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Google, WordPress develop a CMS for news

Google is funding a WordPress-based content management system aimed at helping small news publishers juggle the demands of publishing news both in print and online.

Newspapers have had a bruising 30 years. According to the Pew Research Center, U.S. newspapers had 62.5 million daily readers in 1989 -- largely in print -- but only 31 million in both print and digital subscribers in 2017. If you're keeping score, that's a 50% drop in readership.

Against this backdrop, newspaper publishers need to balance producing news in both digital and print, managing advertising and maintaining systems for subscribers and site visitors. This is a complex technical landscape, and news organizations have invested heavily. Even when a news organization is digital only, the cost of building the initial web presence can be substantial -- ranging from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Enter Newspack, a new WordPress-based CMS for news that helps small news organizations launch highly functional sites and enable them to publish and monetize content. This new project is led by the Google News Initiative and is also backed by Automattic, the company behind WordPress; the community-owned newspaper network Civil Media; the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Collectively, the group invested $2.4 million in Newspack.

Twelve news publishers will participate in a free development phase, after which publishers can expect to pay between $1,000 and $2,000 per month, according to a blog post announcing the new initiative. Applications for the development phase are currently being reviewed. The list of participating publishers will be announced shortly and they will begin using Newspack in the coming weeks.

Whether they are new or existing customers, they all tell us the same thing. They need to simplify the technology and do more with less. The newsrooms have been downsized, so they need things that are easier to use and easier to maintain.
Pete Marshvice president of marketing, Newscycle Solutions

To help choose the initial publishers for the development phase, Newspack has turned to local news publisher Spirited Media as well as News Revenue Hub, a nonprofit that helps news publishers earn money through reader contributions. According to Google's announcement, the platform will be available globally to publishers later in 2019.

Chris Krewson, vice president of strategy at Spirited Media, said they are involved with Newspack, in part, because they have experience launching a rich, mobile news site.

"We raised $500,000 at the start and spent about half that to customize WordPress," Krewson said.

He wanted to automate as many processes as possible within WordPress, so they did not have to hire an editor specifically for the homepage.

For Krewson, Newspack will make content production and publishing less of a trial-and-error process and give small, local news organizations a chance in the market.

The launch of Newspack is potentially a boon for the industry, said Ned May, vice president of analytical operations at Outsell Inc.

"I like the move. We're in the final stages of realigning the news industry. Fortunately, it's one that has managed to re-emerge with new models of profitability -- albeit smaller than in the past."

That said, the involvement of Google does bring some risk.

"My only concern is the seriousness of Google in this endeavor," May said. "One could imagine they create dependency on the platform only to one day abandon the initiative or, worse, slowly stop investing and nurturing its growth."

This new initiative is promising, but there is still a big industry out there with many newspapers to serve -- from the largest daily newspapers to the small weekly print and digital-only papers. Many still run on older, legacy CMS for news systems.

Older news publishers face the same problems as newer ones, said Pete Marsh, vice president of marketing for Newscycle Solutions -- a private-equity-backed company that provides software for news and media companies. Where Newspack is serving new and emerging news organizations, Newscycle works with many of the largest U.S. news companies, including The Wall Street Journal, Newsday and The Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Shrinking budgets over the past two decades left traditional news organizations without the means to invest in new CMS for news systems. As a result, many live with outdated technology that is not always suitable for both print and online production.

"Whether they are new or existing customers, they all tell us the same thing. They need to simplify the technology and do more with less. The newsrooms have been downsized, so they need things that are easier to use and easier to maintain," Marsh said. "The elephant in the newsroom is that the ownership of the subscriber falls on the newsroom staff. The newsroom has to be cognizant of creating content that keeps current subscribers and boosts revenues."

To help meet these needs, Newscycle has expanded its offerings by acquiring companies that provide content management, advertising and analytics software. In the past year, it has made five acquisitions, including InfoMaker, which provides a WordPress-based content management system; and Marketing G2, which handles subscription management and analytics that help manage reader engagement.

And audience insights are critical. Editors need to be able to measure which articles are being read and how much time readers are spending on the site. The biggest content draw? Local news and events.

"The American Press Institute just looked into this with a survey of 3,500 people. Among the biggest findings: People want information about local events and they want to support local news," Marsh said.

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