The news yesterday that newspaper giant Tribune Company is developing a tablet makes me wonder where and how publishers should technologically innovate.
The plan reminds me of a recent Adweek article about the publishing industry’s ongoing woes with Content Management Systems. In it, Erin Griffith catalogues how BusinessWeek spent upwards of $20 million trying to create a social networking layer on top of its proprietary CMS; how Salon.com — which launched in the 90s — is still using the home-rolled CMS it used in the 90s but is reportedly migrating to WordPress; how Time, Inc. has worked on a home-brewed CMS for seven years but will probably abandon it; and how AOL spent three years trying to create a proprietary CMS before ditching the effort, buying Blogsmith for about $5 million and now trying to migrate to the Huffington Post’s highly customized version of Moveable Type.
Add a marketplace crowded with content-management options, tight budgets, and a string of media mergers—and the corresponding change in personnel—and the result is that these troublesome tools are being plied in a cultural clusterfuck. The result is a growing number of bloated, tangled CMS platforms reviled by the editors that publish on them, and the IT teams that maintain them.
That’s just the tip of the Content Management iceberg and doesn’t even begin to touch on the difficulties of creating a friction free workflow for multiple platforms (Web, print, mobile, tablet). In hindsight, it’s easy to say publishers shouldn’t have rolled their own. But with foresight does it make sense for Tribune to get into the tablet game?
The short answer is no, but that’s not to say news organizations should ignore in-house technical innovation.
Instead, it’s to ask how and where they should allocate resources in the pursuit of technological innovation.
Part of the answer is remembering the core product, journalism, and then investing time and resources into technologies that enhance it.
For example, technologists from the New York Times and ProPublica collaborated to create Document Cloud, a Web-based platform that allows organizations to analyze large data dumps across multiple documents.
Document Cloud, in turn, uses Open Calais, a Web service developed by Thompson Reuters that layers semantic metadata over content.
These are innovative technological investments in the service of a publishers’ core news and information product.
Meanwhile, Tribune ramains in bankruptcy, is laying off editorial staff and is plowing human and financial capital into a product that will compete with the iPad, Kindle and other market leaders.
From this corner of the Internet, it seems an investment gone wrong. From another corner, Markus Pettersson, head of reader relations and social media at Göteborgs-Posten, writes that Tribune is “afraid, clueless and [has] lost track of what is [its] core product: journalism. It tells everyone including your readers and ad buyers that you have business ADHD, and cannot be relied on to focus on developing your core product: journalism.”
Agreed, and thinking we’ll be writing something very similar to Griffith’s Adweek CMS article a few years down the line. At that point in time, it will be Tribune as the poster boy for tech investment gone wrong.
Some might remember when ESPN tried to create a branded phone. Steve Jobs’ response at the time, “Your phone is the dumbest fucking idea I have ever heard.”
ESPN, it’s reported, lost $135 million on the venture.