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BLOX

BLOX Digital

BLOX CMS (formerly "TownNews") is a feature-rich publishing + revenue platform from a rather old-fashioned vendor that trades a somewhat archaic platform for excellent customer support.

  • The platform supports editorial publishing, website and mobile app management, and audience development/revgen, from a single, integrated environment
  • The wide feature set is also somewhat shallow in depth, and so the platform is best suited to small to mid-sized independent news organizations with limited (or no) internal tech support
  • Some named customers include The St. Louis Observer Post-Dispatch, Richmond Times Dispatch, Toronto Star, and College Station Eagle (all North America).

Likely fit

BLOX CMS a good fit for mid-sized or small independent publishers in North America that don't have in-house tech strategists and developers but want an accessible and broadly-featured platform at a lower price point — and are willing to accept some odd quirks and dated interface in the bargain. News organizations with a more composable architecture that want to swap components in and out, or who want to support multiple titles from a single code-base, would likely not fit this platform. BLOX Digital will point you to larger publications like the St Louis Observer and Toronto Star, but they seem the exception than the rule.

At a glance

Primary Customer Fit

Small Independent News Organization

Secondary Fit

Mid-Sized Independent News Organization

Most Active Geographies

North America

Official Support Hours

Email: 7am-6pm CT - 24/7 for "critical issues"

Phone: 7am-6pm CT - 24/7 for "critical issues"

Officially Supported Languages for User Interface

EN

Third-party Language Support Available?

No

License Model

Vendor would not share details; likely based on user numbers, repository size, and traffic volumes — comparatively mid-priced in the market

Scope Summary

BLOX CMS is broad-featured platform designed for an organization that wants content production, site management, and revenue management tightly bundled into a single offering

Tech Base

PHP/SOLR

Cloud Model

Managed Service (PaaS)

Headquarters

East Moline, IL, USA + Virtual

Head Count

130

What customers report

  • Unusually wide range of editorial and front-end features for what customers identify as a comparatively attractive price point
  • Easy for entry-level reporters to learn, with useful training videos
  • Customers praise the Audiences revenue module for handling the basics very well
  • Platform as shipped typically does not require your own IT staff, including for audience/revenue development
  • Vendor has a kind of homespun internal culture that emphasizes close relationships with customers
  • Reporting subsystem has regressed in recent additions, especially around revenue metrics
  • Monolithic architecture is not very composable: You purchase the whole shebang and cannot do things like run in headless mode or readily swap in your own Digital Asset Management (DAM) platform
  • User experience feels dated and a bit clunky; modernization could require more resources than the vendor can muster
  • Vendor sometimes proves too casual when implementing new or replacement features, sometimes leading to unexpected feature loss or bugginess
  • Some customers report delays in addressing request backlogs, even as the vendor rolls out new features
  • You are bound to BLOX Digital as your implementation partner, which may reduce your choices and means you must depend on their availability

