This is a golden age for indie digital media creators, who have more content creation options than ever in 2019. In fact, there are arguably too many tools to chose from. That’s why I’m going to regularly examine the tools of digital media creation here on Creator Interviews – for everything from podcasting to music to ebooks to digital videos, and more.
I’m starting with blogging tools. My first creator profile this week, Tedium’s Ernie Smith, produces a twice-weekly email newsletter. But despite email being his main distribution format, he still identifies as a blogger. And indeed, the tool he uses to create his content is a blog platform.
I say once a blogger, always a blogger. Anyway it got me thinking: what are the main options these days for aspiring pro bloggers?
I’ve collected five of them for this post. I only personally like a couple of these tools, but it’s useful to know what’s out there – along with their pros and cons. So here’s my starter for five:
Pros: open source, so you own your content; huge selection of design templates and plugins; large and helpful support community.
Cons: controversy over its latest version.
You can’t go past the open source WordPress. Despite copping some flak this year due to a big re-design labelled Gutenberg, it’s still far and away the best blogging platform.
Gutenberg is a makeover of the WordPress editor. It partitions a blog post into “blocks” – effectively making each paragraph a separate section, rather than the post being one single document. The idea behind Gutenberg was to make it easier for WordPress bloggers to introduce different types of multimedia content into their posts – videos, images, and so on.
Gutenberg has been criticized in some quarters for making the blogging experience too complicated. It’s no longer about simply typing text into a WYSIWYG editor and hitting publish; now you have to create a bunch of blocks and figure out if they’re in the right order. Some people have said this disrupts the ‘flow’ of blogging.
But in my opinion that’s just teething problems with a radical new design. If you want a sophisticated indie blogging platform but don’t want to spend a lot of time in the technical weeds of web development, then I recommend WordPress for your own sanity.
p.s. my own flow is just fine post-Gutenberg, since I write my drafts in markdown using a separate writing tool (in my case, an Apple app called Byword).
Pros: stylish design; business features such as e-commerce; tech things like hosting taken care of.
Cons: relatively expensive; blogging functionality not as good as WordPress; not open source.
There are several decent site builders that you pay for to get the best features – Wix and Weebly are two others. I’d also include WordPress.com in this category (the hosted version of WordPress), since you have to pay to get a custom domain and other features that pro bloggers need. But Squarespace is the one I’ve seen most often amongst the pro bloggers I know…or maybe it’s that all the podcast advertising Squarespace has done has been drilled into my head.
The main advantage of Squarespace is that you don’t need to worry about the technical aspects of running a pro blog. The company offers “fully-managed cloud hosting” and has a variety of slick design templates to choose from.
It comes at a price though: $12 per month (billed annually) for a personal plan, $18 for a business plan.
Pros: lots of plugins; great community; flexibility if you’re technically inclined.
Cons: not open source; doesn’t have the traction of WordPress.
I include this since Ernie Smith has just migrated his site Tedium to Craft CMS. The key features he likes in it are the number of plugins it has, plus its helpful community. Here is what Ernie told me about Craft CMS:
“It’s not open-source: There is a free version designed for solo users like myself, but the tool is really sold as a platform for agencies, with support added if you pay the fee – which, for my purposes, means there’s some headroom. The great thing about the service is that there are a LOT of plugins, and because of that, you can build the interface and backend to match your needs, but unlike WordPress, there isn’t an existing infrastructure that gets in the way. So I have an interface that, while not exactly like the one on Ghost [his previous CMS] I have long used, has a lot in common with it. The community is pretty strong and, unlike WordPress or even Ghost, a lot of things aren’t decided for you – it’s up to you what you want the site and interface to be. You could even use it to directly send a newsletter if you really wanted to.”
Pros: simple to use (save a file to a specified Dropbox folder and it automatically creates a blog post); seven templates to choose from; some customization options.
Cons: has little extensibility; not ideal for multimedia; small community (which could be a pro too).
Blot is the favorite tool of the Micro.blog community, based on what I’ve read lately among its members. Micro.blog is a kind of indie version of Twitter, in that it promotes owning your own content and encourages syndication via RSS and similar tools. For those reasons, I’m a member too.
Many of the Micro.blog people I follow hate the new Gutenberg version of WordPress, because they feel it makes blogging overly complex. Blot is definitely simpler. Here’s how it describes itself:
“Blot is a blogging platform with no interface. It creates a special folder in your Dropbox and publishes files you put inside. The point of all this — the reason Blot exists — is so you can use your favorite tools to create whatever you publish.”
Blot sounds like a useful tool if you’re doing journal-style personal blogging, because it is completely distraction free. You could also use it for a topic-focused blog, but its feature limitations would make it hard going.
At $20 per year, Blot is cheaper than the other non-open source options. So despite its limitations, it’s a unique alternative to look into if you don’t want to deal with WordPress complexity.
Pros: optimized for email newsletters; good design options; helps earn subscription revenue.
Cons: not open source; not optimized for the web.
Substack is the trendiest email newsletter product available these days. Which makes it, along with the centralized publishing platform Medium, the defining tool of pro bloggers in this current era. Yes, that’s a sad state of affairs for blogging. But the fact is, email and Medium/Twitter are the dominant distribution methods right now.
In any case Substack is a slick product, and quality publications from The Block to journalist Matt Taibbi successfully use it.
However because Substack is optimized for email, it is missing several features that make an indie blog so appealing. Open web syndication, for one. On WordPress, RSS is baked in by default and there are a number of features and plugins that enable you to do different types of things using RSS – for example, create category-specific feeds or community feeds. Publications that use Substack also lack a fully functional website, which means it’s often difficult to dive into their archives or comment on their content on-site.
While I’ve only scratched the surface in this post, the above are five diverse CMS options for indie bloggers.
Personally I can only vouch for WordPress. But as always, your mileage may vary and it will depend on your needs. If you want to fully embrace email newsletters, for example, then maybe Substack is for you. Although if you do go that way, you’re missing out on the site design options and advanced interactivity of a web-based CMS.
Now I’d love to know your thoughts. What blogging tool do you use?