A WordPress theme for news

What you see below are my early (very, very early) outlines of a WordPress theme that I’m working on. After the Revenue Two Point Zero Conference posted the ideas that came out of that I’ve been tossing this idea around in my head for building a better news theme for WordPress sites.

The screenshots below (click for larger images) are just the really rough drafts that I sketched out in a couple minutes. If you’d like to see a more functioning demo then head over to my development page. This will also be kept up to date as I work on this.

First, some key points/goals with this design:

A much wider design than is traditional In order to take advantage of today’s wider displays the site is 1100 pixels wide. This may prove to be a bit too wide, but it will be at least 1050.

Remove ads from the homepage Keep them on article pages and limit it to one (extremely relevant) ad on that page.

Redesign category pages Category pages will be based off of the homepage and will work on the premise that if a reader wants an article from a long time ago they will search for it or browse the archives by month, etc. By not needing to allow for every article posted in that category to appear I’ll be able to make the category pages much more specific to their subject. Look for a scoreboard on the Sports page, a breaking news section on the News page, and much, much more.

Make it easy to incorporate videos, Twitter, etc. This has already been beaten to death elsewhere, but any news site that doesn’t think about incorporating these features is worthless in my eyes.

What I want to do with this is put some of what Rev2Oh thought about into practice. My initial design started with the homepage. For a while now I’ve been frustrated with newspaper homepages. Sure, they get a ton of information conveyed, but they do it in such an inefficient fashion. Because of the prominent placement for banner ads the content keeps getting pushed further down the page. My goal is to remove the ads and make the homepage something that people can look at quickly and then move on to actual articles (after all, that is what we want web users to do right?).

To this extent the homepage is designed to be a sort of digest. It’ll give a few key highlights of various sections, include some of the most photo-ready stories but ultimately its goal is to get readers to explore the site further.

newsredesign0021

The second thing that I thought of was article pages. Again, working off of the Rev2Oh model I wanted to incorporate one large ad that doesn’t distract but perhaps adds to the content. The analogy that Rev2Oh and others have used of designing a page like a magazine is a good one and it’s what I’m working with here.

Another feature for the articles is an “About the author box.” This will make it easy for readers to get a quick sense of the author. It’ll have a picture, short bio, and perhaps one more thing.

The article pages will also incorporate two narrow columns under the ad which will be able to display whatever someone wants them too. This will be a place for more features via plugins, etc.

newsredesign0031

There are definitely somethings that still haven’t been ironed out yet (a footer for one) and some things that will just be changed before the final version, but this is what I’m working with right now. Any thoughts, comments, etc. are more than welcome in the comments.

Update: I’ve got the prototype for article pages up now to. Check it out here.

Furthering development and experimental news sites

Earlier today I posted on Twitter that I was “Wondering why more news orgs. don’t have a preview.example.com domain where they can experiment and gather feedback from users.” While I was largely thinking of professional news outlets like The New York Times or the Washington Post I think the same applies for college news.

I think that a question facing a lot of newspapers (college, corporate, and local) is how can we innovate without causing detrimental effects to our online presence? Redesigning homepages, advertising schemes, and premium content is certainly something that’s necessary but I think a lot of news organizations are worried that while they’re working out the details of innovating online they’ll scare away thousands of readers.

The solution to me seems to be creating a preview.example.com domain and to use this as a forum to experiment with new ideas as they arise. This site could operate off the same database as the standard site, thus pulling all new articles without having to upload them twice.

While what the New York Times is doing with its Article Skimmer is good it still misses some key points. A newspaper’s preview site should at the minimum:

Be well advertised from the standard homepage (I’m thinking something like “See what we’re working on” or “See where we’re going next” would work).

Provide a clear means of feedback (perhaps one of the Get Satisfaction “hovering bars” that some sites already use).

Provide an alternative to the entire site. Don’t just display the homepage differently, push yourself to create new ways of displaying articles, forums, category archives, etc. Create a consistent feel that is all new and don’t just send people back to the standard site when they want to actually read an article.

The conversations about how dead large (and small) newspapers are is starting to get old. Part of the problem with the traditional and current mode of news is that it’s too slow to react. Newspapers can talk all they want about how they will gain more revenue, but the reality is that they need to start implementing ideas and doing that quickly.

