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Washington Post to Fall Victim to One of the Classic Blunders – Will License Its CMS

The Washington Post has gone through several transformations since Jeff Bezos bought it last summer, and now it is going down a path where many a tech company has stumbled.

The Financial Times reported yesterday that The Washington Post now plans to license its CMS, or content management system, to other publications.

According to Business Insider (which isn’t behind a paywall):

The Post plans to sell its back-end content-management system (CMS) to local and regional newspapers.

The report says The Post was approached by some of its partner newspapers, which already have content-sharing deals with The Post, about licensing the software that’s used for The Post’s website. The Post has content-sharing deals with the Dallas Morning News and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, while some colleges like Columbia, Yale, and the University of Maryland already use the software on a trial basis.

If the deal goes through, it could open up a whole new revenue channel for The Post. Traditional print newspapers and magazines, like The Post, saw their businesses decline in recent years as they’ve struggled to keep up with digital. But with a new CMS-licensing business, The Post can broaden its footprint and find new growth from the technology side of its business.

For those just tuning in, "CMS" is a technical term for the (software) system or platform that companies use to manage their content.


One example of a CMS would be WordPress, which many sites (including this one) use to serve up webpages to  visitors, but other less obvious uses include a diverse range of activities from a company’s internal system to manage documentation (a Wiki is one example) to managing the print side of the  Washington Post’s operations.

The term CMS is actually pretty broad, but in the case of the WP we’re probably talking about a system focused on taking news articles, images, and video from journalists and serving them up on a website (and possibly in a print edition).

And that’s a problem for the WP, because there simply isn’t much of a market for a web CMS. The most popular one, WordPress, is free to download, and there are numerous free alternatives which are less well-known but still quite usable.

But even without the issue of the size of the market, this story is not going over well in certain quarters. The WP is not the first news organization to try to license its CMS, and past attempts have fared poorly.


I first caught this story from Anil Dash, and he described it as:

Later he tweeted:

You’re going to want to click through to the tweets; there’s quite a bit of discussion about CMSs, and the wit, snark, and horror stories will tell you more about this topic than any of the news coverage.

That impromptu Twitter debate is why I described the WP’s decision as a classic blunder (a reference to The Princess Bride). I don’t see this ending any better than when other news organizations have tried to license their CMS.

images by born1945torkildr

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Mark Ritchie December 30, 2014 um 2:33 pm

If the Dallas Morning News is one of the places looking to license a CMS, that can only be good news for Dallas. They’ve had terrible web sites since the dawn of the Web. Outside help, or a complete replacement, could only help them. Speaking as a Dallasite…

Bart Anderson December 30, 2014 um 3:27 pm

I don’t think licensing its CMS is necessarily a bad move for the Washington Post. WordPress is good for individuals and small groups, but it is not suitable for industrial-scale websites with many thousands of articles, huge readership and complicated services. WordPress would be like trying to move a mountain of coal with a bicycle.

At this point, I don’t see any alternative to CMSs for large operations.

I work with a medium-size website (~15,000 articles), and we’ve gone through three different CMS platforms. I liked the Open Source platform, Drupal, but we’re now using a proprietary CMS. No matter what platform you chose, you’re going to have to customize it and maintain it, and there is a lot of money involved.

Will WaPo be able to profit by licensing their CMS? It is really hard for non-specialists to tell. How big is the market? Do they have the expertise to run a software operation like this successfully?

Nate Hoffelder December 31, 2014 um 11:57 am

Techcrunch runs on WP, and so do a number of newspapers like The Australian:

Of course, those sites are running on WP VIP, which is a paid hosting solution, but it still shows us that high traffic sites can use WP.

How much bigger does a site have to be to outgrow WordPress?

Bart Anderson January 2, 2015 um 4:38 pm

@Nate, it’s true that WordPress can do much more than it was originally designed for (blogging). Pretty amazing, actually! I use it for some personal websites.

In a way, it’s not so much the base software that is the issue. They are all CMSs anyway – storing the content in a database and processing it for display (e.g. using PHP). What’s critical at the enterprise level is capacity, customization, resilience, support, defense against attacks, etc. All these things are costly, but necessary if your enterprise depends on its web presence.

If our personal sites go down for a few days, it’s not a big deal. But if the Washington Post’s site breaks, it could lose them loads of money.

Interesting take on WordPress for business:

puzzled December 30, 2014 um 5:41 pm

The main problems with moving an internal system and moving it to other sites is that the internal system will have all sorts of localisations built in. And there is a dedicated support team that keeps it running. So it will take a bit of effort to get the CMS into shape to be sent to other sites.

All that being said, one must assume that that Bezos' technical people have analysed this and determined that it is resolvable.

One must also assume that the CMS for a newspaper is not quite the same as a general purpose CMS, so it may be a good product for other newspapers to use. And it definitely has a selling point in that it is developed as a newspaper CMS.

Nate Hoffelder December 31, 2014 um 11:52 am

"a dedicated support team"

True. it is sometimes surprising to find out just how much of a platform exists in the heads of its developers and not on servers. Trying to remove the developer from the equation can cripple the platform.

All that being said, one must assume that that Bezos’ technical people have analysed this and determined that it is resolvable.

I wouldn’t assume that, no. Bezos is a risk taker, and if his staff picked up on that then they may have decided to make the gamble.

Meryl Yourish December 30, 2014 um 11:29 pm

So let me get this straight. The WaPo thinks that it can stop losing money by selling a media CMS to other media companies–which are also losing money. Because there are just that many other media companies saying, "You know, if only we had a better CMS, we’d probably make a LOT more money!"

Yeah, that’ll work.

Nate Hoffelder December 30, 2014 um 11:46 pm

Pretty much.

Bart Anderson December 30, 2014 um 11:48 pm

I think you miss the point of newspapers, Meryl. Owning the Washington Post is not about making money – it’s about influence. Jeff Bezos was extremely wise to see that. The Washington Post was on sale for peanuts, and insiders know that it is *the* source of information for politicians and government officials of the most powerful nation in the world.

In the grand scheme of things, licensing the CMS is a "don’t care" issue.

Bezos has made the Amazon infrastructure much more efficient than any of its rivals. Very possibly he is looking to do the same for the CMS infrastructure used by newspapers.

Don’t underestimate Bezos.

fjtorres December 31, 2014 um 10:09 am

They could be looking to bundle the CMS with news and article licenses, the latter of which they already do.
Remember, one of Bezos' tricks at Amazon is to monetize their cost centers. For WaPo, developing the CMS is a sunk cost. Licensing it out (for peanuts?) doesn’t have to bring in a lot of money to be worthwhile. Especially if it comes with a service contract for maintenance.
They may be looking at a Kindle type deal: sell the platform cheap to secure the content deals to follow.

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