Why news publishers shouldn’t give up on Wordpress

Ben May explains why Wordpress continues to outperform other shiny new publishing platforms.

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The CMS space for publishing is crowded these days. For large publishers you have all sorts of publisher-focused platforms like The Washington Post’s Arc and Vox Media’s Chorus. For individual authors, there are extremely simply platforms like Substack and Medium that you can start publishing to in a matter of minutes.

A decade ago, the landscape looked completely different. If you didn’t build your own custom CMS, you were probably publishing to Wordpress. Lots of publishers have abandoned Wordpress in the last few years in favor of newer, shinier platforms, but Ben May thinks they should stick with the open source software.

Ben is the managing director for The Code Company, a consultancy that provides Wordpress solutions for large digital publishers. In our interview, we discussed Substack’s shortcomings, the reason so many new CMSes are on the market, and why he thinks Wordpress still outperforms so many other market players.

So how did you first get interested in Wordpress development?

I came into WordPress development probably a decade ago. When I was in high school (2005) I grew up with a lot of these tools. I tinkered with lots of them. Later on in life I was working in general web design but built my own CMS as so many people do (foolishly). It was around that time WordPress had really started to mature and become a full CMS rather than just a blogging platform. It was then I realised it was going to be a good platform.

Around what year was that?

I think it was WordPress 3.0 - a major release. Which was June 2010.

Before then, if a client wanted a CMS, you would build it for them from scratch?

I only finished high school in 2006. But yes, from 2007-2010 I had built my own PHP/MySQL CMS, I'd also worked with Joomla and a few other tools. But they were all fairly clunky and hard to train normal business users.

You eventually shifted to working almost exclusively on Wordpress, right? Why did you decide to limit yourself to a single platform?

Correct. As a business/agency owner, I'm a big believer in specialisation. I think it's the future. The concept is the opposite of the traditional "ad agency" model where they can do everything for everyone, but fairly poorly. 

I saw a gap in the market around 2010 that WordPress was becoming really popular, but there weren't a lot of professionals / agencies / whatever that could make it scale, or use their technical backgrounds to get the most from it. 

So I really got my first few clients by solving scaling issues where their previous developers couldn't keep the site up when they got heaps of traffic. 

And even though a lot of websites across different categories use Wordpress, you mainly focus on publishers, right?

We do now. Back then I was doing local business sites, marketing sites. As most business owners know, in the early days you do anything that pays the bills.

Over the years we continued to be more and more specialised. 

Right now-  we work with niche / speciality digital publishers, who are normally growing, in the mid-market space ($5-$100m revenue pa) -- and powered by WordPress

What interests you about publishers specifically?

I think the original attraction was the technical challenge. 

One of my first clients was the largest sports commentary site in Australia. We have a national horse race each year, and they would get enormous amounts of traffic. 

I remember 5-10 years ago working so hard to get that site to scale with minimal budget, but sustaining 75,000+ concurrent users on site. 

While that's still the case, what excites me and motivates me now is the strategy side of publishing. It's why I'm launching a new business next month that is geared just for publishing consultancy. 

It's working with these smaller publishers that are often desperate for our kind of assistance as it makes their mission of publishing so much easier.

Ultimately, I love problem solving and critical thinking. The intersection of technology + publishing is full of challenges!

So there are lots of new shiny publishing platforms. On one end you have the ones built for individual writers like me. This includes Substack and Medium. Then on the other end you have platforms that are specifically focused toward news publishers, so platforms like Arc and Chorus. Let's start with the ones focused on individuals or small groups. Let's say I come to you and say, "Ben, I'm thinking of launching on Substack. Do you think that's a good idea?" What's your response?

There are a LOT of variables. And I have nothing against these platforms. What I don't love about a lot of these platforms, is that you're putting a lot of faith that these platforms aren't going to change or restrict your growth in the future. Especially when things are free and backed by big amounts of VC money. Chickens will come home to roost.

If you're well known to your audience and they'll pay you - Substack may be a great solution for quite a while.

I personally wouldn't do it, because I want my audience to interact with me on a platform that I own. That could be as simple as the domain name they visit. 

I have a newsletter I send on publishing / tech insights, and we use Revue right now because it was simple and easy to set up - but the thing I like about it, it lets me white-label to my domain name. So I have the flexibility to move platforms and my audience is none the wiser. 

Ultimately, these all-in-one platforms have the potential to slow down growth / opportunity cost, and the longer you leave it and grow on that platform, the harder and more expensive and risky, it is to move.

So I actually have a Wordpress site and domain. The reason I stopped writing for it is because I grew too intimidated. I was afraid of it breaking or a plugin would become outdated and I'd have to shell out $150+ an hour to a Wordpress developer to bring me online. Whereas I knew platforms like Substack and Medium were employing best of class developers to keep their platform running smoothly with modern design. As a creator, I just wanted to focus on my content, even if it meant sacrificing some control. Do you think that's the appeal of these platforms?

