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Battle of the CMS stars: Usage statistics on the technologies that power media websites

This first Tools We Use report focuses on the Web publishing platforms of newspapers. That's right, I said "papers," that innovative technology that disrupted the thriving wandering minstrel industry. Centuries later, newspapers are still the main way people get local news.

I checked 1,506 U.S. newspaper sites (1,303 dailies and 203 alternative weeklies) to find out what content management system (CMS) each used, employing several tech-detection services to pull in this usage data. A huge thanks to BuiltWith for donating an account to the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute.

A CMS is the publishing platform where you enter, edit and store data — such as articles. The top three CMSs worldwide are WordPress, Joomla! and Drupal (source: W3Techs, August 2015):

CMS worldwide usage: Blue bar is percentage of all sites, red is of those using a CMS

Not all CMSs are detectable (see methodology below). Of the 1,506 newspapers checked, the tech-detectors returned good CMS data on 698 sites. Most of these use either one of the above open-source solutions or the proprietary BLOX CMS. Here's the breakdown of the top seven newspaper CMSs:

CMS usage stats for U.S. newspaper sites

Alt-weeklies favor WordPress but more than half the dailies prefer the BLOX CMS (which runs on less than 0.1 percent of all sites worldwide but on 59 percent of U.S. daily newspaper sites). BLOX is made for newspapers and owned by a newspaper company, Lee Enterprise's TownNews.com. It's filled with news-specific features such as classifieds, an editorial section and a pay model option. BLOX CMS is plug-and-play, but you have to pay.

The WordPress and Drupal CMSs are free, though you may need developers to code your newspaper features.

One workflow issue all papers must solve is getting content from the CMS to the printing press. Many manually copy and paste text and images into Adobe InDesign — the software most newspapers use to layout print editions. If you buy TownNews' premium BLOX Total product, your articles automatically move into InDesign. Drupal papers can use Adobe's DPS Bridge. And a few WordPress papers, including the Bangor Daily News and Davis Enterprise, are pioneering a suite of plugins that, among other features, exports files from the CMS, ready for InDesign import (in Adobe Tagged Text format).

If you're tempted to try out a new CMS or plugin, it's easy to set up a test environment and import a sampling of articles. However, switching CMSs — migrating all of your content and categories, training your staff — can take anywhere from two weeks to two years.

Circulation by CMS

WordPress newspapers have a slightly higher average circulation; BLOX papers average a bit lower:

Circulation and website rank by CMS
 Circulation:Website:
 AverageHighLowRank
WordPress48,8501,347,2141,531311,660
Drupal43,600514,3682,610199,655
BLOX CMS40,377639,3932,806*
The median circulation was close to 19,000 for all three CMSs. Most circulation figures come from Editor & Publisher. Rank is the average of Alexa and Quantcast numbers. * Most BLOX sites were not ranked (many were too small).

 

The five largest BLOX CMS papers by circulation are:

  1. St. Louis Post-Dispatch (639,393)
  2. Omaha World-Herald (375,767)
  3. Richmond Times-Dispatch (352,529)
  4. Tulsa World (246,353)
  5. The Roanoke Times (203,994)

Drupal's largest papers by circulation are:

  1. Las Vegas Review-Journal (514,368)
  2. The Virginian-Pilot (392,357)
  3. The Florida Times-Union (317,347)
  4. Boston Herald (288,591)
  5. The Augusta Chronicle (148,078)

The WordPress top five papers by circulation are:

  1. New York Post (1,347,214)
  2. The Seattle Times (854,077)
  3. Chicago Sun-Times (682,204)
  4. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (508,250)
  5. Albuquerque Journal (268,089)

(Notes: Several newspapers run the online version of their print editions on one CMS, but post online-only blogs on WordPress, including The New York Times, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. Those mostly online-only sections are not included in this report's statistics on print newspaper sites. Also, this article is part of the RJI Storytelling Tools project to create WordPress plugins for journalists, so I'm a bit WP-biased.)

