I was just reading an interesting couple of posts by Daniel Jacobson on the content storage strategy they’ve adopted for the U.S National Public Radio (via Justin Cormack). The basic idea is to ensure hardcore content portability by very cleanly splitting out presentational markup even from inside styled text. So you store plain text in all cases, with the markup stored separately using character offsets in much the same way that (I think) a word processor does. I’ve mucked about with this approach myself in the past, for implementing undo stacks in a web-based WYSIWYG editor back in the days before contenteditable worked properly (well, it still doesn’t work properly, but at least there are libraries to gloss over some of the pain).
It looks like an impressive piece of work, in an academic kind of way. But this approach would be overkill for the great majority of scenarios, and I’d be surprised if that didn’t include NPR itself. Daniel doesn’t talk much about the downsides around the complexity it adds to their implementation. It’s likely to be error prone and difficult to debug. Html markup is after all rather more human readable than a set of document offsets. Be interested to know how well it copes with bidirectional scripts. Plus, it doesn’t even ensure full content portability: there are still all sorts of reasons why you might need to munge your content before delivery. What if you’re delivering headlines to a platform that only accepts 140 characters? What if the delivery platform doesn’t handle unicode? (you’d hope there aren’t any such platforms left, but I wouldn’t put it past the mobile guys)
But actually, that’s not what I started this post meaning to talk about. COPE stands for “Create Once, Publish Everywhere”. It sounds nice in theory, and five years ago I would have been cheerleading: but that horse has now bolted. It’s a “publication” philosophy. We inherited that one-to-many model from print and broadcast, and it’s taken us a while to move on. But the stakeholders in your business – staff, customers, partners, prospects – are already distributing information and communicating about your business through other channels. They’re putting photos on Flickr, they’re posting to WordPress, they’re messaging on Twitter, they’re commenting all over the place. They couldn’t wait for your IT dept to sort out a usable file sharing solution, so they’re using Dropbox. Next summer they’ll be doing something else that hasn’t been invented yet. Some of that content isn’t that interesting; some of it is very valuable, because it’s more authentic, because people are risking some jot of their reputation by saying it.
Daniel goes so far as to say:
COPE is the key difference between content management systems and web publishing tools, although these terms are often used interchangeably in our industry
I couldn’t disagree more. To me, this is the big challenge CMS is facing over the next couple of years; what do we do about all that “outer content”? We can just ignore it, and ensure that we’re pushing out sanitised, presentation-agnostic official content. There may be organisations for which this is the right approach, say if you’re publishing legal advice. But for most of us, it would be to miss out on where the interesting action is.