The Future of News

Ryan Thornburg

DIY Online Newsroom: Budget Edition

Starting an online newsroom at a journalism school isn’t exactly the same as starting one in the world outside those friendly confines. First, the staff tends to pay us to work there. Second, there’s usually a pretty substantial technical infrastructure already in place.

That said, there are still technical hurdles to overcome before we can start doing good journalism. Let me give a brief rundown of where we stand on technology on this third day of classes.

First, the sites for both Public Affairs Reporting for New Media and Newsdesk are being hosted by Ibiblio.org — my own personal group of technical saviors and a fantastic resource here at UNC. They take care of the maintenance of most of the server-side technical goodies — Apache, PHP, MySQL — that I need to install and run content management systems. They take care of all the security and ongoing maintenance so my site stays live and doesn’t get hacked. And — perhaps best of all — they give me a lot of rope to hang myself. They let me play around with just about any tools I care to install, and they are generous with their time when I get stuck in the mud as a result of my own overconfidence in my own technical prowess. I get all this for the low, low price of free.

This is a good time to point out that I like free. I try to use free or cheap as often as possible in my classes, partially because those solutions are often the best, partially to save the good people of North Carolina some money, and partially to demonstrate to students that they can build an innovation infrastructure themselves for relatively low cost.

The content management systems I’m using this year are WordPress for the Newsdesk class and Drupal for the PARNM class. I’ve been familiar with WordPress because my own blog is hosted on it. And we’ve used WordPress.com for students to do their blogs in previous classes. But I was really inspired by efforts at the University of Miami and University of Massachusetts at Amherst to give WordPress a test run as a full-fledged news site CMS that can do more than blog.

Drupal I’m using for the first time. I chose it because I have heard for a long time that it is excellent for the kind of community-driven sites like we’re trying to build. But I also chose it because I’d never worked with it before and, like Mae West, when I have to choose between two evils, I usually pick the one I’ve never tried.

At one point I considered WordPress Mu and Lyceum. While those both seem like good solutions for multi-user blogs, that’s not really what I needed. Instead, students in the Newsdesk class will each be working on their own sections in WordPress and students in the PARNM class will all have their own blogs in Drupal.

Last semester I used Joomla to create a class site, but I had some problems with it. The documentation is spotty and the user-base seems to be located mostly in Germany and Korea with a command of English that makes for cryptic installation instructions. I also couldn’t figure out how to define user roles and edit the workflow so that it would make more sense for a news class.

I had to download those content management systems and install them on Ibiblio.org. I also had to register some domain names and get the the Ibiblio staff to configure some DNS settings.  To install these content management systems, you do have to know some very basic Unix commands. The first time you do it, it’s probably good to have a strong support group, no children within earshot, and perhaps a stiff drink.

I’m certainly no designer, so I also went scrounging the Web for free design templates to install on top of both WordPress and Drupal. The Amherst Wire site sent me hunting for themes at  ThemeHybrid. There I found the Options theme and installed it on WordPress. But the Options theme is more than just CSS. It extends WordPress in some really helpful ways for people who want to do news.

OrangePolitics.org pointed me in the direction of the Newsflash theme. This being my first time in Drupal, I didn’t go looking for themes all that much and I really don’t know yet what I like or don’t like about this theme.

So far, so good, right?

Yeah, that’s usually the time things turn south for me, too. They say the darkest hours are just before dawn. That was true for me on this project. Right before the semester started I realized that I had installed WordPress on the wrong directory on the server — and moving it caused problems. Specifically, I couldn’t write pretty URLs. The kind folks at Ibiblio helped me solve that one after a few days of tinkering.

Then Drupal just started freezing up on me. Click on a link… wait two minutes… page loads. We still haven’t fixed that problem, but apparently we’re not alone.

Yeah, I don’t know what that means either. But it appears to be the problem. Wish me (and the good folks at Ibiblio) luck…

Written by Ryan Thornburg

January 14, 2009 at 5:06 pm

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