By creating preview sites news companies would be able to get a lot of ideas out in a short period of time. Also, if feedback were seamless and easy they would be able to quickly get a sense of what is working and what isn’t. I plan on doing this for the Whitman Pioneer this summer but I think it’s something that would get better with the size of a newspaper.

The Global Post news model

A few days ago the New York Times posted a piece about a news startup that is garnering some attention for its business model. The company is Global Post and they’re aiming to make global news coverage profitable again by somewhat changing the revenue model.

With 65 correspondents worldwide who make $1000 a month for 4 stories finding the funding for that kind of operation might seem daunting, but it appears as though they’re succeeding (at least in the short term). Traffic to the site is well ahead of the founders’ expectations and they’re acquiring a decent list of paid subscribers.

These paid subscriptions are the crux of the revenue model. Global Post offers a service they call Passport which “offers access to GlobalPost correspondents, including exclusive reports on business topics of less interest to general audiences, conference calls and meetings with reporters, and breaking news e-mail messages from those journalists.” They even allow Passport members to essentially become a part of the editorial staff by suggesting story ideas.

Their website also has some interesting features (as well as some serious failings…more on those in a bit). Below some of the featured articles they’ve compiled Timelines, stats, and more about the topic of the piece. While it’s too bad that these info boxes aren’t more apparent and higher up in the article they’re still a nice touch.

An example of a timeline from Global Post.

However, as much as the Global Post is trying to create a new business model, they are still doing it without breaking the mold of online news. Their homepage is a cluttered mess that tries to convey some information about far too many subjects. This results in a page where one must scroll more than half the way down before finding a section of Global Blogs, 3 of the main content sections, and the multimedia section.

If a homepage is going to serve as a place to draw traffic into the site (as some have suggested) then most of that content needs to be apparent at first glance. As it is the homepage shows 2 ads, a small navigation bar, the search bar, and 2 featured stories.

By designing the homepage for wider screens and scaling down the size of the featured images and ads Global Post would be able to fit more actual content into that first screen. I would be much more inclined to actually use the homepage itself instead of RSS feeds if information was presented in a clear and immediately understandable way. As it is none of the headlines have dates next to them and it seems as though it would be very difficult to track what articles are new content.

While it may provide some interesting aspects of a business model the Global Post ultimately did not create a online home that innovates. It will be interesting to see how the organization does in the coming months/years in terms of profit, but I cannot see it succeeding without a seriously redesigned homepage.

News will go on

UC-Berkeley’s School of Journalism recently hosted a panel discussion about the San Francisco Chronicle and it’s future (or some might say, lack thereof). The always pertinent Dave Winer attended and shared his thoughts on his blog today. In a very interesting post he writes that:

I got the floor very briefly, at the end, after Scott Rosenberg tried to explain that journalism could happen without newspapers (he has posted his own account). I said the sources would take over the news. Not enough reporters covering the courtroom? The judge will report, as will the jurors, the attorneys, the plaintiff, the defendent. It will be messier, I would have said had I had the time to complete the thought, but more truth will come out.

I said that fifteen years ago I was unhappy with the way journalism was practiced in the tech industry, so I took matters into my own hands. And then dozens of people did, and then hundreds followed, and now we get much better information about tech. It will happen everywhere, in politics, education, the military, health, science, you name it. The sources will fill in where we used to need journalists.

This is one of the clearest and most believable descriptions of the future of news that I have read recently. Winer’s comparison to the tech industry is great. Fifteen years ago, who could have believed that sites like Engadget, TechCrunch, Macworld, and more would have the traffic that they now do? Some of these sites, specifically The Unofficial Apple Weblog, use content created by dozens of writers to synthesize into a comprehensive site for news of their particular topic.

Perhaps the traditional model of journalism will fall completely on its face in the coming months or years (my money’s on yes, it will). This should not be cause for alarm and despair though, it should be cause for innovation and progress. Be thankful that we’re put in a position where individuals can truly have a significant effect on the future of one of the more respected industries in the nation.

The role of Twitter on campus

Having just finished a post for the CoPress blog about the Whitman Pioneer’s first real foray into covering breaking news on our website I started thinking about what the actual role for Twitter is on a college campus that is largely not using the service. At Whitman there are only a few dozen students that I know of using Twitter; even fewer are actually using it consistently. This became apparent when out of 1,200 visitors to our ski team article only 9 came from Twitter status updates.

