With more at stake, we know less about Pluck

Most of Gannett’s newspapers appear to have adopted the new website template partly powered by private software developer Pluck Corp. The switch was designed to bring uniformity to the budding Gannett Digital Network, and make it easier to sell advertising. “Placing an ad will no longer be a jumble of sizes, shapes and contact points,” CEO Craig Dubow told stock analysts last month, at the Deutsche Bank Media & Telecom Conference.

I don’t know enough about Pluck, which former MySpace Chairman Richard Rosenblatt‘s Demand Media gobbled up in March. Because Pluck and Demand are privately owned, there’s not a lot I can research in the way of public documents at agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission.

But you can be certain that winning Gannett’s business — and especially high-profile USA Today‘s — was a big deal for the Austin, Texas-based company. “Pluck services played a pivotal role in Gannett’s landmark relaunch of USAToday.com,” the company boasts on its website.

That re-launch was anything but smooth, however. There were major performance problems after USA Today made the switch, leading to a big tweaking two months ago.

And the Pluck-related gripes weren’t confined to USA Today. Some of my readers across Gannett have been unhappy with the new website template, because it forced their readers to re-register on websites, and meant some existing forums weren’t as easily accessible. That was a complaint among some Courier-Journal readers in Louisville, Ky., when the daily adopted the new design four months ago.

Gannett’s been planning the Pluck rollout at least since October 2007, when now-Gannett Digital Vice President Jennifer Carroll mentioned it in this News Watch article.

So, what do you know about Pluck? What’s the dollar value of its contract with Gannett? And what’s the contract’s term? Your replies in the comments section, below. To e-mail confidentially, use this link from a non-work computer; see Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the green sidebar, upper right.

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20 Responses to “With more at stake, we know less about Pluck”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    A clarification is in order: Pluck supplies the suite of social-networking tools (and yes, the “tools” are the technological equivalent of using a stone ax to chop wood, compared with the cutting-edge open-source forums, blogs and photo galleries many of our sites previously were using).

    The site templates were designed by the AKQA consulting group and built by GMTI and Gannett Digital staffers, who wrote good computer code and eased rollout for anyone who was prepared in the first place.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Pluck is terrible. The documentation is useless in many cases because it doesn’t match the features-crippled version that’s been sent out to newspapers. Users hate it and so do moderators because they can’t address half of users’ complaints. Plus it’s just SLOW.

    As far as those templates? You could have done all the prep in the world and struggled with their implementation. A lot of the tags didn’t work and, again, the documentation was not helpful, because it only told you what things would do without any guide to application.

    Gannett’s got too many pots on the stove right now (Pluck, new Moms sites, Maven, Mogulus, constant redesign of the GO4 templates). Some are spilling over and others have boiled down to an empty pot. It’s a mess.

  3. Howard Owens Says:

    Oh, what’s really interesting is that Gannett is a co-owner of Topix, and Gannett sites used to use Topix for its comments on stories (lamely and incorrectly called “story chat” in Gannett) … and Gannett dropped Topix in favor of Pluck.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    From working with them and talking with them, it’s easy to see that Pluck was a company that was not ready for Gannett’s business.

    Instead of being flexible and easy to use, it’s a little rigid and can only perform a very limited set of functions.

    They’ve been scrambling after the fact to produce some of the functionality they were unable to provide at the start, but it may well not be enough.

    Incidentally, I’m wondering if Gannett tried to buy Pluck outright like they did with Pointroll and Planet Discover. If not, I wonder why.

  5. Anonymous Says:

    I begged out of my Pluck-insired blog. I’m now back at a third-party site.

    Pluck is a real step down (in terms of blogging functionaity) than … everything else out there.

    Someone on GCI’s end did not research this situation very carefully. Pluck’s functions are remarkably underdeveloped.

  6. Marcel Says:

    Pluck may not be the best community infrastructure for online news sites, but it fits in with Gannett’s other technology just fine. Its main shortcoming is the lack of a decent search, but this was a pre-existing problem with all of Gannett’s content, and continues to this day. It’s a mediocre and serviceable social networking system, but not terrible.

    As a blogging tool, it definitely isn’t as nifty or flexible as something like WordPress or Movable Type. But it does beat Blogger-to-FTP on performance, in my experience.

    Howard, the Topix comment system wasn’t used by that many of Gannett’s sites — most of them used a modified version of phpBB intended as a short-term solution.

    Full disclosure: I was the senior online editor and local GO4 project manager for a Gannett newspaper until earlier this year.

    Pluck and GO4 aside, I’d say the main problem I kept encountering was a deep aversion to open-source solutions. This drives the technology choices toward smaller companies (Saxotech, Pluck, Planet Discover) with a relatively tiny development staff and small user communities. One of the nice things about the open-source world is that problems get solved more quickly and capabilities are added before you even know you need them. As an added bonus, paid support is available in a competitive marketplace.

