ECMcurmudgeon – About enterprise IT content management

Musings about Enterprise Content Management, covering many technologies such as document and web content mgmt and search.

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Washington Post’s Digital Struggles

  • Publishing a national newspaper digitally is very difficult
  • Rushing to digital can cause more problems than it solves
  • Culture changes are likely critical for a successful digital transition

Washington Post Digital

I love the Washington Post.  I have for years been a print subscriber, and recently dropped print in favor of digital.  Now that I’ve moved to southern MD, it was just too difficult to manage stopping and starting the DC delivery.  And besides, I’m very comfortable with digital media and in fact prefer digital to print newspapers.  

I did the same with the Wall Street Journal when it offered the digital edition.  The WSJ never disappointed.  As complex as the publication is, its web and digital editions manage to serve up all the information I want, as well as making me aware of things I didn’t know I would like.

 Unfortunately, the Post has not done well at all so far. 

General Observations

 It appears that the Post selected one vendor to provide a “print” version digitally, and another to display certain features like crosswords and comics.  It is also obvious that this cobbled-together partnership of vendors doesn’t work well (or even reliably), while missing key capabilities that any digital WSJ user could show are critical.  Search is one such example.  Usability testing is another.  A knowledgeable and responsive HELP desk is yet another.  Here is a sampling of shortcomings.

Comics and Crosswords

Although I love the Post news and opinion sections (a reasonable balance of right and left, given that it is the “Washington” Post), I admit it: I love the crossword puzzles and the comics.  Both disappoint.

The crossword feature is absolutely great when it works.  You can choose from today’s or previous crossword puzzles; you can race against the clock, save your work to resume later, and can work as a regular or master.  When it works.  I’ve had several occasions when it simply didn’t work.  I contacted the Post’s HELP desk (and the vendor’s HELP desk).  The latter never acknowledged my request; the former didn’t seem to understand the issue and recommended doing weird things that –among other things—would delete all my “My Post” entries.  

 Comics have a Procrustean frame for each comic entry, but you cannot enlarge what you see.  That’s usually ok for the daily comics, but when you see multi-row or vertically-oriented comics in the Sunday edition, reading the comics is like looking at them through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars.

The Post Newspaper Itself

At first, the idea of a digital print edition (eReplica is the term the Post uses) is great, especially when you can click on an article and then get to a more easily readable and navigable version (regular digital version).  This generally works well.  However, it usually takes me a couple of days to read the large Sunday edition.  Come Monday, I downloaded the Monday edition and poof: the Sunday edition was gone.  Usually searching the regular digital edition lets you find articles that were printed a day or two ago. I could see no way to find the “Outlook” Sunday section.  You can guess what happened when I searched for “Outlook.” I got thousands of entries, none of which were what I wanted.

Once again I submitted a request to the Post HELP desk asking how I could view previous digital editions (as I can in the WSJ).  I got a typically friendly form email response with a ticket number.  That was two days ago, and I’ve received no response.  I expect I’ll get a response, but I’m not expecting it will answer the question.

Print versus Digital Culture

I applaud the Post’s venture into Digital, although it is clear the print mentality so permeates the culture that they haven’t figured out how to think digitally.  I’m sure that everyone at the Post has an Amazon account and notices just how easy it is to use.  That print mentality though is apparently so ingrained that they haven’t considered applying observations at Amazon (or the WSJ) to the Post Digital offering.


Perhaps Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Post will fix these problems in time before his patience in this new Washington Post venture runs out.  He understands well the need for digital expertise, usability, and continuous improvement.  He has his work cut out for him though, and I wish him (and the Post) well.  I’ll continue to subscribe in spite of the many problems with search etc., at least until my patience runs out.




My former years of ECM Posts

In case you missed it, I’ve been blogging on blogspot for a long time, but due to numerous issues with blogger, I’ve moved here to WordPress (and it is a much friendlier place).  Love Google and Gmail, but blogger seemed always to be in perpetual beta.   To see my older ECM posts, go here.

Can Open Source Software (Help) Save Us?