Part of what makes working for a college newspaper so great is the sense that the paper works as a means for dispersing news for the community; it fills a role that Facebook, Twitter, local newspapers, and more fill partially but not completely. Thus, I see the role of Twitter for a college newspaper as largely being about alerting the community to breaking news, website features, etc. The problem comes when that community is not using Twitter.

The Pioneer has 50 followers on Twitter, but only a few are actually a part of the Whitman community and thus, the majority are not going to necessarily be interested in the daily happenings of the college. This raises the question of what we should really be using Twitter for. Should it be a means of updating Whitman-specific information, or a mode of alerting others to interesting content that may be outside of the Whitman spectrum?

I’m sort of stuck on this question. It seems that most other college news organizations are using Twitter to send updates about campus-centric information; this would be great if people at Whitman actually used Twitter. Since they don’t I’m wondering what people out there have done with their newspaper Twitter accounts if their community is not using it. I’d love to hear ideas.

Finally, honest journalism

I’m sure that Jon Stewart’s interview with Jim Cramer has been written about elsewhere, but I wanted to share my own thoughts on the matter. If you haven’t seen the video, then you really need to so it’s embedded below:

http://www.hulu.com/embed/_3TIApx3ymwKbAfZnz-MKA

First and foremost, all the credit in the world ought to go to Jim Cramer for actually having the courage to walk into the firestorm that he knew would be waiting on The Daily Show. Secondly, Jon Stewart is simply great. With the election of Obama I remember there being some concern about whether Stewart would be able to maintain his high rating and popularity. After all, if he can’t make fun of Bush then how much material does he really have? Well, perhaps the election of Obama has created a bit of a shift in the Daily Show’s content.

As Stewart says in the interview, he shouldn’t have to be the one responsible for asking these kinds of questions and publicizing these facts. Despite the fact that it’s depressing that it is a comedy show that is taking this hard stance on questions of journalism, it is refreshing to see someone actually sit someone down and truly question them. Furthermore, it appears that people will actually listen to this kind of interview too. The audience was entertained in the way that Stewart tore Cramer apart and also seemed to be actually interested in the information both men were talking about.

It’s time for reporters, media, and the general populous to stop making the excuse that people don’t want to listen to or read hard journalism. It’s clear that they do, it just has to be done in the right way. Perhaps if more media institutions actually created content like this then they wouldn’t have as many problems attracting an audience.

Explain your commitment to public service and service to country generally

Below is a draft of an essay I’m writing for an internship this summer with the White House Communications Department. Perhaps this is using the collaboration of the medium to selfish ends (in that case sorry), but I do want to hear what you think.

My commitment to public service and my community is one that reaches back to high school. Since the many hours that I spent running youth basketball leagues and volunteering at paintball tournaments that benefited the Special Olympics I have continued to be involved in the Whitman College and greater Walla Walla communities.

This year as part of an Education course I travel out to the local high school. Here I spend three hours a week helping and observing in a classroom that has more students than chairs. While the students work on group projects and research assignments for their History of the Pacific Northwest course I am available to help the teacher by answering any questions the students may have. This experience has given me a much greater understanding of the social and economic conditions that affect students in rural agricultural areas.

Also, my work with the Whitman College Pioneer has been of a largely volunteer basis. I became the paper’s first Web Manager this semester and am responsible for the entirety of the paper’s web operations. Over the past months I have worked closely with a web developer for Whitman College to create a theme and a site that will provide the foundation for the paper’s online future. As the paper’s only web staff member I have worked by myself to develop and implement aspects of new media to further develop the paper’s ability to remain relevant in a changing online world. I have also worked to train Copy Editors and other staff members on how to use WordPress, Twitter, and Tumblr so that they can take an active role in the site’s future. Through the assumption of this leadership role I have worked hard to develop a website that works for the Whitman community and one that will provide the structure that the Pioneer needs in order to continue its proud journalistic tradition.

I see the possibility of an internship in the White House as providing a tremendous setting in which to further develop my leadership skills. I enjoy coming together with others to collaborate on issues and form ideas to solve problems within a community (whether that is local or national).

Which of the President’s policies, initiatives or campaign achievements is most important to you?

Below is a draft of an essay I’m writing for an internship this summer with the White House Communications Department. Perhaps this is using the collaboration of the medium to selfish ends (in that case sorry), but I do want to hear what you think.

The President’s policy and views on reforming the nation’s education system is the most important to me. As a current college student and as someone who looks forward to become a high school or college teacher reform in this area is of the utmost priority.