  7. Rottenchester Says:

    I’ve been watching the Democrat & Chronicle’s Pluck roll-out and it’s a mixed bag at best. As someone else mentioned, Pluck and the site redesign were a combined rollout, but Pluck only powers the blogging and comments. It seems like they paid a lot to get very little.

    The new front page is huge and cluttered, and the only Pluck impact (aside from comment counts) is that the latest blogs are front-paged. At this moment on the D&C, much of the blog content is pretty low quality. There’s one guy whose avatar is an aardvark, who notes that “Fornicators are unfaithful to themselves”. That’s the whole blog post. Another blog, called “Dan’s Auto Repair” plugs Dan’s new location with his phone number. I don’t know how that fits into Gannett’s revenue model, but nice of the D&C to front-page Dan’s free ad.

    Even though Pluck rolled out a few months ago, the “official” D&C blogs are still hosted by Blogger and use Blogger ids for commenting. The irony of the D&C failing to eat its own dog food is overshadowed by user confusion.

    I assume that the “strategic” reason for using Pluck was user community. Before Pluck, the D&C required two user ids to comment on the site. After Pluck, that status quo remains.

  8. James Says:

    I guess this is a question more than a comment. What was the system that Gannett used prior to Pluck? And also, would it have been better for Gannett to use alternatives such as Blogger or WordPress?

  9. Jim Hopkins Says:

    When I blogged at USA Today, we used TypePad — and I didn’t like it very much. (I don’t know whether the paper is still using it.) For this blog, I use Blogger — owed by Google — and I like it quite a bit.

  10. Anonymous Says:

    We used phpBB for our forums and they were HUGELY popular until some genius at corporate disallowed avatars and people left in droves.

    Corporate just can’t stop making bad decisions, it seems.

  11. Rottenchester Says:

    At the D&C, they used phpbb for comments and had no blogging software for readers. Pluck was used to replace phpbb for comments and to add blogging for readers (not reporters).

    For a project like the D&C, where the goal is to register thousands of users and have them blog, Blogger is probably out. It’s hosted by Google and would be hard to integrate with the D&C’s other content. WordPress would be possible as a blogging engine, but it would not host comments out-of-the-box.

    Drupal, an open-source CMS, has all the user-facing features of the current D&C (blogging, comments, forums, stories), but the D&C would need to customize the interface between Drupal and whatever content-management system is used to create the paper D&C.

  12. Anonymous Says:

    Here’s the problem with Pluck…

    “Gannett’s been planning the Pluck rollout at least since October 2007”

    So you know it was in the works well before that. Gannett’s goal was to jump on the social-networking bandwagon, a good idea, but using a platform that is now sorely out-of-date.

    Look at how quick MySpace and Facebook evolved, ever changing, adding new features, etc. No way Gannett could do that with the amount of properties it has and a need to integrate everything into GO4.

    Three years ago, Pluck would’ve seemed really spiffy, but today — competing with MySpace, etc., Pluck appears to be the lumbering dinosaur that it is…sort of like the company that decided to put it in place.

    Now, they are trying to enchance Pluck, but Gannett once again is playing catch up.

    It’s time for the company to take some chances and start forging ahead with new, smart ideas — not just renaming newsrooms information centers, a change that is simply more cosmetic than anything else. Good concept, very little support and follow through.

  13. Anonymous Says:

    As an online editor at a Gannett paper, I spend hours every week on the phone/email with GMTI requesting enhancements for Pluck. Because the company is so small (and overwhelmed) I bet they never happen.

    The new MOMS sites will be run on a separate (and allegedly better) platform that is a competitor to Pluck: Ripple Six. Is this a sign that Gannett will soon abandon Pluck outright and make every site revamp…again?

  14. Anonymous Says:

    The monms sites are using ripple6 for the platform. From what I can tell, it looks good. Pluck is focused on comments and ratings. The moms site will actually build communities around interest areas. It seems a little different than Pluck, but there has been a good buzz around the moms platform.

  15. Anonymous Says:

    The Pluck implementation at USA TODAY was the first really big implementation they did. If you think it’s clunky now, you should have seen it before the USAT IT staff got in there and made dozens of functionality requests.

    The biggest problem I see with it is that every time you load a page, the page has to make a call to Pluck’s servers to get the recommend counts and comments, and that slows the page down — a lot.

  16. Anonymous Says:

    I just can’t understand why software that directly affects our future can be so poor. We should be on the cutting edge of comments, avatars, blogging interfaces, page layout.

    Instead, we’re so behind the times.

    It bothers me more than anything.

