Monday, February 8, 2010

Using simple web tools to launch your local news site: a look at the Ann Arbor Chronicle's use of WordPress

This has been cross posted from CitizenPublishing.net. This overview of using easy, out-of-the-box publishing solutions is not meant to insult the intelligence of the technologically savvy, but to assist journalists and local news publishers not familiar with how a simple blogging tool can be transformed into a robust publishing platform.

Stories of laid off journalists starting their own online news sites seem to be an every day occurrence. Combined with local residents tired of the lack of local news in their metro papers, this trend is accelerating. At the same time, new media firms such as AOL owned Patch and US Local News Network are rapidly creating local competitors to major metro newspapers -- or sometimes partnering with those papers in order to sell ads or increase content.

For individuals and small organizations who want to start up a news site, either to serve a very specific niche such as a high school sports booster club or to replace a closed print newspaper, there are options that will enable new publishers to get online quickly and relatively easily.

New small online publishers have at least three basic choices: create a new site using site building software or a platform such as OpenPublish (Drupal), use a third party vendor, or use an out-of-the-box publishing tool such as Google's Blogger, WordPress or TypePad.  The go-it-alone approach might be attractive for developers and more experienced web publishers, but it is clearly the worst choice for writers who do not want the hassle of writing code or learning html. The vendor solution is the easiest -- news site vendors like TownNews have been serving local newspapers for years, but are also the costliest solution.
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For journalists like Mary Morgan and Dave Askins, publishers of the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the answer to quickly launching and maintaining their news web site was to use a system like WordPress. WordPress is an open source publishing application that can be downloaded from WordPress.org for use on the publisher's own server, or can be hosted free through WordPress.com. Many hosting services now offer WordPress as a site design alternative, as well.

The key to using any software package that is generally known as a blogger tool is getting familiar with the copy input interface, and customizing the template. The vast majority of bloggers simply choose a template offered by WordPress or Blogger, or by independent sites, and begin -- no wonder so many sites look alike, especially blogs.



I spoke to Laura Fisher who worked with Morgan and Askins to launch the Ann Arbor Chronicle site. Fisher met Morgan and Askins through Workantile Exchange, a membership-funded coworking community in Ann Arbor. " I met Dave and then Mary -- and they were leaving the Ann Arbor News as it closed down last summer. But they launched this well before the (web version) of the News started up," Fisher told me.  "Mary had been a writer and editor there, at the Ann Arbor News, and she retired from there and went off with Dave and started the (online) newspaper."


☜  Laura Fisher at the Workantile Exchange.


Morgan and Askin explain the motivation for the Ann Arbor Chronicle on their news site: "We launched The Ann Arbor Chronicle to fill a void – to create a daily news site that reflects and embraces the energy, oddities, and character of our community . . . The Chronicle is an online-only venture, but it’s not a blog. It’s personal – we hope not in a navel-gazing way, but in that we’re invested in the place where we live, and with the people who’ve lived here all along, who pass through here briefly, or those who choose to stay. Those are the readers we’re writing for."

The Chronicle is hosted on the site's own servers, ruling out many third party solutions, but giving the publisher's more freedom to control their site. Fisher's choice of WordPress as the content management system was for simple reasons, it was what she was familiar with.

"One of the reasons was that . . . because that was what I was familiar with it. But, that may sound a little bit glib, but that is one of the strengths of WordPress, that there are a lot of people out there like me who know how to do custom templating, who know how to build plug-ins and all kinds of things that extend WordPress for abilities, and so if i were to move to another city, go away, it would fairly easy for Dave and Mary to find another WordPress person because there are so many," explained Fisher.

"One of the really nice things about WordPress is both that it is so extendable and that there are lots of people out there using it so it is fairly easy to drum up help if you need it."

With Wordpress, just like Blogger, there are many templates to choose from. Most bloggers stick to simple two column formats, but a quick Google search will present new publishers with lots of other template choices including templates with advertising slots built-in, as well as templates that mimic other newspaper or magazine sites. Once you have selected the template, customizing it further is not that difficult if you have a little skill at html. If you are working with someone like Laura Fisher, familiar with the platform, customizing the look and feel of the site is a snap.

The key, though, is that launching your new site can be a fairly quick process. "One of the really nice things about WordPress is both that it is so extendable and that there are lots of people out there using it so it is fairly easy to drum up help if you need it," Fisher said.

