There is constant pressure on publishers to increase their output, both quantity and quality. As Phil Walker, MD of publishing software specialists PCS, tells James Evelegh, “in an always-on world, you’ve got to be always on”, yet most editorial teams are hamstrung by legacy editorial systems that were designed for a pre-digital world. With the right tools, says Phil, you can publish a lot more!
Phil Walker: “If there was one word in the publishing lexicon I would like to ban, it’s ‘repurposing’!”
The old saying, “bad workmen always blame their tools”, needs updating for the publishing world: hard-pressed journalists have every right to blame their unfit-for-purpose content management system (CMS). Maybe not quite as pithy, but apt nonetheless.
At the recent FIPP World Congress, I was struck by the fact that two of the speakers, Hearst’s Betsy Fast and Bloomberg Businessweek’s Megan Murphy, gave a lot of the credit for their recent improved multi-platform performance to getting their content management systems right. This meant that their teams now had the time and tools to publish more content, better.
PCS’s content management system, Knowledge Publish, was the reason for my recent trip to the Wolverhampton-based company. Managing Director Phil Walker says that the system, which already has a large customer base in the newspaper sector, is perfect for magazine publishers. With their first magazine customers due to come onstream soon, he wants to get the word out!
PCS is owned by the Claverley Group, publishers of a number of regional newspapers, including one of the UK’s biggest – the Wolverhampton Express & Star. About ten years ago, Claverley decided it needed a new editorial management platform. They got various suppliers to pitch, but concluded that none of the systems gave them everything they needed, so asked PCS to develop one from scratch.
The development of Knowledge Publish was a multi-million pound investment and involved many thousands of hours of programming. The two most important considerations in its development were, making it future-proof (by separating ‘content’ from ‘pages’, the system is truly platform-agnostic) and scalable. One of their biggest clients, Newsquest, has over 32 million pieces of live content.
Knowledge Publish has been in use for six years now, and its sister module, Knowledge Prospect – an advanced advertisement booking and sales management platform is due to go live early 2018.
For me, one of the things that particularly stood out from our talk, was when Phil said that it was not untypical for journalists to increase their output three-fold when they started using Knowledge Publish. For magazine publishers looking to similarly up their productivity, what advice could Phil give? He had seven tips:
“One person can do all three tasks from the same screen.”1. Reduce the links in the chain
Stripped back to basics, digital content production is a three-step process: create, enhance, distribute. A lot of publishers treat this as three separate tasks and have different teams or systems dealing with each. This acts, says Phil, as a big drag on productivity, artificially elongating the production process. Knowledge Publish has been set up to enable one person, assuming they have the right permissions, to do all three tasks from the same screen. The result is, not surprisingly, a lot more content getting published.
2. Stop repurposing!
“If there was one word in the publishing lexicon I would like to ban,” says Phil, “it’s ‘repurposing’!” Publishers should focus on ‘purposing’ their content using a single system, which has the capability of outputting to multiple destinations: print, website, apps, social platforms, syndication partners et al. The person you’ve got spending a day each month copying and pasting that issue’s content into your web CMS (a process that should take seconds), could instead be creating fresh new content.
3. Set your teams free
Can your editors, journalists and contributors access the full functionality of your CMS remotely or do you need them to trek into the office every time they need to make a change? If the latter, then you are imposing restrictive working practices, which slows output and frustrates talented staff, who will increasingly bridle at what they see as outdated methods. Knowledge Publish (and Knowledge Prospect for that matter) are browser-based systems that allow full access from anywhere in the world, be that home, on the train or in a hotel room. This allows your teams to work flexibly, when needed. Phil recalled the time when Express & Star Editor Keith Harrison made final edits to the following morning’s front page, late one night from his hotel room after an industry awards event. The result of taking off these geo-shackles is quicker publishing.
4. Stop reinventing the wheel
Is every page of your publication designed from scratch every issue? If the answer is ‘yes’, then the good news is that considerable efficiency savings are just around the corner. Some pages lend themselves to templating, still a dirty word in some quarters, and publishers can save many hundreds of man-hours by templating those pages that rarely change in appearance from one issue to the next. Templates do not stifle creativity, they free up time to enable greater creativity and productivity elsewhere. In Phil’s opinion, “drawing the same boxes on the same pages every month is not creativity, it’s madness!” Knowledge Publish facilitates templates, though does not require them; ultimately, it’s up to the publisher, but smart ones make use of the templating functionality.
