Can a CMS Be as Easy as DTP?


Pica ruler

Today I lodge my complaint about content management systems (CMS).

How many millions of dollars, how many miles of code, how many lifetimes of human productivity have been lent so far in the service of replicating on the web the ease-of-use and sophistication that print publishing has achieved just in the last several decades?

And we’re still not there. But thankfully we’re getting close. Just maybe not fast enough.

For those of us with longer memories, this is all a little reminiscent of the dawn of desktop publishing 20 or 25 years ago. Back then moving text around required not just an eye for symmetry but also some dexterity with the typesetter’s tools — an Xacto knife to cut Lintronic type, and a pica ruler (or “pole”) to make sure everything was placed straight and even on the layout board. I became so adept at using both that I sometimes came home with waxed pieces of type on my shirt sleeves.


The introduction of DTP was joyous for most publishers. Can we say the same about a typical web CMS?

How joyous was the introduction of desktop publishing, to suddenly have sole control of every element on a page with a swipe of the mouse or a peck of the keyboard. Oh, the transition was not instant. Early versions of DTP software like Aldus Pagemaker and Quark XPress were complicated enough that a whole new occupation sprung up: “desktop publisher.” Try finding that title on the job boards today.

DTP instead quickly became so mainstreamed — such an extension of the eye and hand — that its reins were placed where they should be: in the hands of graphic designers and editors.

Exactly where control of the web CMS should be today.

And in that spirit…

Here’s what I’d like to see in a CMS:

The bulk of web content should be easily edited and moved around on a web page by nearly anyone, no HTML knowledge needed — like an extension of their own hand. This means web developers are never needed for workaday content — just for special applications like high-level interactive elements and for moving to new platforms. As I say we’re nearly there on this count, and WordPress (thank you) may be its highest manifestation so far.

Bulk content should be easily portable across any publishing platform — e.g., from QuarkXpress right into WordPress or vice versa. Eh, we’re not so close here. A web CMS has a bias for the web; DTP has a bias for print. Today’s harried content producers make no such distinction. XML offers much hope but the reins are still in the hands of web developers. CMS suppliers: Tear down this wall!

Editors should be able to easily create basic tables and charts — static and interactive; for later enhancement by designers / developers if necessary — right in their one-screen CMS. Some freestanding applications are out there like Piktochart but nothing is right at the editor’s fingertips at the point of origination of content.

Content producers should be able to get an instant preview of what their page-in-progress looks like on any application — print, browser, smartphone, tablet, etc. In DTP we called this WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) and it’s needed still. Responsive design is on the cusp of making this happen for the user but the next logical step will be making sure the content producer can see it too, while they’re working, on any given platform.

The issue of image file size needs to be resolved: print wants hi-res for quality, web wants low-res for page speed, and publishers have to retain both versions. When can we use just one? This issue may be forced by the boom in publishing for hi-res tablet displays.

DTP operates in a controlled environment, of course: Its sole destination is the printing press; whereas web content of course relies on the Internet and must be legible on multiple devices, operating systems and devices, and all this keeps changing. So it wouldn’t be fair to hold DTP and a web CMS to the exact same expectations for ease-of-use. But I dare to dream…


Clear Writing Vs. Clever Writing: Why Headlines Can Be Descriptive AND Compelling

Image courtesy of Linchpin Bloggers

Image courtesy of Linchpin Bloggers

I have opined on my bearish view of Newsweek’s future as the venerable magazine title muddles its way to an online-only future.

Now from the opposite end of the competitive spectrum comes an insightful Columbia Journalism Review interview with now-retired Time Inc. Editor in Chief John Huey that gives rise to thoughts about the nature of headline writing in the 21st century.

First, kudos to CJR for one of the more clever titles of the year: deciphering the humor behind the headline  “Huey, Luce and the news” requires knowledge of the story’s subject, the founder and the nature of the subject’s long-time employer…and mediocre 1980s pop-rock. The profound and the profane, as it were.

But this is no idle or self-indulgent punning as these five words do indeed capture the very essence of the piece (if only some of the story’s keywords, “Time Inc.” being most notably missing).

And in fact, the best takeaway of the story is found in the author’s description of Huey’s pithy take on writing for SEO:

Master of the homespun maxim (delivered in a wry Southern drawl), Huey famously summed up the recipe for search-friendly headlines: “Clear is the new clever.”

That’s it! “Clear is the new clever.” It’s the enduring phrase many of us have been seeking to get across the idea that the old school of headline writing most of us grew up with — chockful of keywords, information and unambiguous meaning — is the new school of headline writing. “Clear is the new clever.” Just tell it like it is. The readers and the search bots will take over from there.

But here’s the rub: There seems to be a mistaken assumption among many editors that clear writing and clever writing are by their very nature mutually exclusive, that clear writing is for the web and clever writing is for print.

Nothing could be further from the truth. People, we are wordsmiths, for print and for the web. We are paid by society to manipulate Roman letters the way programmers manipulate code and physicists manipulate numbers — in the service of conveying cogent, cohesive truths. That we have the extra challenge of making such truths emotionally compelling and entertaining makes the work all the more enjoyable and our presence as editors all the more valuable.

A long-ago headline has stayed with me for it was clear and clever. Buried in a back page of a major metro newspaper’s sports section, printed in perhaps 18-point type, it captured the tennis-tournament victory and subsequent financial winnings of Ivan Lendl of Czechoslovakia over the American Pat Cash:

Czech Checks
Cash, Cashes

Exquisite. Clear AND clever. I have envisioned many times its author admiring his (or her) miniaturized handiwork the next day in print, savoring the sparse prose that nonetheless captured an event much larger than the headline’s mere 24 characters. S/he had created it, and it was good.