Absolutely, and I totally get it. Technology needs to get out of the way for end users.

To be honest, this is also a big issue for open source tools like WordPress. WordPress is a bunch of PHP Scripts and Databases that, if not managed properly, can be a total nightmare, and that's often where it gets a bad rap from.

The same can be said for  B2B marketing sites; Squarespace and Wix are just SaaS, same as Substack.

Wordpress.com and other companies are trying to solve this -- but to the earlier point, if someone asked my advice, I would really want to dig into the commercialisation options. 

If you just want to write a newsletter and get paid, a SaaS platform is probably a good fit. If you're wanting to build a business and eventually hire, commercialise, segment, build custom journeys etc, a SaaS platform is the more risky approach. 

A SaaS platform is like taking an Uber; I don't need to worry about anything, just pay for the privilege. 

Buying a GM car is going to introduce some operating costs, and if I don't service it, the car is going to operate poorly. 

Buying a  BMW will require a mechanic even more specialised, and likely higher operating costs, because you're driving something even more advanced.

What about the data aspect? Medium and Substack have meager analytics compared to if you run your own domain. What are the ways that publishers are missing out on data opportunities by going with the SaaS products?

Absolutely. You are basically going to be given the data they record or make available to you. I think this is super vital when it comes to email and the world of segmentation, personalisation, so forth. 

Running your own site will give you the ability to run full Google Analytics, of tools like Chartbeat or Hotjar to understand users. 

It is something that should sit on peoples' due diligence list when thinking about this stuff.

The missed opportunity when it comes to web traffic is again the ability to sell more bespoke campaigns. Most publishers are seeing significantly better revenue on more native/bespoke advertising offerings. Clients will typically only sign if there is a clear ROI.

Let's turn our attention to the higher-end publishing platforms. Why do you think we're seeing an explosion of these new publisher-focused CMSes? Are they just reinventing the wheel, or are they introducing something new to the market?

There are a few parts to this one. I think because digital publishing is so fundamental to our humanity that it's a pretty solid business model for platforms and vendors to target. 

There are a few justifications I see. For one, people want something turnkey with no maintenance required.

Other people, I think, probably somewhat misguided, want to reinvest in a largely solved problem. 

Publishing content to the internet is actually pretty easy. Someone logs in to an admin area, writes something to the database, and you show that on the public facing side.

It's really easy to get distracted by bells and whistles. 

Some are trying to "do it better" which will always happen, but it's a huge uphill battle. 

Lots of people think that Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are the big three and here to stay. It would take a major event to knock Facebook from #1. So while there are competitors, they're lightyears away from getting into the top 10.

I think the smartest people are using existing building blocks and bringing it together or optimising building something more valuable in the middle.

So many countless hours wasted on reinventing the wheel.

You mentioned you're launching a new product soon. What is it?

The new business is Publisha.

I love working with small and growing publishers. A lot of the expertise we have from working with so many publishers can be so beneficial to smaller ones, who may just need a point in the right direction.

If you engage The Code Company to work on a project, you'll get all that expertise - but there are so many smaller publishers who are doing it all themselves, can't hire a developer or product person, or not a specialist anyway.

The model is a flat fee subscription, and part of that will include a catch up once a month via Zoom or something, but it will also include almost unlimited email access for advice or general Q+A. 

Things like "Should I be looking at AMP" or "What money am I leaving on the table with my newsletter" and things like that.

The value proposition is beyond tech/product, I also have someone coming onboard to offer services around the business aspect. He recently just sold his publishing + events company, and has launched a new publication. 

He wants to help smaller publishers with the business aspect having over a decade running his and other publishing businesses.

Ultimately it's a lower barrier to entry / more affordable and a way we can help more businesses without having to do a six-figure website project, which is not in everyone's budget.

So instead of doing any hands on tech work, it's purely about giving advice and guidance?

Correct. We will continue to do development and ongoing work with clients, but this is a different channel to help people. I don't see much/any of it on the market. Someone to have a part time CTO/CSO to point them in the right direction.

That is why it's a different brand, to keep the value propositions separate. 

Is the idea that most smaller publishers, once they've set up their Wordpress site, can mostly let it run on autopilot, and they just need someone to offer a little guidance for minor things like, say, some third party tool integration or something?

I think so. Even though our business is building bespoke or cleverly engineered things, if there's a simple or free way to do it without paying us to build it, that's the smarter choice.

And Publisha's goal is to help more emerging / startup publishers get the right advice in their growth, and maybe when they get bigger they'll be able to justify The Code Company as a development partner, or not. 

The reason I started with CMS' in the beginning is that I don't want to charge people to update a paragraph of font. 

I want people to have the power to own their product more and do as much as it makes sense. 

Sure, when you need a major redesign, or custom integration done or something. But there are platforms and plugins that are very mature in the ecosystem that let a business be pretty self sufficient and get on with the job of publishing content.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.