  17. Anonymous Says:

    Just like the CCI system they shoved down everyone’s throat. Horribly slow, clunky, inefficient, anti-intuitive, dense and inflexible. But they didn’t care, apparently, because all the excess work it creates falls on the news staff, who are expected to work unlimited overtime for free.

  18. Anonymous Says:

    The big problems I see with Gannett’s content systems is the horrible, non-standard code they produce.

    Must be nobody’s heard of Web Standards.

    If we don’t start ‘playing by the rules’ we’re gonna get our asses kicked by somebody who does get standards, and their implications: SEO, usability, agile development, etc.

    The markup of a typical Gannett site makes anyone who knows anything about html chortle.

  19. Anonymous Says:

    There’s one guy whose avatar is an aardvark, who notes that “Fornicators are unfaithful to themselves”. That’s the whole blog post.

    Sounds like write-tight style to me, what ‘s the problem?

    Hey, i’m interested in the company’s policies on staffers blogging about all kidns of things – religion, politics, etc., and Here’s a question: What is the most controversial blog post so far (since Pluck’s been rolled out) at any Gannett newspaper ? Have any Gannett staffers been told (subtly or otherwise) not to blog because we really don’t need a lot of personal views on religion or politics in the staff blogs ?

  20. Anonymous Says:

    I wish Gannett’s senior leadership, especially at Gannett Digital, could understand that changes over the last year are making the company an increasingly non-career-enhancing for quality digital people to work.

    Some of Gannett’s best digital people are in the field, rather than at corporate, and many good ones have been lost in the last year or so. Many of Gannett’s local digital veterans in the field are actively looking or at least passively networking. Most of them are increasingly depressed, frustrated and unhappy. It’s also becoming harder to recruit the right digital technology talent.

    Gannett’s digital strategy is great. It’s strong, it’s visionary, it’s brave, and in instances it’s working well. I’ve always believed Gannett’s digital vision — to transform ourselves into a truly multimedia company — was better and braver than other companies’, and also more likely to save newspapers and the role of the press in our society.

    Strategy is not the issue: Execution is.

    And the flaw in execution is not due to lack of effort. It is due to lack of honest self-assessment of our resources, capabilities and skills, especially at corporate.

    Solutions provided by GMTI and Gannett Digital are typically inept. GMTI code is sloppy and slow. The company provides primitive, backward tools (such as Pluck, discussed here). Even the best solutions suffer critical failures in terms of technical implementation and project management. Saxotech makes it too hard to leverage content assets, either within or between markets. Critical GO4 components cannot be controlled locally due to lack of forethought or bad decision-making.

    Just look at GMTI-generated or Planet Discover-generated source code on GO4 sites. GMTI uses tables instead of DIV’s — in 2008? — and seems to fear CSS. GO4 pages have several dozen unnecessary server calls per page, putting even more “straws on the camel’s back” in terms of performance. The same JavaScript library runs on every page, even if it’s not needed.

    The people behind this are great. I respect them, and I wouldn’t want their jobs. But they’re understaffed, their skills are too often antiquated, and their mindset focused on lowest common denominators.

    The business side is little better. Intended or not, the historic role of Gannett Digital has been to say “no, don’t do that, because we’ll take care of that for you and all the papers.” Countless opportunities for local gains in audience and market share have been lost due to corporate’s insistence on control, and thus the eggs being in one basket which later breaks.

    While Digital may be under new management with new approaches, the style and inertia of the old ways can only be overcome through bold changes, bold messages and over-communication.

    Meanwhile, I am asking myself: How are local markets supposed to exploit and develop local opportunities when we control less of our sites and our diminishing local digital resources? How are local digital professionals supposed to feel good about the quality of work they produce? How are they supposed to get good portfolio work? How are digital professionals supposed to feel proud for producing good sites that satisfy readers and advertisers?

    Many in the field are accustomed to building successful products that readers and advertisers love, use and respect. Now we’re rolling out — and trying to justify to readers and employees — inferior, slow and less-localized products that readers widely dislike and even publicly mock.

    For example, a good redesign should almost always yield an increase in traffic, if it is customer-focused and well-executed. So why does GO4 uniformly produce sustained traffic decreases or slowdowns in so many markets? Has anyone at corporate honestly asked themselves that question, and been willing to listen to the answer or look at the data?

    The issue is not the strategy. The issue is the execution, and the problem with execution is not, for the most part, in the local markets.

    There is a whole swath of managers and technical staff at Gannett Digital and at GMTI who either need to be better supported with more resources, or replaced — replaced because they themselves are not the right resources. Possibly in addition to that, a new structure is needed in which better/faster outside technical resources are leveraged, with increased flexibility for local markets and focus on exploiting unique local opportunities.

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