A tale of two platforms

It’s possible to build a news site from scratch in less than a day, but before getting started it’s important to decide on what platform to build.

While sites like The New York Times, CNN, and The Huffington Post are running custom content management systems, or CMS, that cost hundreds of thousands to develop and refine, there are hundreds of well-established news sites running software that is either free or very low-cost.

CMS options

The United Kingdom’s Metro newspaper is powered by WordPress, as is the Web site for CBS New York, the New York Observer and even the corporate site for The New York Times Company. WordPress is a free open-source software program that can easily be installed on most servers. Sites can also be hosted on wordpress.com, but some of the features do cost money.

Another popular CMS is OpenPublish. OpenPublish is a platform specifically designed for news sites that are built on top of a CMS called Drupal. Like WordPress, OpenPublish is free and open source. More than 150 sites are running OpenPublish including The Nation, the New Republic and the Washington Examiner.

Another option is NationBuilder, which is the software that powers the Journalism that Matters site. Unlike the other options suggested, NationBuilder is neither free nor open source, but pricing starts at $19 a month, so it’s still an affordable option for most publications. Not many news organizations are using NationBuilder today, but the platform is increasingly being used to power Web sites for documentary films.

Though I don’t have any experience using OpenPublish, I have worked extensively with both WordPress and Nationbuilder and will be comparing these two solutions throughout this article.

WordPress: The gold standardWordpress_Blue_logo

WordPress is probably the most popular CMS. It’s the software powering most of the blogs online, but the blogging platform is highly adaptable and a great tool for creating professional portfolio sites, e-commerce stores and even online job boards.

The difference between a blog and an online news Web site comes down to the theme chosen and the way the site is configured. This 2008 article from Smashing Magazine walks through the difference between WordPress blogs and “magazines,” but it almost completely comes down to what theme is running on the site. There are a lot of ready-made WordPress newspaper themes. Here’s a list of 30 good ones I found on another Smashing Magazine article. Each of those themes can be customized in a variety of ways to create a unique brand identity. Sometimes these changes can be implemented without any coding skills, but a basic of knowledge of HTML and CSS will quickly become essential. It is even possible to build a completely custom theme from the ground up, but doing so will typically require both technical skills and a strong sense of design.

NationBuilder: A new paradigm in online publishing

ph-nationbuilder_2xNationBuilder launched in 2009 as a platform for building political campaign Web sites quickly and easily. After gaining popularity in political campaigns, the tool was quickly picked up by nonprofits who realized that the same tools that worked for tracking votes and driving contributions could be used for engaging members and generating donations. In addition to basic publishing tools similar to those offered by WordPress, NationBuilder provides the ability to send and track mass e-mails, collect money online and maintain detailed lists of the sites’ users. NationBuilder is also integrated with both Facebook and Twitter.

These tools allow news organizations to engage their audience in new ways. By collecting the e-mail addresses and phone numbers of readers, it becomes possible to stay connected to an audience through e-mail and reach out to supporters directly when trying to raise money. While it might not be easy to convince visitors to sign up on the site, NationBuilder allows admins the ability to make posts only visible to people who are logged in as a way create an incentive.

It’s also possible to use this process to create a paywall on the site.

Augmenting WordPress to provide the same functionality

Just about anything that can be done in NationBuilder (and a whole lot more), can be accomplished in WordPress by adding plugins. There are several plugins available to create a paywall on a WordPress site, and it is even possible to use WordPress to create a metered-paywall, like the one at The New York Times, which allows visitors to see a certain number of pages each month without paying.

There are also a number of WordPress plugins that facilitate the kind of engagement made possible through NationBuilder. These tools are called CRMs, which stands for customer relationship management. There are free CRMs available for WordPress as well as a number of solutions that cost money. One of the most popular CRMs out there is SalesForce, and the company offers a plugin to integrate SalesForce with WordPress.

Some CRMs have a mass e-mail function built in, but MailChimp is a great solution for any that don’t include that feature.

Two solid options

Both WordPress and NationBuilder offer powerful tools to launch a news site in less than a day. Both tools offer a variety of customizable themes to create a unique look and both WordPress and NationBuilder offer plugins that expand the abilities of the software. However, there are thousands of themes available for WordPress and Nationbuilder only offers 15. Similarly the number of plugins available on Nationbuilder — or apps — is dwarfed by the number created for WordPress.

But the one advantage of this smaller ecosystem is that everything just works. There are no compatibility issues, and things are a lot less likely to mysteriously break on Nationbuilder, whereas new versions of WordPress have been known to create compatibility issues with certain plugins.

And while NationBuilder is often easier to configure, there are a lot more people skilled in working on WordPress sites than there are people experienced with NationBuilder.

No system will ever be perfect, but it’s easier now to launch a site than ever before. Now if only it were as easy to create content to populate that new site.