Pressing ahead

As the world of print publishing faces its most disruptive period yet, one South African startup hopes to redefine digital workflows and save some papers along the way.

Johannesburg, 24 Jan 2012
Read time 6min 20sec

Newspapers are in peril. They are separated into two categories: those that realise this and are adapting to the disruption of digital and market declines, and those that are in denial and haven't hit the storm yet. The more astute members of the first camp are finding ways to adapt, and technology is beginning to supplement their strategies with tools for this new era of publishing.

The storm was first felt in 2009 in America amid the recession and a trend that probably would have gripped the world of print regardless of market turns. In that year, the Newspaper Association of America put out research revealing that ad sales had shrunk by 28.3% - or $2.6 billion - in the first quarter of that year. Many publications, especially smaller community papers, closed shop in the US later that year.

South African newspapers were buffered by local market conditions, but were far from spared. If anything, their perils were delayed. But they do have the advantage of being able to learn from their American friends.

The move to integrate digital publishing with conventional newsroom environments is a must, but not easy. One of the first challenges faced is a lack of affordable technology answers to the question.

Jason Norwood-Young, a former head of technology at the Mail & Guardian Online, knows this challenge first-hand, having been in charge of making the transition at the M&G. After spending considerable time trying to locate a workable system that met the publication's online needs, Norwood-Young realised there was a gap for a product that could be flexible, scalable and customisable.

Norwood-Young, together with business partner Guy Taylor, founded 10Layer, a technology startup that aims to provide a high-end publishing framework and content management system for editorial sites.

Above and beyond

According to Norwood-Young, local publishers are currently limited to three equally unappealing options. They can opt for licensed proprietary systems that are expensive and are often not fully customisable; go for free systems that are too broad and frequently need significant reworking to provide any value; or develop their own systems, an option that surprisingly many of them chose in the past.

Says Norwood-Young: “At M&G, we inevitably ended up with the third option, developing it ourselves. Of course, it means most publishers now have large development teams, which they shouldn't have because it's not their core business.”

Armed with an intimate knowledge of how newsrooms work having worked as a journalist himself, he is designing the 10Layer system to be both user-friendly and highly customisable. Knowing that publishers in the editorial environment would want to differentiate their platforms, he decided to build a framework instead of a fully developed system. The resulting model, says Norwood-Young, consists of 90% of what all content management systems are based on, the last 10% being customisation by the publisher. The 10Layer framework thus handles versioning, workflow and allows different gatekeepers in a newsroom to perform different tasks at the same time.

“It's very important that the system fits into the newsroom workflows,” comments Norwood-Young. “Technology should never dictate the workflow - it should always complement it.”

As a result, the framework provides a newsroom-orientated workflow, with the ability to send content to different devices and applications such as Facebook and Twitter. Given the need for accuracy and editorial oversight in the newsroom, it also records all changes made to the copy and other content to maintain control over the publishing process. With the growing demand for, and popularity of, social media applications, the 10Layer team placed significant emphasis on the framework's ability to seamlessly incorporate and distribute content to various applications.

Says Taylor: “Social media is definitely a priority for clients, and online teams tend to be small and understaffed. Our framework can 'fork' content out to different distribution channels [such as Facebook, Twitter and microsites] very easily, which reduces the pressure on news teams. This has proven to be a strategic feature for us, and content syndicators are very interested in it.”

The 10Layer software will be offered via three business models. The first involves a publisher buying the product as a traditional software-licensing model. The second option is software as a service, where publishers can subscribe to use the content management system and publication framework. Lastly, a publisher can outsource its technology requirements to 10Layer, freeing it up to focus on the generation of content.

Traction with old and new

Norwood-Young says the software will be made available under an open source licence and will be free for non-commercial use and evaluation purposes. That said, anyone generating money from the system is expected to pay.

“Open source allows people to reach a solution that works for them more quickly,” says Norwood-Young.

“We didn't want to be too restrictive, so the code will be freely available.”

Despite being a relative newcomer to the publishing world, 10Layer is already working with some of the country's leading online news sites. It has been constructing the publishing framework for popular current affairs Web site The Daily Maverick (DM) and has had a hand in developing the technology that powers iMaverick - SA's first daily iPad newspaper.

Technology should never dictate the workflow - it should always complement it.

Jason Norwood-Young, 10Layer

Phillip de Wet, deputy editor at DM, explains why the group decided to go with 10Layer.

“We are publishers, but we don't want to get involved in the technology - it's not our core business. For DM, 10Layer has essentially become the online version of the outside, externally owned printing press (to borrow an analogy from newspapers). So we can remain a step away from the nitty gritty of publishing, with a very cost-effective solution.

“The 10Layer framework has given us great freedom and flexibility,” he adds. “We wouldn't have been able to experiment if we were using something off the shelf. As a result, we've ended up with something that is perfectly suited for our online needs.”

More recently, 10Layer also landed a deal with the Mail & Guardian to power the weekly newspaper's Web site.

Having made such quick inroads into the small but rapidly growing local publishing scene, 10Layer has big international ambitions. The rest of the African continent is “looking like a good first step”, says Taylor, and the team has done extensive research around the product to ensure it can work in Africa.

Given the many challenges around connectivity, for example, 10Layer decoupled the content management system (CMS) from the server, ensuring that clients can access the CMS all the time.

“When it comes to Africa, we are always keeping bandwidth restrictions in mind. We constantly ask, 'How is this going to roll out somewhere with no connectivity?'” Taylor comments.

Given 10Layer's experience and insight into the African market, the company is ideally positioned to serve African publishers and outperform its international rivals.

As more papers rethink workflow amid publishing to social media and new hardware platforms, the opportunities for 10Layer look good.

First published in the November 2011 issue of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine.

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