Background

  • The history of BLOX Digital goes back to 1989 when a veteran AP journalist and some partners built the first (print) publishing platform. Since then, the vendor has built out both print and digital CMS tools. The vendor was acquired by Lee Enterprises (a diversified North American publishing chain) in the late 1990s, and today all 80 Lee Enterprise publications use BLOX CMS. Overall, BLOX Digital supports 2,100 licensees, of which 400 use its older print platform as well. The customer base seems oriented towards article-heavy dailies and weeklies, with a special niche in college daily papers and local business weeklies.
  • The real value of this offering is that it tightly couples content production, website management, and revenue generation in a single solution. It’s designed for high-volume article publishing, and licensees such as university student newspapers praise the ease of onboarding even an itinerant newsroom staff. Beyond BLOX CMS, you can license (the somewhat older) TotalCMS (“tCMS”) for print management.
  • The Content Management System (CMS) interface is very busy and somewhat outdated in appearance. On the plus side, the editorial interface is feature-rich and allows for very detailed page and section management. You will also find useful collaboration features, but overall the system is designed as an article publishing machine, allowing rapid throughput from creation to approval and publishing. It’s supplemented by useful video asset management services, but the platform's simpler photo asset management subsystem feels clunky and underdeveloped to some licensees.
  • In general, the overall UX feels like the vendor tried to accommodate numerous client requests without great prioritization, and customers have noted that the feature set, while broad, can prove shallow as well. For example, you can easily set up all kinds of different automated transactional emails, but you must build them in plain HTML. In theory, nearly every publishing use case or feature can get accommodated in BLOX CMS; in practice, most smaller licensees tend have BLOX Digital set up the environment and then just let it run on its own — turning to the vendor again for any subsequent tweaks.
  • An Audiences module comes bundled with the platform. It seems reasonably mature and offers a wide range of features from registration walls to paywalls and PayPal-based payment module by default.
  • All this makes BLOX CMS a good fit for mid-sized or small independent publishers that don't have in-house tech strategists and developers but want an accessible and broadly-featured platform at a lower price point. Ideally you'd be based in the U.S. or English-speaking Canada, as the UX today is English-only. BLOX Digital will point you to larger publications like the St Louis Observer and Toronto Star, but they seem more the exception than the rule.
  • BLOX Digital hosts the CMS for you at their New Jersey, U.S., data center, and bundles a Content Delivery Network (CDN). Each title becomes its own separate tenant, though you can share content among properties via syndication. Although editors can access all separate titles from a single login, BLOX CMS may prove less than ideal for multititle sites that want to share features or customizations and not just content.
  • Developers employ a template engine similar to the popular open-source “PHP Smarty” templating module. Some mid-sized organizations engage their own developers for templates and other configurations, but most licensees — especially smaller ones — seem to rely on BLOX Digital’s own services teams for this. This has hindered some licensees from readily deploying microsites that break their standard template mold. In any event, the vendor does not have any channel partners, so you must turn to them for any advanced work.
  • Note there is no “plug-in” model for third-party custom applications (though you can add external widgets to your templates), as you would see with Drupal or WordPress. BLOX Digital does resell some tightly integrated platforms, like Constant Contact, for more advanced email newsletters and marketing.
  • In sum, this is a rich platform from a vendor that tries very hard to wrap itself around its customers to help them succeed. However, you will find technical debt here, especially on the architecture side, and the firm’s recent financial filings that indicate declining revenues (driven by reduced print business) call into question whether enough resources will become available for a major modernization push.

Package scope (as reported by vendor)

Core platform - i.e., bundled in product (yes/no/beta) Add-On (yes/custom/3rd party)
Content lifecycle: author / classify / edit / approve / publish / re-purpose / archive / dispose
Ja
Basic digital / voice / media asset management
Ja
Support print publishing
Nein
Ja
Simple social media re-publishing
Ja
Optional modules: forms / polls / social widgets / etc
Ja
Connector library (OOTB connectors, APIs, etc.)
Ja
Bundled CDN (with DDOS protection)
Ja
User registration
Ja
Subscription management and fulfillment - digital
Ja
3rd Party
Abo oder Mitgliedschaft
Nein
Personalisierung
Ja
3rd Party
Ad management - digital
Ja
3rd Party
Ad management - print
Nein
Content-Management
Ja
3rd Party
Forschung
Ja
3rd Party
Content-Management
Ja
Video management / OVP
Ja
3rd Party
Audio management / podcasting
Ja
Datenjournalismus und -visualisierung
Ja
3rd Party
Classifieds
Ja
3rd Party
Commenting / community features/
Ja
Newsletter production and management
Ja
3rd Party
Notifications and alerts
Ja
A/B testing
Nein
SEO
Ja
Multi-title management with variable inheritance
Nein
Complex layout and subsite / subsection cloning
Ja
AR- / VR- enhanced services
Nein
Zielgruppensegmentierung
Ja
Online user / partner forums
Ja
Regular user group meetings
Nein
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