Six years ago, ThomasNet eliminated Microsoft Word from its editors’ desktops. The result? “It was one of the best things we ever did,” says ThomasNet director Paul Gerbino.

As a digital-only publisher, ThomasNet had more incentive than most to dump Word. “When you try to incorporate any kind of Word document, there’s a lot of coding that creates some challenges,” says Gerbino. “We needed to database all of the content and we started looking at the flow by which editors create stories.”

ThomasNet creates abstracts from product press releases, which involved editors importing the press release (which typically come in Word or PDF) into the system as straight text. Then the editors (many of whom are freelance) make sure the release displayed on an HTML page looks as close to an original topic as possible (including any original spelling mistakes). They then crop the most relevant images to fit and match the release to the ThomasNet taxonomy to provide headline links and keyword extractions. “When they started moving from tool to tool it slowed them down,” says Gerbino. “We thought about the final product and what steps we needed to get there.”

ThomasNet originally built the new system in ColdFusion but over the years has migrated to a hybrid approach with open source software. “If you asked me today, would I buy off the shelf or build, I’d do it somewhere in the middle,” says Gerbino. “At the time these were more document management systems than content management systems. We had to bite the bullet but the savings in terms of reducing the number of servers and maintaining servers made it a lot easier for us. ”

The system is constantly being upgraded. “To me it’s not a system they built, it’s a living, growing entity,” says Gerbino. “One of the editors said, ‘I have to toggle back and forth to constantly remind myself what story was about. Why don’t we create a preview of the story on that page?’ That was so simple but we looked past it for several years. Now we expose those keywords and phrases as tags to a story.”

Work-Arounds are Problems

Publishers pay a lot of lip service to their content management system but how many editors continue to write and style original content in Word, only to have it completely un-styled, manually uploaded and styled again in a different program serving online or print? The industry may be adopting more advanced workflow tools but changing habits is another battle entirely. Work-arounds have become routine and we no longer see inefficiencies as problems but “that’s-the-way-it-is.”

Government Computer News continues to prepare documents in Word because its current CMS (which it contracts with an outside provider and has customized) isn’t that friendly for outside contributors, according to editor-in-chief Wyatt Kash. “We prepare our documents in Word and they go through a traditional print process; copy desk, then streaming copy into Quark. For those stories published for print purposes, we essentially copy those files into batch files which go into a staging area on our CMS. It largely fills templates but each headline has to be fine-tuned.”

GCN still needs a Web-based template for outsiders to use. “If the industry continues to rely heavily on freelancers, Word or Word-type Web documents will be a key way content arrives at the doorstep,” says Kash. “We all agree we’d rather write and edit once and publish twice in multiple versions. The ideal system would be one where we could take stories and publish to the Web first but have multiple versions. We want to publish online first, print second, in which case we would move faster presumably if we had a good CMS service.”

Hanley Wood typically uses publishing system K4 to stage content, then flow it from InCopy through InDesign and then by way of XML to the Web. However, now the company is looking to make the workflow go the other way by publishing to the Web first, then pushing to print through a new CMS called Tridion. “One of the things we liked is its ability to publish back into InDesign,” says Alec Dann, general manager of Hanley Wood Magazines Online. “The notion would be the writer puts up the story where it makes the most sense, given the time-sensitive nature. I imagine print content will always come from the InCopy and InDesign flow, but if I’m going to publish to the Web quickly, I probably want to publish it right into CMS. If the editor wants to pull it back into the K4 world, they can also do that. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone cuts and pastes from Tridion into K4 but we’re still in the early stages.”

At Hearst, the majority of content is still created in Word for print, according to director of editorial operations Ellen Payne. “If it’s a layout like right-to-fit, it’s written in InCopy,” she says. “If it’s written in-house, odds are it’s InCopy. If it’s freelance, it should in Word.”

The complication for Hearst is the print side uses K4 while the online side has their own CMS they built themselves. “It would be logical if everyone was in same the CMS but K4 does not meet the needs of digital media,” says Payne. “We were already a K4 shop and what digital media does isn’t conducive to a print workflow. The Web editors have K4 plus the internal digital CMS. If some copy was written in-house for the Web, it may be routed through K4. It’s simplified but it’s an effective way of tracking stories before they get uploaded into the CMS.”

Hearst is not reconsidering K4 for a more digitally-focused CMS. “If anything, we’re looking at what else K4 can do,” says Payne. “We’re also not walking away from the CMS on the digital side, they co-exist just fine. Half of our print editors are contributing content to the Web.”

The Best of Both Worlds?

While still in the very early stages, systems are emerging that don’t service just print or digital content but attempt to bridge the gap between the two. Boardroom Inc., a publisher of consumer newsletters and books, recently adopted Nuqleo, an enterprise content publishing system based around the Adobe InDesign server.

According to Ken Sevey, manager of desktop publishing, Boardroom can still start the story in a Word container and send it back to an e-mail address, which the system processes and sends to a unique location. “There are ways to batch that—we can select 20 stories and drop them to an area but the manual way is ideal because we can start formation of the meta-data,” says Sevey. “What’s the working title, what’s the angle of the story, what is some key information we want to swim round in.”

From then, if the story is in good enough shape, the system will convert it from Word into XML and the staff can use the Web-based Nuqleo editor. “If you have a Web browser that allows you to set type, that’s pretty darn good,” says Sevey. “The interface is not ideal for editors because they keep thinking in terms of Word, especially from all those years working in Word and getting instant gratification when you bold something. It doesn’t work that way.”

Writing once in a format that is compatible for both print and digital will be key for publishers going forward. “Some of the development is a little behind but the [Nuqleo] interface itself is getting darn close to what we want,” says Sevey. “To search for things by name, by date, or by full text is powerful. Our goal is to have editors set the story and avoid the bottlenecking because in our current process the editor gets it, styles it in Word, only for it to be unstyled, given to a production person who styles it all over again and then puts it in InDesign.”


Emerging Workflow Solutions

Hybrid models serving both print and digital will continue to be the norm but the industry is getting closer to one model that serves all media.

Nuqleo: An AJAX-based Enterprise Content Publishing system developed on Java and XML. Information is stored internally in an XML format.

Apogee Media Suite: A modular publishing system that covers different phases of a publication’s production, from its definition to final publication and archival.

EZ Publish: An open source enterprise content management platform

ArborText: A content publishing system that automates the process and leverages XML authoring, technical illustration creation, content and process management and dynamic enterprise publishing.