5 reasons news organisations prefer in-house web publishing tools

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 31 May 2011

At the end of the live blogging panel session at news:rewired, my colleague Matt Wells wanted to answer a question that had been posed on Twitter - if the PA can use ScribbleLive for their live blogging tools, why do the BBC feel the need to build their own?

Of the people on the panel, Matt at the Guardian and host Marcus Warren of the Telegraph both use in-house tools, whilst Anna Doble of Channel 4 News and Paul Gallagher of the MEN used off-the-shelf solutions. Anna and Paul both expressed a desire to use their own custom in-house tools if they could get the resources to build them.

But building you own tool seems a very unwebby approach.

Indeed, the next day I was at the Knight-Mozilla News Innovation jam and talking to Nicola Hughes - aka @DataMinerUK - about it. She wondered why the big news organisations were wasting so much money and effort all individually building different live blogging platforms, when they could save money by pooling their resources and building a common platform that suited all their requirements. She seemed to think it was insane not to.

And she was absolutely right, it many ways it does seem insane.

Our group went on to have quite a discussion about the pros and cons. Having subsequently thought about it a bit more, here are five reasons why I think the bigger news organisations with in-house web development capability tend to prefer their own tools over a third party solution or a collaboration:

Integration

Integration is important both technically and editorially. From a technical point of view, you need to be sure that the tool you are using will scale to the number of simultaneous views it might get. If it is embedded within your own pages, you need to be sure that nothing in the code is going to conflict or interfere with any other functionality on the page. If users are able to join in, like on CoverItLive, you need to work out how the registration systems mesh together.

From an editorial point of view you need to consider how you can pull the content into elsewhere in the site. If the main angle of a story changes and you want to change the headline or name of the live blog, does that get reflected around the rest of the site automatically? Does the content appear in your RSS feeds? How will Google handle it?

Permanence

Most news sites are building up potentially valuable archives of the things they have published since going online. If you are using a third party service for live blogging, that content is actually being stored by the third party. What happens to that content if the third party goes bankrupt, or is purchased by a bigger company? If the service is discontinued, what record do you have left of how you covered the key news stories that demanded to be live blogged?

Rights

Similar to the issue of permanence, but more from a legal angle. If someone signs up to comment on your site, they usually tick a box setting out the clear legal T&Cs of participation. If you are hosting your live blog content with a third party tool, the chances are that your users, and you, signed up to someone else’s T&Cs. Those can change - you only have to look at what Twitpic have done with image rights. If one of the third party live blogging services retrospectively changed their T&Cs to claim ownership of the content, or the ability to resell it, where does that leave you contractually with the staff who wrote it, or the users who contributed to it?

Workflow

This is actually the most important one for me. Keeping tools in-house means keeping control of your workflow in-house. When we built our commenting platform for the Guardian to bring it in-house, whilst we simply replicated the front-end user experience of the previous system, the majority of the IA and design thinking went into the moderation system back-end. By optimising that around our other processes and systems, we made it easier for our moderators to do their jobs. If you are using a third-party to publish, it also means you are relying on them to provide you with a workflow.

Competitive advantage

The idea that news organisations could come up with an agreed set of requirements and build a common live blogging platform is an attractive one, especially if you could go on to sell it. But, the reason we don’t take that more webby approach is because our digital publishing systems give us competitive advantage. If one of us has a feature that the other doesn’t, or can publish slightly faster, or be quicker for the pages to download, that all adds up to a better end user experience. In an era where turning to an alternative news source is only a click away, you want to seize any opportunity to be distinctively better that you can get. Even if it takes time and costs money to build.

4 Comments

These are all valid reasons, however, they dig you deeper and deeper into maintaining a custom content management system. If your rivals can use off-the-shelf/cloud solutions then they will be faster to market and have lower maintenance and operating costs.

But most publishers are stuck with a home grown system which they have to adapt and continue supporting anyway. It's another example of "you can't get there from here" that older media companies face.

It's something we've been mulling over in our newsroom, we rely on CoverItLive and while it's great you do wonder why we don't have our own live blogging system - especially as more and more coverage is warranting a live blog and we know readers like them judging by the stats.

I think your points about archives and the control over the content are key - archives are a rich and vital part of media organisations and to potentially lose all of our live blogs overnight is a scary thought. And if the T&Cs change as you say you could find yourself in a lot of legal bother.

But, services like CoverItLive are so good that perhaps that's why a lot of media organisations have been slow to build their own? After all, if it ain't broke, don't fix it?

Publishers like their own content management systems for the same reasons they like having their own web sites -- they think of it like owning a printing press or a local television station. These are ideas that are based on legacy business models. They probably are not going to work in the digital realm in the long run.

These are all valid reasons to stay in-house, from experience I'd say the rights issue is likely to be the most troublesome. Legal considerations give large publishers far bigger headaches (and costs) than more practical matters.

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