This is the second part of the story surrounding the creation and development of HashBrum (first part here). This bit will be more technical – not too much, though – and more interesting for those who want to create their own local news websites. I can tell you something: it’s not that hard, it’s not expensive, it’s never finished, and it will give you trouble. But if you are familiarized with your CMS of choice, then it won’t be that difficult.
Building the website
After spending a lot of time discussing what we should or should not do, we decided to build a website with some of the basic features we planned, and start from there, adapting and changing it along the way to better suit our needs, and see how the technology available would work for us.
I was in charge of the website construction, so most of the technical decisions were left to my consideration, although we agreed to use WordPress as a CMS, in a self hosted version. I offered server space that i already owned, and started working on the first version of the website. Don’t be surprised about WordPress, it’s a powerful platform, and i wonder why there aren’t more small newspapers investing in WP-powered websites. With a small investment they would benefit from a good platform. The other CMS that i used before for news websites was Joomla. If you know how to work with them, then you know that there’s a lot that can be done.
In a 16 hour straight site building marathon, I set the basic structure, design and main features for HashBrum. I went for a free template that I thought it would be easily customizable called Scarlett[i], and changed some CSS settings, and PHP. It already brought some plugins and original features that made me choose this specific template: the thumbnail carousel, editable areas for advertising that for me meant blank HTML fields, and a cascade on the right side. The possibility of placing a video next to the main content in the right column helped me to go for this theme. The main customization was the inclusion of a map on the upper part of the ‘body’ section, generated by the WPGeo plugin[ii] , that I learned about at Mindy MacAdams blog [iii].
We can never be thankful enough for the work some designers and coder make available for free. From the basic template to all of the plugins we didn’t have to spend a cent/penny. Just bought the domain and used some room on an already paid for server. I wish i could pay these guys for their work, since most are really enthusiastic about their projects, and some respond to your doubts quite fast. Kudos!
Now the blog had a content area and a map where we could pinpoint the news stories, and navigate to them. It wasn’t the most powerful interface but it was built overnight and it was simple to use, and we already had a place to put our stories up.
From the plugins that I added I’d like to highlight a few that provided extra features to the original structure (a longer list with links is available after the jump):
– ICS Calendar: this was a late addition to the site but it proved to be quite helpful and interesting. It presents a Google Calendar in a page, and the possibilities that we have if we make calendar open to user contribution are immense.
– Intense Debate: this is the most powerful commenting plugin available, it’s a shame we don’t get that many comments to take it to its fullest potential.
– Live Blogging (a Caroline Beavon’s request): since we were planning to cover some events live, I looked for a live blogging plugin. This one seemed to be the best one.
– Sociable: a social bookmarking plugin, for content sharing.
– SoJ Soundslides: to upload and embed Soundslides in posts.
There are other back office plugins, for security purposes in particular, like Akismet, Bad Behavior and Broken Link Checker. The most important part was that the website was ready to publish content; we just had to create it.
Decide with your team what will be the menu structure and categories needed. This is really important and if you don’t have a starting point you’ll have problems in the future trying to create a navigable website.
Major problems and some advice
The worst part is teaching others how to use the specificities of the template: how to place pics in the carousel, in the cascade, how to resize the video in the front page…so if you’re planning to do something like this, have someone to stay in control of the backend of the website, and someone else to substitute that person if not available. And people will mess up with the website when you are not looking.
The other part i find difficult is design. I’m not a designer, i wish i was good enough to do such a cool logo like we have. Another thing that failed has been the connection between the website and social networks, but that would mean a stronger effort from our part to manage an online community around HashBrum and its stories. Overall, the website has been working fine, i broke the CSS code once, that rendered the website unreadable, and had to spend a while to fix it (advice: backup every major change or group of changes you make).
And, of course, it’s not that powerful. We are restrained to the natural limits of the template options and plugin features. There’s nothing you can do about it, but there’s a lot you can do with it. Just keep trying. You can go for a different CMS, like Drupal or Joomla, that your problems will be the same – unless you’re a hard coder. Try to cope with your own and the platform’s limitations.
Before you start doing anything, be sure of what you want. You can always revert the process, you can always start again, and you will be learning in the process, but sometimes it’s just time wasted. It’s hard to have the responsibility to do something like this for a team of people, especially when you have to step in because the developer who was supposed to do the thing wasn’t available. And the worst part was i devoted so much time to the website i neglected the content creation, and i didn’t sign up to become a webmaster. Still, i’m proud of what was accomplished, and it’s good to see some of my colleagues taking the most of the features that i managed to enable for the, and for creating a space where we could all experiment, and for coming up with solutions when they were needed. And it’s what this type of work is all about.
[i] Scarlett Theme demo http://tinyurl.com/yejcxyf .