The Past, Present and Future of Media CMS

The media industry continues to evolve and adapt to the shifting dynamics of the web, readership and advertising.

website development

Every media company’s approach to selecting a CMS is different. While many companies are still opting for in-house solutions, open source poses an affordable, powerful alternative. But over and over again, CMSs have failed to meet the needs of most companies, often because the system is too outdated or too complicated.

The industry continues to evolve and adapt to the shifting dynamics of the web, readership and advertising. Media companies are struggling to strike a balance between technology investments and hiring and retaining editorial talent. To find a solution, the best place to start is with a CMS. And while many companies are still considering building their own, companies interested in an affordable and competitive solution should consider open source CMSs.

A History of Disruption

An Adweek report from 2011 validates that CMS selections are cyclical, happening about every five years. Though the reasons vary, that means every five years, media companies are going back to the drawing board—which is both costly and disruptive.

Last year was the latest “cycle” in media CMS switches, in which mergers and acquisitions hit a record high. These changes on the business side of the equation challenged media companies to keep foundational technology consistent, often needing to consolidate platforms or start anew.

For example, when Time Inc. spun off from Time Warner in 2014, Time Inc.’s had to start from scratching building a new digital platform for its properties. This uptick in M&A activity had caused an industry-wide search for a new or updated CMS.

website development

Leaps in innovation also played a major role in driving CMS switches. As personalization, social media, and audience analytics technologies became available, media companies immediately saw the opportunity to improve their digital strategy. However, most CMS platforms in existence were not designed for such integrations. That meant some big bets on CMS—both proprietary and custom—went out the window between 2011 and 2015, because existing platforms could not keep pace.

A High Price to Pay

Despite these industry cycles, media companies continue to invest heavily in their CMSs. Take Hearst Newspapers, for example, who built their CMS from scratch. At the start of 2016, Hearst CEO Steven Swartz announced a multi-million dollar investment into the further development of Media OSMedia OSis Hearst’s custom CMS platform and the foundation of all the company’s media divisions. Developing a custom CMS is a huge undertaking from a staffing perspective. The New York Times also maintains a custom platform, called Scoop; former New York Times CIO Mark Frons and former CTO Rajiv Pant managed a team of about 500 had to manage a team [corrected August 19, 2016*] in 2015 to scale this project, according to Capital New York.

But will these major investments pan out? Buzzfeed invested heavily in their platform and to enhance their site’s analytics, fuelled by financial backing from famed venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and NBCUniversal. But today, Buzzfeed isn't living up to expectations. The company missed its revenue target for 2015 and has nearly halved its 2016 internal projections. Many are concerned that the Buzzfeed model is not scalable, as their platform is narrowly optimized to the unique Buzzfeed voice.

Washington Post’s Arc Publisher, on the other hand, may face a different fate. After buying the Post, Jeff Bezos invested heavily in the Arc “suite of tools,” such as PageBuilder, which allows editors to build digital front-end experiences for their content, and WebSked, for newsroom collaboration. These custom technology solutions integrate with CMS options like Wordpress to make content management easier for publishers. While it was a significant investment up front, the Washington Post is beginning to license Arc to other media companies for monthly fees ranging from $10,000 for small organizations up $150,000 for large ones.

Finding A Middle Ground

Still, media history is filled with examples of companies who wasted time and money going all-in on a single technology for publishing. Well-known magazine publisher Conde Nast invested heavily in Adobe CQ5 as a CMS for the majority of Conde Nast back in 2011. But today, only a handful of the company’s properties actually run on Adobe CQ5. Newspaper group Digital First Media (DFM) developed a custom CMS platform called Thunderdome, meant to serve its 100+ newspaper titles across the U.S. But, looking to cut costs in 2014, the company put its newspaper titles up for sale, subsequently ending the Thunderdome initiative.

As a result, many companies today are looking for a CMS that will meet their needs without locking them into a proprietary vendor or high prices. They want to both maintain their editorial talent and keep pace digitally. The solution is often open source CMS options., and Atlantic Media’s Quartz all run primarily on Wordpress. Popular Science and The Economist use Drupal. These platforms are powerful, flexible and agile, giving media companies the capability to offer exceptional digital experiences at scale. What’s more, open source CMS are maintained and updated by an entire community of developers worldwide. This means the community is able to adapt to the speed of innovation, while media companies are free to focus on the creation, distribution and promotion of quality content.

While technology is critical to media companies today, the goal moving into the future should be finding a balance between digital priorities and editorial ones. By opting for open source technologies, publishers are able to spend less energy to maintain a CMS and more on producing quality content. Publishers will always need to adopt and adjust to new technologies, but they shouldn’t have to live and die by their CMS.

To read more of my thoughts on Media CMSs, in regards to third-party integrationscustom CMSs, and more, check out my additional blog posts on

Featured Resources

View More Resources