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Think Tanks and the Body Field Problem

The think tank solution to the body field problem—stuff all the content into a PDF.

For a long time think tanks could get away with only a handful of entity types, because every think tank adopted the same approach to the body field problem.

When all the messy body content is inside a PDF, the remainder of your entity can be fully structured and easily templated. The thing itself is the PDF. The CMS simply stores all the metadata about the thing. It’s the CMS as document management system.

The body-as-PDF solution works—so long as your definition of work includes I don’t want anyone to read this thing.

Thankfully, more and more think tanks are shifting from PDF-only to PDF-also models of publishing. That process runs in one of two directions.

Turn InDesign files into clean HTML. This process requires discipline in creating your InDesign files themselves—no inline styling!—a sophisticated set of CSS styles for the website, and some custom code to massage the export into something your website can read. We’ve built such a solution for Chatham House and the World Resources Institute.

Generate a PDF from HTML. Yes, there is print CSS. But many think tanks need more than that. A lot of policymaking still happens face-to-face. Putting a Printed Thing on a Minister’s desk at the start of a conversation carries real weight, which means that any sort of PDF you generate needs to look like something that has been professionally typeset. The International Budget Partnership does this quite well. Here’s the HTML. And the PDF, autogenerated from the HTML.

No question that both options are a huge improvement over the PDF-only model. But they also introduce a whole new wrinkle into the body field problem.

The same kinds of content—let’s say, a policy brief—can now have different sets of CMS attributes.

For more context

What do you mean by entities?

What to read next

A brief is an outcome, not an output.

Other items of interest

PDFs presume a particular way of thinking about the world.

This has been true since at least 2014. Seriously.

What's the problem with thinking about content as a document?