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Publishers weigh benefits, drawbacks of going outside for Web development

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For Willie Vogt, efficiency and accountability are everything. As corporate editorial director at Farm Progress Cos., Vogt makes the Web site decisions for the 21 magazines as well as farm trade shows that Farm Progress owns. The company faced a pivotal choice about three years ago when its Web developer decided to discontinue content management services.

While other publishers in the industry extol the idea of in-house Web development departments, Vogt turned to a third party, Oxcyon, an application service provider-based content management company, to develop its 28 Web sites.

Vogt said outsourcing the development allowed him a great deal of flexibility. "The Oxcyon platform is like designing the Web site yourself in-house because you get the freedoms of it, but the system has pre-existing tools so it makes it easier than using an HTML programmer," he said.

Specifically, outsourcing eliminated the need to search for qualified IT staff, reduced management hassles and was less expensive in the long run than an in-house staff. "We don't have that expertise and we weren't willing to hire a person," said Vogt, who declined to disclose Farm Progress' monthly subscription rate to Oxcyon. (Oxcyon's costs, which range from $500 to $3,000 per month per publication, are based on the number of publications a company owns, as well as the types of services used.) Vogt did say that Farm Progress pays Oxcyon about 75% less than what it paid its former Web developer.

One disadvantage with outside developers is that they tend to rely on standardized features and designs. "No, it doesn't give us the level of customization [we'd get] if we did it ourselves," Vogt said.

But other publishers are hesitant to outsource. "If your company outsources, you loose control," said Pfingsten Publishing IT Manager John Gibson. "We found that we still need individual in-house support." Pfingsten Publishing's in-house IT department, created soon after the inception of the company in 1998, knows the ins and outs of what works best for the magazine Web sites.

Gibson's enterprisewide IT team, composed of about six people, is still in the process of transitioning some outside-developed Web sites to in-house control. A separate project will convert some in-house developed Web sites to an open source platform, which promises to let each magazine manage its content and, eventually, let editors change Web site structure and design-without having to rely on the IT department.

"Ultimately, once we roll out the [open-source] platform, people in charge of printed pieces would be in charge of the Web sites," said Gibson, who added that this change will free up Pfingsten's in-house IT staff.

While Pfingsten expects to cut costs through this in-house, open-source approach, even Gibson admits it has some downsides. "There's obviously a learning curve for each [magazine] to change their Web site content," he said. But Gibson added that over time, Pfingsten will save about $20,000 to $30,000 per year by not using an outside content management solution. "Although there will be a lot of demand on the in-house IT resources upfront, our annual costs will eventually go down and we would only be paying management costs."

The Pfingsten publications that still outsource their Web development, including Contractor Tools and Supplies and Progressive Distributor, currently use Deligo Technologies as a third-party vendor. Pfingsten will determine on a case-by-case basis if it is financially wise to transition those books to the in-house open-source platform, Gibson said. The first Pfingsten magazine to experiment with the open-source platform will be American Agent and Broker, which will start on the new content management system by the end of this month.

Even deeper invested in an in-house IT Web solution for magazines is VNU Business Media, which has a staff of more than 100 in its eMedia technology group. Dedicating management time and associated costs to maintaining this core Web developer group reaffirms VNU Business Media's values, said Toni Nevitt, president of eMedia and information marketing at VNU Business Media. "We look at it as a brand, not simply individual Web sites."

"We have all of our content management on one platform, which gives us the ability to go across all brands," Nevitt said. With more than 60 magazines, as well as other business ventures, VNU Business Media's in-house content management group designs each site with a different look based on the needs of the marketplace, but still uses a base formula to develop each site, Nevitt said. And unlike sites created by outside Web developers, she said hers are certainly "not cookie cutter."

Tackling such a large project in-house requires extra knowledge and resources. "Our eMedia group is staffed appropriately," Nevitt said. "It knows databases and content management, and it continues to reinvent according to the marketplace." To ensure the upkeep of all the magazines' Web sites, VNU Business Media provides its business units with a help desk as well. "The core group makes sure the sites are up and running 24/7/365," Nevitt said.

"It is much more cost-effective than partnering with a vendor," Nevitt said. Nevertheless, VNU Business Media will outsource for some tools and applications, as needed. "It's not like we're going to take everything and build it ourselves, but we do the architecture and design," Nevitt said. "We've leveraged best practice across all brands, and we look at it holistically." 

-Fara Young

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