NY Times VP Of Technology Brad Kagawa On Building A Custom CMS

On December 13, 2012, I attended Publishing Tech Meetup’s event: NYTimes Vice President of Technology Brad Kagawa on Building the Times’ Custom CMS at Contently HQ.

Erica Swallow for Meetup
Erica Swallow for Meetup

Brad Kagawa, Vice President of Technoogy is responsible for content management and publishing systems that produce both print and digital products. He has been at the Times for about six and a half years. Kagawa comes from a consulting background and specializes in content management. He was first responsible for web publishing, but now he is responsible for web and print publishing, as well as anything that has to do with content management.

A moderator asked Kagawa questions and encouraged the audience to ask questions as well.

The moderator began the conversation by asking, “How was the New York Times before your custom CMS? Were there any problems that you’ve tried to solve?” Kagawa answered, “New York Times online was basically a different company. It was run like a small startup. The web staff was very different than the print staff—it was run more like a technical staff. The Times website was built on a Fatwire content server. We couldn’t upgrade to new versions because we customized it too much, so we decided to build our own version.”

“What did you have to look at to capture the scope of the Times?” the moderator asked. Kagawa replied, “It doesn’t matter about the amount of content. It’s all the same challenge. Editorial staff touches the custom CMS daily and everyone has to learn it. User friendliness is the biggest problem…Six years is a long time on the web, but for print, six years, I’m still called a kid by people who’ve been here for over 20 years.”

“What about the CMS platform—can you tell us more about it?” the moderator asked. “The platform runs on Javascript,” Kagawa said. “It’s in Java because at the time, it was cutting edge. We tried to use the best technology with the best engineers, but now, you have noJS, which is ‘going to change the way we code,’ but code is code, we still code.”

An audience member asked Kagawa about the bill versus buy option. “Well,” Kagawa said. “We looked at a lot of content management platforms. There are a lot of options out there, but we wanted to run Java, which left out a lot of platforms. The most complicated decision was that we didn’t want to touch the front-end of the website. It was too huge of an undertaking to do. We wanted to publish the format exactly the way we published it.”

When Kagawa was asked if it was hard to get older people to skew on to the custom CMS and use the site, he shook his head. “The CMS is intended for the website. It didn’t have much of an issue with the print-central staff. It’s easy to get a buy-in on the concept, but in reality, they hated it because of the lack of familiarity with the product. I worked close with the editorial team and talked to the ones that were rolling into it and I heard them saying, ‘Our CMS’ and that was an epiphany. We had to work with the end users. We were never told to talk with end users before, but this was a different experience.”

The moderator asked if there were anything specific that the NYTimes had to build in the CMS. “One really challenging thing was not to redo the front-end of the site,” Kagawa said. “I mentioned before that we looked through vendors, but in the end, we decided that no vendor is going to be as agile as we’re going to be and build it the way we wanted it to. Our original thought was to make it a product consulting firm. You get to realize why vendor platforms stink. It’s because it’s made for everyone. It was either make it super generic or customize it, and that’s what we did.”

2012-12-13publishing tech

The problem of plagiarism was brought up and fact checking. “Are there custom editorial check ops or custom workflows or is it just content creation?” Kagawa answered, “After the Jason Blain incident, that changed the editorial process. That wasn’t a tech problem, it was an editorial problem. We’re a news organization. If you build a system, the content has to be checked by a copy editor before it gets published. We decided that the platform needed to have a lot of options for breaking news stories, when it has to bypass a lot of steps for publication…but the editorial staff is what handles a lot of this anyway.”

An audience member asked Kagawa about the evolution of the tech department at the New York Times. “At the beginning,” Kagawa said,” the software department, the content management department, was about 30 to 40 people. My team was 10 people. Now my staff is about 50 to 60 people. The entire department is about 250 or 300 people. My organization is in charge of web and print production and our big mission now is to take the print edition and bring it to the web.”

“What about the future, what’s exciting about it?” an audience member asked. “Everyone wants to be in the mobile space,” Kagawa said. “The most exciting thing, in terms of back-end—I don’t think there’s anything particularly exciting about it.”

The moderator asked if print will be discontinued any time soon. “That’s a reality,” Kagawa said. “The debate is when. Five years? Ten years? The thing is, the print production is highly profitable. The print side of the organization gives us, the digital side, the money to run. It’s not as simple as you think it would be!”

“Also, in terms of SEO (search engine optimization), we’re competing with ourselves. We publish tens of articles per day on the same subject. In regards to paywall, it will be around for quite some time. It’s been actually pretty successful. The way it works is if you have a Sunday subscription, you are automatically subscribed to the digital newspaper. It’s the first time any print revenue has gone up.”

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