Choosing a Content Management System in 2011

Technology is changing so rapidly that choosing what new media tools to teach in J-school is no easy task. This is even tougher with publishing software, where a whole semester’s work hinges on selecting the correct content management system. It used to be that raw HTML, Dreamweaver and FTP were the only tools you needed, but everything has changed with the advent of many top notch open source content management systems.

So the question is, what CMS should I teach in the journalism classroom?

I’ve used the “big three” of Drupal, WordPress and Joomla in the classroom setting and each one has its positives. My brief take: the more you think you need to “graduate” from WordPress to something more sophisticated, it keeps getting better and more impressive. Drupal’s best for its community plumbing and customization, while Joomla has sophisticated and mature front-page layout features. Decide which one’s the most important for your project.

At the University of Southern California, for beginning and advanced classes, I’ve stuck with WordPress for most projects, with many of the plugins and themes suitable for most tasks. This is not to say Drupal and Joomla don’t have their appropriate roles, but WordPress is the Willys Jeep of the CMS world — you keep finding it does more and more things well.

But for those who want to dive deeper, there are lots of reasons to consider Drupal and Joomla:

Usability. From an administration viewpoint, WordPress has practically obviated the need for FTP and requiring shell/command line access for maintenance and customization. This is no small feat, as this makes training much easier, while keeping systems more secure. Don’t underestimate the headache in having to teach folks FTP and UNIX basics.

Scalability. Joomla and Drupal were built from the ground up with the ability to gracefully degrade their performance. That is, if the load on a server gets too much, they can automatically shut off intensive features so visitors can at least read the site quickly. If you think that you may need this capability, take a long look at these two.

Community plumbing. This is where Drupal shines, in that it’s a flexible system for building community-oriented features, like collaborative filtering, and even e-commerce. With little effort, you can create policies that allow your audience to each have their own blog streams and allow folks to collaboratively rank content up/down. Think DailyKOS or Digg. In 2004, I taught a class with Dan Gillmor and used Drupal to have get students to create a community blog site to gather contributions from the community. Only Drupal could have done it so easily.
http://www.cyberjournalist.net/chatter-garden-new-hong-kong-online-community-news-site/

Layout and Customization. Joomla has some nice “front page” features right out of the box. I used it in a 2005 project where students covered the WTO Ministerial conference in Hong Kong. You could reshuffle and re-rank stories quickly that re-flowed the front page 3-column layout in a snap.
http://www.thestandard.com.hk/news_print.asp?art_id=8309&sid=5982453

User roles and workflow. Joomla and Drupal have better support for “workflow” and multiple user roles if you need to have a draft-review-publish cycle with different type of editors. (In recent years, though, WordPress MU and other extensions have made WordPress similarly capable in this area).

Themes and extensions. It’s hard to out-do WordPress in this area which has perhaps *too* many to choose from. Drupal sports a number of firms that specialize in customization and programming. In terms of numbers, Joomla is more popular that Drupal though there are many high-end, high-profile sites out there that help boost Drupal’s profile beyond the raw numbers.

We are spoiled for choice and that’s a good thing. Eager to hear how other schools have used these CMS’es.

[This post originally appeared as a response to the ONA Educators group on Facebook.]

45 thoughts on “Choosing a Content Management System in 2011

  1. Have you considered wiki software like Dokuwiki or Mediawiki? They are becoming very popular even for “closed” websites. Ease of use is basically unmatched and with a couple of plugins they can do almost everything “real” CMSes do.

  2. Hi Arthur, yes and actually I run WordPress and MediaWiki side by side and each has its uses. I should have made clear that my recommendations were for CMS’es for publishing news sites. For that reason, MediaWiki is great for collaboration and quick content, but not robust for presentation and layout.

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