July 11, 2006

National Lampoon is serious about open source tools

Author: Tina Gasperson

National Lampoon, a venerated venue of collegiate comedy, stopped publishing its print magazine seven years ago, and needed an online home to make available its vast archive of articles, videos, graphics, and music. It also needed a way to keep making money without magazine ad and retail sales revenue. But hand-coding static Web pages every time the site needed to be updated created so much work for Lampoon CTO Scott Mulder, it wasn't funny. An open source content management system called Joomla put the smile back on Mulder's face.

"We were coding everything by hand, and it was extremely unproductive," Mulder says. "In 1999, NL ceased publication of the magazine and wanted to transform it to a Web edition." For about four years, the entire site was static HTML, until Mulder came on the scene.

"In 2004, when I came aboard, nobody understood they needed a well-thought out tool to incorporate all the information." Whenever editors wanted a new article on the front page, Mulder also had to manually update the archives. He knew there was a better way. He had been using open source content management tools for years. "I worked for Discreet, and used Mambo for creating a system to house all the video they needed to shuffled back and forth between corporate and remote salespeople. When I came to work [at NL] I brought that to the table with me."

Mulder was leaning toward open source, but looked for other solutions as well, in order to bring a variety of options to management. "We checked out RedDot and a bunch of independent companies. They wanted to build a CMS for us, but we were getting price tags that ranged from $50,000 to $200,000." Then Mulder showed the execs an application called Joomla, a descendant of the Mambo open source CMS that was also free of charge. "I said, 'We're running into a brick wall. We can't afford these other systems. The solution is to use this open source tool.'"

Mulder installed Joomla on a Windows 2003 server, which, he says, was a challenge. "In the community of open source, that's not considered to be the greatest thing," he says. "And I agree -- who wants the monopoly of Microsoft?" Mulder says that the Windows environment is "a lot more finicky and harder to finesse with this type of programming and the [MySQL] database we've been using. But we had these servers in place already, and to migrate to Linux would have been a lot harder and not as cost-effective as keeping these servers and making them work for us."

Mulder says he's been able to reach out to others who are making Joomla run on Windows, offering assistance and advice. "I've been able to go to the message boards and let them know, 'Hey, there's a chance for you. If you're stuck using a Windows-based server, there's help out there for you.'"

Almost as soon as he had Joomla up and running in a test environment, Mulder realized that he might need some help. "I noticed how large this process was going to be," he says. "I could have [gone] with stock Joomla, but I was talking with Mitch [Pirtle, one of the founding developers of Joomla], and told him what we wanted to do was on a grander scale." Pirtle convinced him to enlist the services of his company, Jamboworks, which was founded by Joomla core developers as a consultation and support service for the free open source product. "Who better to help us manage this process than the actual creators?" Mulder says.

Jamboworks helped Mulder customize Joomla according to his needs. For example, they coded an RSS feed aggregator that displays randomly selected links from National Lampoon's affiliate network of 27 comedy sites. Each site displays the links, a tactic that Mulder says has increased traffic to all the sites.

NL also uses Jambozine, a proprietary Joomla plugin specifically designed to make it easier to publish an online magazine. "It enables us to do monthly articles where we can archive them automatically and create as many subsections as we need," a feature that doesn't come with the basic Joomla package.

Mulder says that NL's management "loves" Joomla. "The Web site is running on something that didn't cost a dime to install," he says. Even with the support and consultation fees from Jamboworks, NL still paid less than $25,000, half the amount of the lowest bid Mulder received from commercial CMS producers for basic products.

But cost savings are only part of the bottom-line benefit, according to Mulder. "That's the no-brainer," he says. "But the other part is, I can set up a site and have pretty much anybody edit it. Within an hour of playing around with the WYSIWYG editor, it is very intuitive. I don't have to be 'the guy' anymore" who does all the site updates.

Mulder says one of his favorite examples is the blog he set up for one of NL's political comedy editors. "This guy is in his fifties, and doesn't know anything about HTML or open source -- he doesn't know what anything is. But he can use Word. So I created the blog site for him, gave him a quick tutorial, and he was off and running like a racehorse. It was beautiful. Seeing that gave me complete hope, because I can't do everything."


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