Is your is a big ball of mud?

Is your newspaper site a clean-looking, uniform grid of semantic (and validated!) code? Or is it a ‘big ball of mud,’ with includes (scotch tape) and javascript (bubble gum) holding together a jumble of disparate hunks of content?

If you answered ‘YES’ to the first question, congratulations, you work at the New York Times, or the Guardian, or maybe a paper running on Ellington. (Yes, yes, feel free to point out your own brilliantly integrated in the comments. Humor me for a moment, mkay?)

But for most of us, that second answer is a reality as newspapers try to race to build and improve functionality that’s built in to more agile systems across the web.

Comments? Yeah, we’ve got a script for that around here somewhere.

Related stories? Uh, sure, I’ll just write something that queries the database for stuff from the same section with a search for a couple keywords built into it, host it on the only server we have around that runs PHP, then write a piece of javascript to call it in each article page.

And now, the buried lede:

Scott Rosenberg (let’s call him a co-founder of to get your attention) has a fascinating post up describing a somewhat academic paper about programming that analyzes the “Big Ball of Mud” style of coding and finds some advantages to it:

Foote and Yoder draw a real-world comparison to shantytowns; they’re ubiquitous because they use abundant materials and require only the most basic skills. Similarly, the Big Ball of Mud “doesn’t require a hyperproductive virtuoso architect at every keyboard.” There may even be a “secret advantage” in its “casual, undifferentiated structure”: “forces acting between two parts of the system can be directly addressed without having to worry about undermining the system’s grander architectural aspirations.”

What do you think?

As a user of a news CMS, you might not notice all the scotch tape and bubble gum, but I’d love to hear from developers and designers about whether you think it’s better to aspire to a clean all-encompassing publishing solution or to just keep dancing dirty and refining the connections between your resources as needs arise.

4 thoughts on “Is your is a big ball of mud?”

  1. I don’t have much to add, I just wanted to point out that “casual, undifferentiated structure” may be the best euphemism for s***ware I’ve ever heard. Truly a gift to the language.

    Ask yourself this: would your newspaper’s IT staff allow your print publication system be described as having a “casual, undifferentiated structure” where features were just willy nilly added to the print system along the way? No. I get why most sites happen this way, but it’s time to call a production system a production system and treat it at such.


  2. The big ball of mud approach seems manageable for answering easy and small development challenges. It’s more feasible (and likely) with solo and small-team development.

    I don’t see mud being useful for the ‘big challenges’ online newspapers face (like connecting all the like-minded information they publish, one of the cooler things they could do online). Then again, I don’t see many online newspapers tackling big challenges, so maybe the mud’s okay for now.

    And heck, clean output doesn’t mean you’ve got a sweet CMS, it just means 1. There’s somebody up on the CMS team that knows HTML or 2. Your CMS was built in the past two years.


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