Future Tools: Ghost

A headless CMS for professional publishers

Yesterday’s issue was an important reminder of why our Future Tools series is not only relevant to our readers, but essential to this publication’s production and survival. The issue was published at 11:26am, but was not distributed until close to 2pm. Relying upon substack.com for distribution means that we had no idea why this delay happened, and for those two plus hours, it’s not unreasonable to assume the worst.

For example my default assumption, given the keywords found in yesterday’s issue, was that it had triggered some content filter, and would be subject to delay and review. Of course I had no reason to make this conclusion, other than pandemic induced paranoia, however this is a consequence of relying upon a relative black box that you cannot scrutinize or check.

Although Substack is no longer some obscure service, rather they’re growing by leaps and bounds, and many of you are also using the platform. For example my partner Jeanette published her newsletter yesterday about an hour after I did, and her issue was distributed immediately. Although Mark published his newsletter, 1236, at 12:36, and it was also delayed.

In the end Substack announced that it was an error on their part, that impacted a significant number of publications, and was probably not, as my paranoid mind had concluded, an instance of content filtering. At least I assume. The problem with black boxes is that our relationship with them is based on faith.

Long term my plan was always to migrate away from Substack. I don’t agree with their configuration, in particular how they conceive and construct subscribers (and their relationship with the publication). The platform is easy to use, and it offered an easy way to get started, but there’s no reason to depend upon them when other alternatives provide the same functionality.

Yesterday’s incident was a reminder that there’s good reason to be independent, so when things break, I can know why, and generally fix it. For some time I’ve been playing with Ghost, a “headless” content management system that is free and open source. In today’s issue of Future Tools, let’s take a deeper look into software, and the organization behind it, as we contemplate alternatives to Substack!

Ghost was developed by people and users who were previously part of WordPress (as a result of a successful kickstarter campaign). WordPress is a notorious or well known free and open source content management system that we will almost definitely not be featuring in a dedicated Future Tools issue. :)

There was a time when I used WordPress, but thankfully that period of my life is largely behind me. If I recall correctly, my CMS journey went something along the lines of: email2html (where you’d make a website by converting emails), WordPress, Drupal, Tumblr, and then Bootstrap.

WordPress I found was hacked easily. Drupal became bloated and cumbersome. Tumblr was easy, but declined after Marissa Meyer bought it for Yahoo. Bootstrap is not a content management system per se, but a web framework created by Twitter that makes creating a website super easy.

For the majority of you reading this who have not done web development, a content management system is as it sounds, a (suite of) software that makes it relatively easy to publish and manage content on the web. It generally runs off a database, and has an administrative or publishing interface, as well as an interface for readers, accessible via a web server, whether dynamic (served by the database) or static (served directly via the web server).

In the early days of the web this was all simple, but over the past decade or two, the web has been augmented or displaced by social media platforms, mobile devices, and other modes (or channels) of content delivery. Hence a content management system is not just about the web, but social, mobile, and a wide range of screen sizes, from a tiny screen to a 4K TV.

What I liked about Bootstrap is that it made responsive content easy, i.e. ensuring that whatever content you created could dynamically change depending upon the device or screen viewing it.

However Ghost goes even further. It’s what’s called a “headless content management system.” A headless CMS further separates content from delivery, enabling that content to be displayed or distributed in a wide range of forms or methods. This video (from another headless CMS) provides a brief and accessible overview:

I like this concept of a headless CMS as it makes it easier to repurpose content and ensure that it is as accessible as possible.

However part of the focus of Future Tools is not just what the tool can do for us, but why the tool exists in the first place, and who is behind it. The following are quotes from Ghost’s about page:

Our mission is to create the best open source tools for independent journalists and writers across the world, and have a real impact on the future of online media.

That is an ambitious and important mission, and what I like about it, beyond the politics, is that it articulates a clear user experience, which many other systems do not. Drupal for example was never particularly easy or intuitive to use. If your stated mission is to help journalists, then perhaps that recognizes that journalists have no time to learn your software, they just want it to work and be easy.

One of the features of Substack, that Ghost also has, is the use of a “mark down” editor, that is really easy to use, and allows for the embeds and multimedia that I enjoy using. Being able to embed the video above and the tweets below reflect the emerging multimedia aesthetic of contemporary writing and journalism, and this is partly what attracted me to Substack, and now Ghost.

Behind the scenes, we're just a group of weird, fun-loving humans who enjoy experimenting with new technology. We believe in creating as much freedom in the world as we can, and everything we do is based on that core principle.

It strikes me that while an organization’s stated commitment to principles of freedom may be cliche, it is particularly relevant in this moment, and part of why I became paranoid yesterday when the issue was not distributed to all of you. I like that Ghost is free and open source, but I also like that the organization that produces has clear priorities.

We set Ghost up as non-profit foundation so that it would always be true to its users, rather than shareholders or investors. Our legal constitution ensures that the company can never be bought or sold, and one hundred percent of our revenue is reinvested into the product and the community.

Ghost has adopted what they refer to as a “sustainable open source” business model, that is increasingly popular among open source projects.

On the one hand they give away the software for free, allowing anyone, such as myself, with the necessary skills, to install, use, and customize it as they see fit.

However on the other hand, Ghost as an organization, offers a premium platform, where people can pay for a hosted Ghost site, as well as pay for customization, or pay for premium themes and design. All the revenues from these premium services goes back into the organization to pay their staff.

The finances of the organization are also transparent.

As a public organisation we also believe in being transparent and accountable for everything we do, so we publish our live financial data for all to see.

While legally based in Singapore, the foundation staff work remotely and live all over the world. They’re joined by a larger team of volunteer developers, that make up a growing ecosystem of users and partners.

This conceptual overview of Ghost provides a decent summary of what it does and how it compares with other content management systems. It also includes an overview of the Ghost ecosystem.

Ghost doesn’t have “plug-ins” but rather integrations. This makes it possible for your Ghost installation to connect to other platforms and services, as well as add increased functionality.

Like other content management systems, Ghost has themes, some of which are free, and others available for a reasonable price via the Ghost theme marketplace.

In addition to the mark down editor that makes using social media embeds easy, my other attraction to Ghost is the membership or subscriber feature.

This is a feature that Ghost is clearly rushing to create, perhaps in response to the rapid rise of Substack, and the equally rapid decline of advertiser driven publishing models.

It’s also what enables me to consider it as an alternative to using Substack.

Previous to yesterday’s incident, I was taking my time exploring Ghost, but now I’m motivated to move forward on using it as an alternative to Substack.

If you’d like to look at the installation I’ve been playing with, you can do so via news.metaviews.ca. I’ve mostly republished the Future Fibre series there, so I can publicize it a bit more.

I’ll let you know as my exploratory efforts continue, and whether I plan to migrate from Substack to my own hosted platform. In such an instance I’d probably keep Substack as a backup.

My other interest in Ghost is as a potential source of revenue. As with any free and open source project it can be easily resold, and if I continue to be impressed with Ghost it may be something I start offering to clients.

This is a point I want to keep emphasizing in our Future Tools series. The primary purpose is to provide you, dear reader, with options for your own Internet endeavours, whether personal or professional.

However the secondary purpose is to provide opportunities to go even further, and resell or provide services that support the use of these free and open source tools. This is the benefit of open source ecosystems. There’s always room for more participants, as users, developers, or resellers.

It’s a great example of the value of knowledge, and how that knowledge can be shared and rewarded.

This video provides a decent overview of Ghost, and some of it’s latest developments:

Jesse Hirsh

Jesse Hirsh