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NPR's Web content management system governs a quarter-million files

NPR customized its Web content management system to administer more than a quarter-million digital files to work for its editorial and data needs.

Redesigning the National Public Radio website for a better user experience meant accounting not only for video, audio, text and images from the parent organization as well as content produced by 764 member stations across the country, it required an overhaul of NPR's entire content policy.

“It turned into a behemoth of a project because a lot of the issues were more than skin deep,” said Zach Brand, senior director of technology for NPR. “We were also focused on a strategy of how to be more efficient about how to use our content.”

Managers understood early on that to accomplish what it wanted, NPR needed to look at a wholesale implementation of a web content management (WCM) system.

For example, NPR needed to get a handle on its digital asset management (DAM) capabilities. When an image illustrating a video file also needed to be used with the text introduction to an audio file, that image would have to be resized to fit that different location, Brand said. The same was true when the image was to be viewed on a mobile device.

“There was lots of back and forth on what should be an easy process,” Brand said. “We were inefficient in those things that our journalistic staff was going through as well as what our design staff was going through.”

Additionally, too much “non-thoughtful human interaction” such as resizing images for different channels was necessary to properly manage the content and too much rewriting of text was taking place to prepare podcast introductions or to promote stories in other formats. NPR wanted to automate that effort.

As the scope of the project became clear, NPR decided it needed to find an expert in WCM to “integrate closely with our team, someone with a deep understanding of content management systems,” Brand said.

To make sure all its content -- to be used in blogs, podcasts, audio stories, live streams, program and interview transcripts, etc. -- would be flexible enough to be used in any way desired by producers and editors, NPR called in Siteworx Inc. The Reston, Va.-based company is a consultant in WCM and enterprise search. While it has no content management system to sell clients, Siteworx will work with clients and offer suggestions as to which content management systems (CMSs) will work for the client’s needs.

WCM can work with legacy CMS
Brand said NPR did a “very quick assessment” of its legacy CMS application and decided it would be more cost effective to enhance it than replace it. “We were unhappy with our existing CMS for editorial workflow, but it was pretty closely aligned with what we wanted for data needs, so we customized it,” he said. During that customization, Siteworx worked closely with the NPR team to rebuild and enhance the legacy system.

Siteworx helped NPR consolidate its Web content management tasks and improve its overall ability to do business effectively, said Siteworx President and Founder Tim McLaughlin.

Siteworx operates on the belief that there are enough good systems to be purchased off the shelf and will make recommendations depending on what a client is looking for. But in NPR’s case, McLaughlin said a combination of “their agile methodology and really talented people meant that they would concentrate on what was important and drop what wasn’t.”

More than a quarter-million stories
“As we rebuilt the website, we rebuilt it around this concept that the content needed to be more flexible,” Brand said.

NPR built an application programming interface (API) that provides structure to an archive of more than 250,000 stories grouped into more than 5,000 different aggregations. This provides structure to most NPR programs dating back to 1995, so other computer applications can use the audio, text, images and other unstructured Web-only content in predictable, flexible ways.

“Our API allows you to say, ‘give me every story from the last five days on Afghanistan’ and can output them in a variety of ways and formats,” Brand said.

Customizing NPR’s CMS took place concurrently with the development of the overall WCM system, and the entire process “worked pretty well, we hit our deadline. … It was a very fast project,” McLaughlin said. The deadline set by NPR worried McLaughlin at first. He wasn’t sure they’d be able to pull it off. The difference, however, was the NPR team’s understanding that it might not be able to get everything it wanted and its openness to exploring alternatives, he said.

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