Decibel, the underground hard rock and extreme heavy metal magazine, had the same problems as many other content-heavy organizations: inefficient and disconnected processes, outdated tools, and the lack of a unified content strategy. But things are changing at Decibel. The magazine recently adopted a new approach to creating, managing, and delivering content to its customers. In this exclusive interview with TheContentWrangler.com, Decibel’s Robert Roberts-Jolly shares his experiences moving to content management and reveals several lessons he’s learned along the way.
TCW: Robert, tell us a little about yourself, your position, and what your role is at Decibel.
Decibel: I have been involved in Information Systems and technology management for the past eight years with a focus on enterprise web application development and integration projects. I am currently the CIO of Red Flag Media, the publisher of Decibel Magazine, and my primary role, as it relates to Decibel, is insuring that the magazine’s goals are supported and enhanced by innovative deployment of IT tools and services. This includes selection and oversight of the technology around content management, production/prepress, customer relationship management, e-commerce, and fulfillment/distribution channel IT support systems.
TCW: So, what is Decibel Magazine? Who founded it and why?
Decibel: Decibel is a monthly publication for the extreme music fan. Decibel was founded by Albert Mudrian, Editor-in-Chief and Alex Mulcahy, Publisher and launched in October 2004.
TCW: Who reads Decibel and what type of content do you provide?
Decibel: Our audience consists of music fans devoted to heavy and extreme genres. Decibel is committed to quality, cutting-edge coverage of every sub-genre under the expanding umbrella of extreme music, approaching heavy music with the same serious examination and evaluation other mainstream publications such as Spin and Rolling Stone provide for traditional rock.
TCW: Is Decibel available online only or is it also a print publication?
Decibel: Decibel is available in print as well as online. The magazine is sold across the United States and internationally on newsstands and is also available via subscription. We have provided the majority of our content online for free, and have a searchable archive of our magazines dating back to the first issue.
TCW: I understand Decibel is part of Red Flag Media. Tell us a little about Red Flag, its customers, and the services and content it provides.
Decibel: Red Flag Media is an independent magazine publisher based in Philadelphia, PA. Since 1993, RFM has produced a suite of customized in-store music magazines for independent music retailers. Along with the custom magazine publishing, content is syndicated to other music retailers for inclusion on the web and in other promotional and marketing materials. In 2004, RFM began to publish Decibel Magazine, a national newsstand publication focusing on extreme music. In addition, RFM provides digital prepress services for several other independent magazine publishers.
TCW: It’s easy to see why larger organizations, especially those that are heavily regulated, need content management. What were the drivers for Decibel and Red Flag Media moving to content management?
Decibel: We needed a logical system for cultivating content and then distributing that content to print, online and syndication channels efficiently. A mature content management strategy and system allows us to address and improve editorial workflow issues that exist now and prepares us to handle a variety of future unknown variables related to how we gather, store and distribute our content.
TCW: Many organizations with some IT talent try to solve content management challenges by creating home-grown systems or patching together disparate open source solutions in a desperate attempt to tackle the content challenge without outside assistance. Did your organization go down this path at first? And, what were the results?
Decibel: For our in-store retail publications, we did create a home-grown CMS for putting content on the web. We were able to use that system for a couple of years, but the limitations in flexibility and scalability quickly became very apparent. Much of our legacy CMS code has been phased out or replaced by other systems which are more capable with regard to features and expandability.
TCW: If you’re like most folks who go down the “we can solve it ourselves” road, you probably realized you were in a never-ending battle to manage an increasing amount of content without the right tools for the job. What was the last straw for you—the one that made you look outside the organization for a commercial content management solution?
Decibel: We wanted to utilize a CMS as the central point where content was input and stored, not just as an afterthought to put content on the web. We knew then that we either needed to rewrite our system from the ground up or find a system that could handle the majority of our needs right out of the box. We decided not to attempt to reinvent the wheel after seeing how flexible and robust some of the more evolved content management systems were.
TCW: Content management systems help organizations automate manual tasks and streamline the content creation, management, and delivery processes. Describe the content lifecycle at Decibel Magazine? What steps are involved from an article idea to publication?
Decibel: Like most small and even some larger publishers, our editorial process consisted of a disconnected combination of emails, phone calls and various different electronic files that held content in various stages or might contain a list of writers and editorial assignments. With our content management system, we’re able to approach the content lifecycle and editorial process in a more unified and efficient fashion. With a CMS workflow at the center of our activities, we’re more able to keep track of where content is in the workflow and also become more efficient and accurate by eliminating redundant data entry.
TCW: What did the content management system selection process involve?
Decibel: We spent some time at first to learn about the different content management systems available and then narrowed our selection down by looking closely at individual software features and cost. After talking with prospective vendors, we ran some limited tests with demo installations before making our selection.
TCW: How many systems did you look at and which ones did you consider?
Decibel: We felt we needed a system that would allow us to store and reuse content based on standards—namely XML. Being a small organization without the resources that a larger enterprise has to throw at an infrastructure project like this, we quickly narrowed our focus to a handful of offerings—about four or five seemed to have promise at the time. We considered Mambo, SnapBridge and even Vignette before selecting Ektron CMS.
TCW: What made you decide to select Ektron over the others? What business needs did Ektron solve that the others could not?
Decibel: Ektron had nearly all of the features we required without overwhelming those on our staff who are tasked with managing content. Ektron also offered an integrated document management system that could be turned live at any point and seamlessly become part of the editorial workflow. The level of integration we felt we could achieve, Ektron’s ease-of-use, availability of technical support, and how the product’s price fit within our project’s budget became determining factors.
TCW: Moving to content management can be quite a challenge. Cultural issue, governance, and change management can all impact the success of a content management project. What is the biggest challenge you are facing and how do you plan to overcome it?
Decibel: Change management with regard to editorial staff participation is the biggest challenge for us. Our writers are geographically dispersed, the editors are often working feverishly to make deadlines, so they feel they can’t commit to the same vision of a core, unified content management. The goal is to have our content managers reach this level of ‘awakening’ about how central and sacred this content is. If they fully embrace and utilize the centralized workflow tools, they will not only become more efficient but that content can be used in ways we haven’t yet conceived. The challenge is much more than what I often hear described as “herding cats”, because it requires change in fundamental perceptions of how a content-driven business operates.
TCW: What is the biggest mistake you made? What lessons learned can you share with our readers?
Decibel: We launched Decibel in October 2004, but waited until the summer of 2005 to feel the pain of not having a good content management system and strategy. One lesson learned is that if we had this system in place in the beginning, we would have been much more efficient in the first year. If more time was spent in the planning stages of the magazine to explore and address fundamental content lifecycle issues, much greater efficiency would have been achieved in terms of both editorial effort and our ability to distribute content across multiple channels simultaneously.
TCW: Thanks Robert. I really appreciate you sharing your story with our readers.
Interview by Scott Abel, TheContentWrangler.com.