and tablets.

Kudos to the Times for sharing the nitty-gritty of its CMS for us all to learn from. As I tweeted earlier in the week, I’m going to have to find a new line of work if folks keep sharing this level of detail about getting CMS right. There will be no more CMS myths to debunk.

Image: Flickr user joeshlabotnik 

About the Author
Jeff Cram

Jeff Cram is Chief Strategy Officer and co-founder of Connective DX (formerly ISITE Design), a digital agency based in Portland, OR and Boston, MA. As the Managing Editor of the CMS Myth, Jeff is passionate about all topics related to content management, digital strategy and experience design.

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