Does a new content management system for digital sites deliver enough return on investment to justify the time and expense needed to convert?

That question is on the minds of leaders at many small news outlets, and Local Media Foundation decided to find out through a program to implement a new CMS for four legacy media organizations.

A new CMS will not cure all of a media outlet’s ills. It may not even improve site or business performance in every way anticipated, at least not immediately. But it will provide demonstrable enhancements to user experience, lay groundwork for meaningful digital transformation, and fuel later strategic decisions aimed at long-term sustainability.

Those conclusions emerged from a one-plus-year LMF project to upgrade four Black-owned local media outlets to a new web CMS — Newspack —  thanks to funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The final report from that project, written by Michael Grant, lead project consultant and CEO of Get Current Studio, with contributions from the LMF team, describes the CMS migration path and results for all four outlets.

Project background

When Local Media Association and Local Media Foundation launched the Digital Transformation Lab for Publishers of Color in 2019, it created opportunities for a small group of Black-owned local media outlets to devise new sets of goals and metrics for success.

The outlets selected to participate in the original lab were The Atlanta Voice, The Dallas Weekly, New York Amsterdam News, Houston Defender Network and The Washington Informer.

Two of the five outlets — Atlanta and New York — received $20,000 grants in mid-2020 from the Knight Foundation to start enhancements to their digital publishing systems. Those grants were part of a three-year, $2 million Knight Foundation initiative to implement sustainable publishing solutions at local media organizations that serve underrepresented communities.

Then, just over a year after the Digital Transformation Lab launched, the Knight Foundation granted $60,000 to LMF to lead a project that expanded on the work of those two outlets. In that project, the Voice and the Amsterdam News, along with other media outlets in the Lab, would upgrade their digital content management systems, and all Lab participants and the industry at large would share in the learnings from those upgrades.

The Houston Defender Network and The Washington Informer later signed on to upgrade their digital publishing systems, and by mid-2021, the Defender had also received a $20,000 grant from Knight in its second round of funding for sustainable publishing solutions.

Knight and LMF agreed to bring in Grant to lead the organizations through migrating to a chosen CMS — a project set against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. These teams confronted aging technology as a business challenge and executed, with Grant’s help, a much-needed website upgrade. The report describes the process and the outcomes, including:

  • Page load time improvements ranging from 82% to more than 3,000% on top-performing articles.
  • Improved ease-of-use for staff and faster paths to feature/function enhancements.
  • Better visibility into the tradeoffs between business-side needs — including third-party components that produce revenue — and overall site performance, enabling strategic decision-making about which opportunities are worth pursuing.