Multi-Channel Publishing: Empty Buzzword or Attainable Technology? (Article Written 2002 by DPCI CEO Joe Bachana)

We encourage a concerted effort to use more descriptive terminology for systems that relates to their actual use. One such designation, “multi-channel publishing”, is accepted to mean any system which allows an organization to publish the same information in a number of different ways. To reach the broadest audience, corporate and traditional publishers must disseminate information quickly and in whatever format possible. “Create Once, Publish Anywhere,” the slogan goes.

The qualitative benefits of multi-channel publishing are well documented. These include: the reuse of content, consistency across media, distribution of personalized messages, localization, enhanced security, scheduling, and more accurate measurement of access. Multi-channel publishing systems, when correctly implemented, allows workflow process control to meet the needs of an organization. The primary benefit of multi-channel publishing is immediate and accurate delivery of targeted information. Ultimately, organizations need a quick, easy, and cost-effective way to get information out to their audience.

Multi-channel publishing systems can be represented as a wagon-wheel, with the author at the hub. The spokes represent the various independent channels for content delivery. From a corporate infrastructure standpoint, authors would be writers, editors, photographers, and artists who all contribute to a central repository. Along the spokes would be production teams that publish the information according to the needs of the media—QuarkXPress designers, web producers, the personalized broadcast email team, wireless application publishers and so forth.

It is generally held that multi-channel publishing requires that the process of content authoring occur independent of media-specific formatting. Each medium requires a specific format using application-specific style sheets. Further, multi-channel publishing requires that elements within a piece of content must be stored as discreet logical units that reference some structure, and that this structure must be portable. Each element must have well-defined meaning, or context, in relation to the whole content unit, which in turn must relate to the overall body of published content. One of the main reasons for the broad adoption of the XML/XSL specifications for multi-channel publishing is the degree of control these technologies offer in applying context to content as well as rendering it for any medium according to that medium’s requirements.

Many organizations attempt to implement multi-channel publishing only to find that their human resource infrastructure will not support it. Generally organizations that publish either periodic literature or corporate information operate in functional silos. This balkanization of content results in departments implementing disparate procedures for authoring, managing, and delivering information internally, across departments, and to the outside world.

The problem is further compounded by the perennial problem of disparate legacy systems that must be integrated, requiring costly workarounds in order to assimilate information across content production centers. In the end, organizations that need to implement multi-channel publishing would do well to develop enterprise-level strategies for managing content. Then, institutional structures must be changed to support content production centers, or ‘wells,’ from which different departments must draw to satisfy their channels’ requirements. The separation of authoring from production allows organizations to achieve this goal from a human resource as well as a technological standpoint, thus achieving maximum efficiency with the lowest cost or duplication of effort.

Implementing a multi-channel publishing system does not require just organizational and technological enhancements. There are four very real parameters found in any new multi-channel publishing deployment: 1) A strategy for articulating the organization’s vision for multi-channel publishing, 2) A solid program management team to protect the vision, 3) A strong change management plan to facilitate acceptance of the “new way” in the organization, 4) A commitment to the long-range spending needed to keep pace with quickly changing technology.

Many companies have either failed when implementing multi-channel publishing or have not attempted to embark on such a mission-critical program. Among the impediments organizations face:


  • No full-service solutions are on the market; instead, the market is comprised of many pieces that need sophisticated integration to create the full solution. In many cases, organizations attempt to bridge software solutions with scripts and desktop-automation workarounds that break down.
  • Each medium has its own editorial and formatting requirements (i.e., copy-fitting, hypertext links, wireless ‘main idea’), thus editorial intervention is unavoidable.
  • While web, wireless, email, and print-on-demand publishing may be template-driven, print publishing is rarely accomplished without skilled designers fine-tuning pages. Unlike other media, when content itself is touched on the print layout page, the file itself must be both preserved and reverse engineered for any content changes.
  • There is no agreed-upon standard for authoring tool sets. MS Word is not an optimal solution for separating form and context from content. Web application interfaces are more appropriate but less attractive to authors due to limited functionality. Ultimately, authoring applications have not matured to the degree that they maximize XML/XSL technology, nor do they offer generally accepted editorial application feature standards.
  • There is still no standard way to associate elements within instances, or versions, of a story to one another, whether parent/child relationship or peer-to-peer. Examples include different languages, or different zoned versions of a story. The technology is moving rapidly in this direction, but no clear winners have gained ascendancy.
  • Along with the lack of strategy, organizations are often at a loss for what to do with legacy data (i.e. QuarkXPress files, MS Word / Excel / PowerPoint files, sundry scientific applications, etc.). If a media-independent approach to preserving content is not adopted, then the practice of cannibalizing content will not be replaced by on-demand production of disposable files.


  • The institutional changes required to support multi-channel publishing are difficult for organizations to make due to corporate inertia and staff resistance.
  • In several instances, management teams are not able to make the value case for multi-channel publishing to corporate boards or executives. There is insufficient data out there to prove a return-on-investment, and in fact, there are far more instances of large-scale failures. However, these failures are more often the result of institutional impediments rather than problems of technology.
  • Organizations want multi-channel publishing, but, particularly in a sluggish economy want to hold onto their dollars. Unfortunately, executives focus on buckling down with ‘staple’ IT services as opposed to application procurement. In one case we witnessed an organization that did invest in a multi-channel publishing system, only to run out of money needed to sustain the system’s network and Internet bandwidth requirements.
  • Organizations that do embark on multi-channel publishing projects without a clear strategy, or employing a strategy devised by an external agent (i.e. software manufacturer, inexperienced consulting firm, etc), rarely succeed in achieving their goals.
  • There are, as of yet, no agreed-upon standards in the multi-channel publishing industry. Consequently practices and products tend to be all across the board.
  • Organizations have confused expectations as to what exactly a multi-channel system offers them.

What does the future hold for multi-channel publishing? Will corporations succeed in its implementation, or will it move just beyond the vanishing point as have so many other hot technologies? Or will homegrown solutions pairing relational database repositories with desktop automation scripts continue to be the norm?

According to Don Lohse, product manager for Quark, Inc.’s Automated Publishing Server technology, “The economics of publishing demand that content be delivered to consumers in a variety of mediums. Content is not a static resource, and quick dynamic generation and delivery of fresh content is what multi-channel publishing must achieve to be the publishing process of the future.”

Most companies will fail to meet their multi-channel publishing needs in the near future unless careful attention is paid to risk mitigation. The impediments cited above are very real, with precedents throughout the world. Meticulous research, planning, and program management, along with partnership with a reliable consulting firm with subject matter expertise, will go a long way to reducing risk on multi-channel publishing projects.

For most enterprises, we endorse an incremental adoption of the technology over 3-5 years. For the organization that needs the system now, success will only be achieved with a generous budget, full support from executive management, and an understanding that the technology surrounding multi-channel publishing is still in its infancy.

The phrase “content management” is losing its meaning, stretched thin by vendors in search of a catchphrase. While traditional content management systems – if such things exist -- were workflow applications used to manage websites, vendors that offer catalog management, directory, direct mail, and other types of applications now claim that their products are also content management systems.