"One of the key things Dave and Mary wanted to do was to write -- that's what they are out there to do. So, yes, we did a custom template, but if you are just looking to get the news out there WordPress is so fast and so easy to just get up and running -- whether you do it through your own host, or through WordPress.com, a free solution, or a very low cost -- there are lots of ways to do it. And it just gets exciting, its really fast to get started," Fisher added.

According to Fisher, the design and launch of the Ann Arbor Chronicle took approximately eight to ten weeks.  In the meantime, Advance Newspapers closed the Ann Arbor News, and launched their own news web site, AnnArbor.com, forming a new LLC in the process.

"I build these from scratch: this is what I do, html, a little bit of java script here and there," Fisher said. "But generally you start with some visual layouts and then you start putting the html together, then you start putting in all the little places you need -- the WordPress parts -- so you can put in a article here and a title there, and author and all those little WordPress tags. And spruce it up a bit. Its not real complex."

"With the Chronicle we did some more interesting things, but its all standard for WordPress."

For most publishers, the content management system is the element that differentiates one system from another. In WordPress, things are simplified in that categories are used not only to search for content, but as sections.  "What it takes is a little bit of forethought and planning. You have to look at what you are going to use as categories because the things WordPress calls categories can become your "sections" -- so you can have a business section, local news, whatever your sections might turn out to be," said Fisher.

"What's nice about WordPress is that you can have more than one category per post so those things can appear in more than one section, which might be weird for someone coming from print because you probably wouldn't run the same story in two sections -- but it might belong in two sections, and now you can," said Fisher. "You can go beyond that by enhancing the archives using tags."

I asked Fisher about how the Chronicle manages advertising. "There are a number of out of the box plug-ins that will do that for you. But that's not what the Chronicle does. The Chronicle does things differently. Instead of charging by pay-per-click or pay-per-view or whatever, what they do is sell it by time, by a month's worth of ads, and you can buy it for a particular slot, so whether it is on the top right or bottom left or whatever. And they sell them just by the month."

For the Chronicle site, Fisher brought in a fellow Workantile Exchange colleague, Trek Glowacki, who wrote a custom script for basic banner management.

Fisher mentioned that Morgan and Askins discovered that there were people in the community who wanted to contribute to the online news site through straight donations. "The other thing they discovered about monetization was that there was a lot of people who came online who loved the Chronicle, but they are just Joe Citizen. But early one they had no way for people to "subscribe" and so they ended up making a PayPal subscription service for people to voluntarily give money to the Chronicle."



Both the Ann Arbor Chronicle and AnnArbor.com are built on a blog model -- with alterations. By this I mean that the latest story is at the top and moves downward over time. On AnnArbor.com, a "Top Story" slot is created that keeps that story in the top spot until replaced. But stories underneath are listed by time of posting. This problem can be solved by the use of multiple templates -- a practice I have not seen employed too often.

The Chronicle site is three columns in size, a huge advantage when placing advertising, though it is a bit narrow at 830 pixels. The AA.com site, in contrast, is a more modern 1000 pixels in size, but contains only two columns.

Part of the reason for this is that the AA.com site is experimenting with web advertising that has more in common with Google AdSense than traditional buttons and banners. The Chronicle site, though, contains more traditional looking ads, though they do not appear to be in standard IAB sizes. If I were to recommend any changes I would probably say that they should upsize their fonts (though there is an option for that on the site, and browsers allow for this, as well), widen both their total width and their center news hole, and create industry standard ad sizes (this will give them the option to join ad networks and take existing national advertising).



A few final thoughts: I delayed quite a while between writing this post and the actual interview with Laura Fisher. One of the reasons for this is the fact that using WordPress (or another platform like this) is really nothing new. Back in 2007 Matt Mullenweg, a founding developer for Wordpress, pointed on his blog to the Express & Star web site as an excellent example of using WordPress for online newspapers. It is still a very attractive newspaper layout.

Also that year, Brian Gardner, a Chicago area blogger and WordPress template designer, wrote "as WordPress becomes more popular, people are becoming aware of the fact that the capabilities exceed that of a typical blogging platform, and can be used as a reliable content management system."

CoPress is another example: this organization assists college newspapers with their online publications, using WordPress, while also working on other projects. A good example of the use of WordPress is this independent online news site created at the University of Georgia.

These sites and developers provide publishers with ample examples of good design online.



If you would like to see and hear the complete interview with Laura Fisher, you can find it here

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