  • The Federal debt crisis is the most predictable slow motion train wreck in history.
  • Government Open Source Software champions are growing
  • Among other things, Open Source Software can cut costs and speed time to deploy
  • Developing Open Source skills can help everyone.

Profound Debt Problems

“Gentlemen, we are out of money.  Now we must think.” That quote, attributed to Winston Churchill, is displayed prominently on the National Defense Magazine website recently, and it went on to describe the “massive deficits in national budget projections. We see a Budget Control Act and a Super Committee in the Congress that make only the faintest stab at closing the gap. We see a national debt piling up an additional $15.3 trillion unfunded liability for entitlements between 2012 and 2021. This is 10 times the Super Committee’s debt-reduction target of $1.5 trillion.”

And of course debt problems aren’t unique to the Federal government, or even to state or local agencies… or even to the United States.  Debt problems are one root cause of the world’s economy’s malaise.

So what does that have to do with open source software?  For one thing, it could help reduce costs at all levels of government, and ties in nicely with Open Data and transparency.

We have to make some radical changes on many fronts, including the costs of software.  As Winston Churchill said, “Gentlemen, we have run out of money.  Now we have to think.”

Open Source Software for cost savings?

There are many reasons to consider OSS solutions, such as:

  • Lower costs
  • Simpler Licensing
  • Higher Quality (Transparency)
  • Freedom from lock-in; more application stack freedom.
  • Faster implementation
  • “Safety in Numbers”
  • Enhanced Security

The price of an open source program is usually far less than a comparable proprietary program, and can even be zero. In the case of Apache OpenOffice desktop office software, the price is zero.  So also is the price of WordPress software for web development and blogging.

Not surprisingly, enterprise-class OSS can also cost considerably less than proprietary applications, even after you include lifecycle costs (analysis to deployment) common to every software project.  OSS software requires no licensing fee, with ongoing maintenance and support costs (if you choose to have them) significantly lower than vendor options. In a sense, you can have your cake and eat it too… in the case of Alfresco, download the “Community” –free but unsupported version– and move up to the fully supported Enterprise version with its single subscription fee if you choose. Total cost of ownership for Alfresco can be one tenth the cost of a traditional ECM system, and one third the cost of SharePoint.  There are also no hidden fees or costs/seat.

The numbers of OSS users are increasing dramatically.  Drupal sites number in the millions.  Alfresco reported recently surpassing 2 million software downloads of its products.  The “million eyeballs effect,” passionate users trying out and looking under the source code hood, relentlessly improves OSS. Users often find flaws and suggest fixes in open discussions faster than for vendors do for their products. Meantime, the very survival of vendors providing support forces them to listen closely to users.  Remember: they make no money from licensing the OSS itself.

OSS solutions are not only open and transparent, they are often themselves based on open standards.  Thus OSS provides independence from the vagaries of vendor changes.  Those same standards can also make implementation faster because there are no secrets requiring expensive consulting, which can change from release to release. Implementing Alfresco ECM solutions, for example, can cost one tenth that of proprietary vendor alternatives and be delivered in a fraction of the time.

OSS Champions in Government

There is an increasing number of OSS champions, who are also pursuing open government and transparency initiatives.  Examples include:

  • Steven VanRoekel, Federal Chief Information Officer.  Hailing from Microsoft, in 2009 he became managing director of the FCC and oversaw the re-launch of that agency’s web site.  He used open-source based Drupal.
  • Todd Park, Federal Chief Technology Officer. He too is a champion of Open Source and Open Government.
  • George Thomas, Enterprise Architect at HHS.  Word is that he prefers to do as much as possible using OSS.

In Closing

On the professional side, it always helps to develop skills that increasingly larger crowds of other developers are using and that employers are seeking.  Developing open source skills, whether learning Java or working with OSS, is something you can do “after hours” with plenty of low cost (or free) documentation.

And if government agencies, at all levels, can reduce costs as much as OSS proponents claim, that could be one significant part of the savings we must achieve.

Now there are two sides to every debate, including the OSS debate.  I’d love to hear yours!



Hello world!

Welcome to my new WordPress blog. Go see the “About” to see why I’m here and what I left.

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