There’s a funny Far Side cartoon showing a group of people in a karate studio. Through the window, you can see a flying saucer has landed on the street outside and “aliens” made of bricks and boards are walking down the ramp, preparing to terrorize the town.
The caption reads:
The class abruptly stopped practicing. Here was an opportunity to not only employ their skills, but also to save the entire town.
The implication is that the karate students were very skilled at breaking boards and bricks, and never expected they’d have a chance to use these skills to actually do something productive in the real world.
The same goes for our CMS. Now we’re to a point where we have to output some content for a visitor to consume. Up to this point, we’ve basically been practicing. We’ve modeled our content, determined how to aggregate it into groups, and identified the editorials tools necessary to enable our editors to work with it.
The one thing we haven’t done is actually publish it. To provide value, a web content management system has to generate web content at some point. We have to get the abstract notion of content out of our CMS and into a form and location where it does some good.
In other words, it’s time to get out of the studio, break some boards, and save the town.
The Difference Between Content and Presentation
As I’ve said before, there’s a tendency to look at a news article that you’ve modeled using your CMS and delivered into a browser window and say, “That’s my content.”
But it’s not. That’s a web page. It just happens to be displaying your news article. Your news article and the web page it rode in on are not the same thing.
What if you published the same article (in a shortened form) to Twitter? Would that be your news article? No, that would be a tweet, just displaying some different information from your article.
The fact is, that same article might be published into 20 different distribution channels, your website just being one among many. In each one, a new presentation artifact is created using information from your news article. These artifacts are not your news article; they’re just things created from it.
The article might even be presented in different ways on the same website. For example, while the article has a “main” view where a reader can consume the entire thing, it likely appears in some other form on several news listing pages, which just use the title, the summary, and perhaps an image. And what about when the article appears in search listings? That’s yet another presentation of the same article.
The key here is to separate your content in its pure form – its raw, naked data – from the ways in which it’s used. Your article might consist of the following information (attributes, in the content model):
This is the pure content that makes up the article. It might also need to have multiple attributes to help when it’s presented in various channels, such as:
- Tweet Body
- Sidebar Position
- Facebook Link Text
This information isn’t your content. It’s not critical to the “spirit” or core of the news article. It exists merely to aid in the translation of your news article into a format necessary for one or more channels.
In the end, does this matter? In many cases, no, this is merely an academic argument. But as we continue, it’s important to note the difference between the content and the presentation in which it’s displayed. Some practices are universal to both, while others only make sense in the context of one or the other.
Templating is the process of generating output based on managed content. In a very general sense, the output will be a string of text characters, usually HTML. Less commonly, a CMS will generate binary content such as PDFs.