Our current system of education is broken; too many kids and teachers alike are failed by underfunded requirements and constraints. The President’s stated goal to reform No Child Left Behind so that teachers do not spend the year preparing students to fill in bubbles on a standardized test is heartening to a liberal arts student who strongly believes in the value of a balanced and critical education.

In addition, their pledge to support the schools that need improvement instead of punishing them is refreshing after years of the removal of funding from the schools that need it most. By committing to provide the funds necessary to allow schools to raise the achievements of students and teachers this administration is creating an environment in which real progress in education can be made. The method of past years, that of restricting funding to the schools that need it in order to develop more efficient models of education, has been one that has clearly not worked as the number of dropouts and underperforming schools have shown.

Furthermore, President Obama’s goal of making science and math a national priority is one that must happen in order for the United States to succeed in the changing global economy. The pace and agility with which the current economy moves means that it is now even more important to push forward in the areas of technological development.

The final aspect of President’ Obama’s education policy that I find to be important to the foundation of a successful education system is the support that he and Vice President Biden seek to give to those learning English as a second language. As a student who volunteered in an English Language Development class in high school I have seen the difficulties that these students face when they are not given the opportunities that they deserve. An education system that does not provide adequate resources for these students is one that hampers their ability to succeed for the rest of their lives.

I believe that the next few years of educational reform as being crucial to this nation’s ability to educate its students in the coming decades. In order to educate citizens that will be able to effectively solve the problems of tomorrow we must fix the education system in such a way that it facilitates the types of critical thinking that is needed.

Which office would I like to work in and why?

Below is a draft of an essay I’m writing for an internship this summer with the White House Communications Department. Perhaps this is using the collaboration of the medium to selfish ends (in that case sorry), but I do want to hear what you think.

My preferred office to work in would be The White House Communications Department because I have a great interest in the development of technologies and the possibilities they bring to facilitate communication. This interest stems from much of the work that I have done while on the Whitman College campus as a lab consultant in the Multimedia Development Lab and as Web Manager for the Whitman College Pioneer, the weekly campus newspaper.

Since December I have been working as the Web Manager for the Whitman College Pioneer as we have launched a newly redesigned site. With the redesign of the site one of our principal aims was to create a place for the Whitman community to come together to discuss current issues. I have worked to redesign the comments, add forums, create a presence on Twitter, integrate link journalism via Publish2, and to involve the staff in writing on a consistent basis for our many beat blogs. Already this semester our website has provided a forum for students to discuss a controversial lecture given by Ayaan Hirsi Ali as well as the actions taken by the administration to mitigate the effects of the financial crisis.

Through my work in the Multimedia Development Lab I have made video and audio editing as well as graphic and web design accessible and understandable to students and faculty alike. By providing assistance in the use of programs like Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, and DVD Studio Pro I have helped students to create multimedia-rich projects for classes, conferences, and internships. I have also helped faculty to create videos and presentations for their classes so that they can more effectively engage their students.

I see the potential of working in the White House Communications Department as a possibility to pursue these aspects of multimedia and communication on a much larger and more influential level. My experience in working at these jobs has shown me the amazing avenues that technology can open up in terms of communication.

Advertising and skittishness

This was posted by a couple people today and is a short but to the point post concerning the web and distracting advertising. In a post titled “On advertising” Mandy Brown of a working library writes that:

There is no end to this, in that short of eviscerating the content all together (and removing any impetus the reader might have to visit in the first place), our attention to the advertisements is always waning. Sadly, our attention elsewhere also suffers and declines; instead of staying still to read, we skitter from place to place, like frightened prey assured the predators are near.

This is somewhat tangentially related to a point that I was attempting to make a while back concerning the decline of attention spans and print journalism. Unfortunately I think that Brown is right on here. Even some of my favourite companies have devolved into ever more distracting and disrupting advertising.

The iPod Touch ad that Apple has run on the homepage of ESPN as well as on Yahoo! Games is a prime example of this. The ad involves an animated iPod Touch moving and showing the accelerometer feature and how it can be used in games. Instead of staying confined to a box of ad space this one moves beyond that. It moves outside of the traditional ad frame and actually disrupts the content on the page (even major content like navigation menus). For an example, see below:

http://www.youtube.com/v/mnzVXda0Glo&hl=en&fs=1

With ads like this becoming more the norm Brown is exactly right when she writes that, “instead of staying still to read, we skitter from place to place.”