Opening Things Back Up

Several times since September I’ve mentioned the new publishing platform we’ve built at TPM. In tech-speak that’s a ‘CMS’, a content management system, though the way we’ve approached it is dramatically different from a traditional CMS. Lighter, more modular, more adaptable to changing editorial needs. It’s the culmination of about four years of planning, strategizing and finally coding what a system that is purpose built for a modern digital news operation, with all the emphasis on speed, adaptability and share-ability that implies.

Now, to be clear, all we currently have in production, i.e., live on the site, is just the very foundation of this new system. But it’s the foundation that was the crucial milestone because it’s the foundation that makes it possible to build all the features, improved user experiences and editorial tools we’ve been planning. The only differences you’ve likely seen so far are a faster site, the fact that we publish different versions of the site for Prime members and non-Prime members (mainly different layouts and dramatically fewer ads) and some other changes and features. But under the hood, the site is rebuilt from the ground up and finally off the archaic, off-the-shelf CMS TPM had been published on in one form or another for 10 years.

We’re particularly excited about one new ‘feature’ or part of the site we have in planning. If you’re a regular reader, you know that TPM’s wheelhouse has always been ‘iterative journalism’, long narrative story arcs, often made up of days, weeks or even months of posts. The iterations range from little snippets and updates, comments to long analysis pieces and reported pieces. It’s key to the model that you suit the format or genre to the particular increment of news you’re putting in front of readers. If you know the site, you know this. You know what they look like, how they unfold. But the architecture of the site has never had a good way to capture those narrative arcs. If you know the site’s idiom, you recognize them. If you don’t, it can be a little bewildering. And even if you do recognize them the site has never had a very good way of stitching those narratives together or allowing you to trace them backwards or forwards in time. So that’s one thing new we have coming and something we’ll be working on over the next few months.

But with all of that intro, what I actually wanted to discuss in this post is how we eventually want to open this new set of tools back up to our readers. As many of you know, there used to be a part of TPM called TPMCafe, an open section where readers could write posts, discuss, argue, brainstorm and more. (We’ve recently brought back a version of Cafe, which is an edited opinion section. So same name but without the community component.) TPMCafe was actually the first expansion of the original TPM – before Muckraker, Election Central, DC and all the rest. It was extremely popular. But over time we ran up against the limits of the CMS we then used, Movable Type, and the lack of staff resources to support it. And eventually we had to shut it down entirely back in 2011. That was something that angered a lot of readers. But outmoded nature of the site architecture was such that there was simply no way to make it work well and we got into this crazy situation where we were literally spending most of our tech resources (staff time and hard money) on something that wasn’t even directly tied to our core reporting mission. It didn’t make any sense.

With the new system, though, we can now revisit that decision. Our new publishing platform includes a light, flexible and very powerful editing interface (a place for you to write posts) and a publishing architecture that gets us around all the old problems that made the old TPMCafe finally unsustainable. It’s something that won’t just run well but run beautifully and reopen the doors to our readers to become fully part of the conversation on the site.

We’re still thinking through just how we’ll implement this from a publishing and editorial standpoint – where it will live on the site, how it will be formatted, who gets to do it and a bunch of other practical questions. But in the not too distant future we’ll be open the doors to our new system and bringing our core readers back into the conversation.

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