5. Find stuff quicker!
Editorial staff spend a great deal of time searching for material they’ve already published. Often, because the material has not been indexed properly or sits on another system, the search is aborted and, if it’s a picture that’s being looked for, the picture is simply re-purchased. This wastes time and money and means the final piece of content will not be as good as it could have been. It’s also, to be frank, soul-destroying work for your staff. With talented staff increasingly hard to find and retain, it’s important to remove frustrating system inefficiencies.
“The thing is,” says Phil, “publishers often have all the material they need but it’s not easily retrievable. We’ve added a huge amount of functionality in this area; our ‘linguistic engine’ ensures that every bit of content is properly indexed, using clever search algorithms to make sure that the right content is pulled out, even allowing for the odd typo in the search criteria. We’re also developing auto-tagging of images to further improve retrievability. Our aim is simple – to make it very easy for editors to find the content they’re looking for, which they can then simply drag and drop into position.”
6. Know when to compete and when to collaborate
“What publishers are great at, is creating content and selling ads; everything else is cost and there is no reason why publishers should not collaborate in those areas.” Newspapers, perhaps through necessity, are further down this particular road than magazine publishers, but says Phil, with magazine circulations and ad revenues under increasing pressures, now is a good time to look at sensible ways of sharing costs to ensure long term profitability. Cutting costs in back-office processes frees up time and resource to compete where it really counts: creating more content and selling more ads.
Phil feels that the industry, perhaps initially under the auspices of the PPA, should explore the potential for collaboration. “In the newspaper sector, to give one example,” says Phil, “we’ve facilitated the sharing of ad production functions between two of our clients; a win-win.”
7. Take the Millennial Challenge
Inefficient workflows waste time and resources and impair publishing performance. Are you confident that yours are fit for purpose? If so, says Phil, then take the millennial challenge! Phil has 25 and 22 year-old ‘kids’ and he finds them a useful sounding board. This generation has grown up in the digital age, is familiar with social media and online ordering; they demand great UI, are highly intuitive in the digital ecosystem and quick to spot tangled thinking. If you can explain your workflows to them, without them asking ‘why?’ too many times, rolling their eyes, or you having to resort to phrases like, “we do it like this, because we’ve always done it that way”, or “because… we’re different”, then your workflow is highly efficient! It can be a real eye-opener…
“Ultimately,” says Phil, “a good CMS should be about removing duplication and artificial constraints, giving people the tools and freedom to produce fantastic work. It’s a facilitator.”
So, what should publishers do if they feel that their current CMS might be holding them back? “Call us for a chat is the short answer”, says the PCS MD, “and arrange a demo. Often, one of our system consultants will sit in to get some idea of your requirements and to make recommendations.”
How, I ask Phil, does the installation process pan out? Ours is a highly consultative approach, he says: “We see our customers as partners. The first step would be to sit down with you and come up with the right workflow together, taking into account both our system capabilities and your current way of working. The system then gets configured, pilots run and, when everyone is happy, we go live. It’s usually about a three-month process.”
According to Phil, one of the exciting aspects of ‘software-as-a-service’, which is how Knowledge Publish is sold, is that users benefit from the ongoing development of the system. PCS does not charge for upgrades and looks to make sure that all customers are on the latest version every year. PCS has ten full-time developers working exclusively on Knowledge Publish and Phil doesn’t see that changing anytime soon. System enhancements and new capabilities created for one customer are always rolled out, in time, to other customers which means everyone benefits from the continual evolution of the product.
In terms of future development, I ask Phil, what areas is PCS working on? He reels off a long list, that includes: making the UI completely HTML5 (due to roll out mid-2018), further development of syndication functionality, adding the ability to publish to newly emerging digital platforms (that’s a constant area of development), using AI to further enhance retrievability, and research into pooling first and third-party data to enable PCS clients to sell larger scale campaigns to their clients.
Phil’s background is in IT. He was the IT Director for Claverley’s publishing companies before taking over as MD of PCS, so his enthusiasm for tech runs deep. He passionately believes that PCS’s job is to provide publishers with the tools to allow them to focus on what they’re great at. Give PCS a call to learn more…
“Ultimately, a good CMS should be about removing duplication and artificial constraints, giving people the tools and freedom to produce fantastic work. It’s a facilitator.”