July 15th, 2014

Beyond the CMS

NPR BuildingOn April 22, 2011, I was in Washington, DC, preparing to start my new job at NPR. At that point in my life, this was pretty much my dream job, so I was very excited and a little nervous. I did a lot of thinking that night and the conclusions I came to eventually became the basis of NPR’s technology strategy. I recently had a chance to share my thoughts from that night as part of a talk at the Integrated Media Association’s iMA 2014 conference. Here are the edited highlights.

The basic premise I started from was that all content management systems are fundamentally broken. This may sound a little harsh but I feel able to say it because I’m part of the problem – I’ve built content management systems for organizations across the public and private sectors, so I’m pretty well placed to tell you that no available CMS platform is architected for what publishers – particularly news outlets – truly need.

Most content management systems were designed years ago, for a much simpler world. We now live in an incredibly fragmented and complex world. Any piece of content tends to be sourced from a variety of places and published across a range of old and new media channels. Throughout this complex process, everything has to work seamlessly. The margin for error during breaking news or major events is pretty much zero.

In this context, what do publishers actually need from a CMS? They need:

  • An easy way to connect with many news sources
  • The ability to push content across a variety of channels
  • Guaranteed availability and scalability

So, how do we build a CMS that actually addresses these needs? To my mind, the solution has three key components. First and foremost, the whole architectural approach must be based on APIs. Second, it must specifically use hypermedia APIs and finally, the APIs must be what I’ve been calling “linked APIs”.

1. APIs First
APIs represent the only universal way to connect anything on the Web to any other online thing. Unfortunately, since we started the Web in a desktop-centric world, APIs were an afterthought. Historically, we used to build a Web site and then maybe also add an API, as a window into our content.

This is the wrong approach. Your Web site is just one of the destinations for your content. Increasingly, it’s not even the most important one, since mobile viewership is clearly on the rise. Don’t treat your Web site as special. All your content and functionality should be put into and delivered through APIs.

 2. Hypermedia
Publishers need things to just work. They don’t care about the technical details; they just can’t have their services go down at any time – so, scalability is paramount. And how do you ensure scalability? As I’ve pointed out before, the most scalable network ever created is the World Wide Web and the secret to the Web’s scalability is hypermedia.

Hypermedia is any type of content that not only carries data but also links to other documents. The hypermedia type that is most fundamental to the Web – and certainly the one we are most familiar with – is HTML. However, HTML was designed for human-centric Web sites, not for exchanging structured content via APIs.

There are, however, other hypermedia types that were designed for this very purpose. As a matter of fact, I was involved in the creation of a very robust one called Collection.Document, which was designed specifically for media organizations.

3. Linked APIs
Leveraging hypermedia as an integral part of interface design allows us to create “linked APIs”. Most current APIs are, at best, creating narrow windows into the solid walls of data silos. Even the most high-profile API will typically only provide access to a single corporate database. Hypermedia allows us to create links between these databases.

This will prove essential to the next generation of content management systems because linked APIs have the potential to give content publishers the freedom they want to seamlessly integrate content from diverse sources and push it across the full spectrum of online channels. As such, they could even come to represent the engine that drives press freedom into the coming decades. So, let’s get that engine cranking!

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