Popular plugins

Plugins add functions and features to WordPress. Popular plugins for WordPress newspaper sites include Yoast SEO (installed on 76 percent of the WordPress sites) and Jetpack (on 38 percent). For caching plugins, W3 Total Cache wins over WP Super Cache, 60 percent to 23 percent, with Quick Cache at 5 percent.

Of the sites (131) for which I could determine their WordPress version, 22 percent run 4.2.4 (the latest, as os August 2015), 27 percent are on 4.23 and 24 percent are on 4.2.2. A total of 89 percent use 4-plus versions. The other 11 percent are stuck on 3-plus versions, with the oldest being 3.0.4. (Should I warn them of the security hell awaiting the un-updated?)

Of the Drupal sites with a discernible version number (71), 24 percent have the latest (August 2015), 7.38, with 8 percent on 7.36. Total 7-plus figures were 66 percent and 6-plus was 34 percent (spanning 6.16–6.35).

In part two of Tools We Use, we'll look at Web server and widget usage statistics for newspapers. But here's one CMS-related server statistic: Notice how more WordPress papers run Nginx — the newer kid on the server block — while Drupal-powered newspapers go with Apache:

Server share by CMS: WordPress and Drupal

If there are other ways you would like me to examine the data, write it the comments below and I'll try to get you those figures.

Methodologies

Many caveats accompany the above data. Detecting a CMS is an inexact process: You parse the HTML searching for tell-tale CMS signs in the source code (like 'wp-content' for WordPress or 'drupal.js' for Drupal). Services can do this for you. I used BuiltWith and W3Techs. When both returned the same CMS (or none), I added that site's data to this report. Otherwise, I tried Wappalyzer as a tie-breaker and often confirmed by checking the site's HTML manually. In short, this data is generally more informative than exact.

The services can detect nearly 300 different CMSs, including all the more common ones. But many newspaper use uncommon, news-specific CMSs.

None of the three services I used detected a CMS for more than 800 sites (of 1,506 checked). Some of these use NewsGate. Other proprietary CMSs that may run other U.S. newspaper sites are Escenic, Cxense and NewsCycle. (Thanks to RJI's Brian Steffens for researching these newspaper CMSs.)

BuiltWith was the source the widget data and of the site rankings, which I averaged from each site's Alexa and Quantcast figures.

Dorothy Carner, head of libraries at the Missouri School of Journalism, helped me compile the list of U.S. newspaper sites and circulation figures, mostly from the Editor & Publisher's Data Book, with about 200 more added from the databases of Cision and the Alliance for Audited Media, Wikipedia's list of newspapers and alternative weeklies, and the members directories of the Association for Alternative Newsmedia and the Alternative Weekly Network.

This report includes data only from U.S. print newspapers with active websites, and only dailies and alternative weeklies. This study does not include community weeklies, which are mostly smaller operations with much lower circulation.

Thanks to Esther Thorson of the RJI Research Center and Reuben Stern of the RJI Futures Lab for helping me focus this project. The top image is the Columbia Missourian printing plant that opened in 1920 with innovative tools of the time, including linotype machines, a new duplex press and a stereotyping room. (photo from the University Archives).

UPDATE: Feedback from a reader made me go back and manually inspect some of the sites that were previously listed as having no detectable CMS. The result was adding 82 sites running BLOX, increasing BLOX's share among the top seven CMSs for newspapers with a detectable CMS from 46 percent to 52 percent and for dailies from 53 percent to 59 percent.

Tools We Use series

  1. Publishing print newspapers online: CMSs
  2. Publishing print newspapers online: Servers
  3. Newspaper names

Need for Speed series

  1. Newspaper load times give 'slow news days' new meaning
  2. Newspaper data diving, metrics and methodologies
  3. A news diet for overweight newspaper sites

Barrett Golding  
 
Residential fellow



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