What local independent online news publishers should keep in mind when choosing a CMS

By Elizabeth F. McNamara | Oct. 6, 2016

Wordpress may be the most widely used web content management system, or CMS, when it comes to small independent websites, but it’s not the only option out there, as we heard at the LION Publishers 2016 Summit Friday afternoon during a roundtable with David Sutton of TownNews (which offers its proprietary BLOX software), Joe Hyde of San Angelo Live (a Drupal disciple), David Walsh of Walsh Creative (a WordPress design house), Steve Ludwig of BIGRMedia (which offers its own platform), and Travis Smith of HOP Studios (an ExpressionEngine design house). 

Dylan Smith, publisher of the Tucson Sentinel and chairman of LION's board of directors, got the ball rolling by flipping the discussion: Of the platform you’re here to brag about, what don’t you like about it? 

Smith of HOP said ExpressionEngine isn’t so good on multilingual text and he doesn’t like that users can’t have multiple roles (you can’t be a forum moderator and also responsible for the calendar, for instance). 

When it comes to WordPress, Walsh said, sites are able to use more plugins than are good for them. “I almost wish there was a limit,” he said. “You can keep adding plugins and adding plugins, and you have 80 plugins and they don’t work.” 

If they aren’t updated regularly, those plugins will slow down your site. 

He mentioned another important WP plugin don’t: Don’t use plugins that aren’t supported – those are the ones that will bite you in the ass, he said. Supported plugins might cost something, but you if you have access to the person who created it, it’s worth it.

When it came to a downside of Drupal, Hyde said “versioning” – going from 1.0 to 2.0, etc. – is a pain. But of course, he said, that’s the case for any platform. As for Drupal positives, Hyde said users can take on different roles; it’s less hack-able; and you can easily de-couple content from structure for easy use with mobile apps.

Sutton from TownNews said their challenge has been that some people think TownNews only works with smaller organizations. Wrong, he said, noting that their average customer is a news organization with a staff of 15 to 20 people. The benefit of TownNews, Sutton argued, is that they take care of the tech issues: “We want you to focus on content and revenue and not have to worry about infrastructure,” he said.

Hyde takes a different approach. 

“I’ve come to the point where I really believe journalists need to know HTML,” he said, after learning that barely anyone in the room was HTML-proficient.

Pretty much everyone on the panel agreed, you get what you pay for in terms of hosting. If you are spending $3 a month for a server to host your site (yes, GoDaddy, you were called out), and you have a lot of content, you are going to have problems. 

For WordPress, WP Engine was the favorite. Here’s a link to WordPress host performance benchmarks 2016, via Adam Schweigert (with The Institute for Nonprofit News).

Hyde recommended Varnish for anyone with more than 100,000 unique visitors a month. 

Check out more entries in our 2016 conference blog »