WordPress speaks my language

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The CMS powerhouse dominates the content delivery business

By Bradley Wilson, CMR Managing Editor

“WordPress is so amazing it doesn’t even need an introduction,” said Brad Parbs, a specialist in WordPress-focused Web development. However, for colleges and universities looking to update their website, knowing that WordPress is the most often-used content management system and that it is consistently ranked as the most user-friendly and easiest to use makes it easier to narrow down the choices.

Indeed, surveys rank it as having a market share greater than 60 percent, including sites for companies such as Forbes and Pepsi. Clearly, WordPress has become the content management system of choice for collegiate media. More than half (54%) of the school publications that received an Associated Collegiate Press Pacemaker or who where a finalist in 2018 used WordPress.

What follows is a discussion with Jonathan Elmer, former student publications manager at Louisiana Tech about his experience implementing WordPress and moving the student media online.

So, I get schools asking me all the time about starting up a website or revamping their old one. Is WordPress the way to go? Why/not?

I was hired as adviser for all student media here with the immediate mandate to take the publications online. My supervisor,  Brenda Heiman, had championed this initiative and been tremendously supportive from the beginning. Since I was building everything from scratch – re-launching the student publications (newspaper, magazine and yearbook), writing job descriptions, interviewing and hiring staff, learning the procurement process with the State of Louisiana, purchasing equipment (new cameras, lenses and audio gear) – choosing WordPress to take our student newspaper and magazine online was just one of a myriad of decisions and tasks I completed this past year.

WordPress is known as an open-source
CMS (Content Management System). Open source simply means that it’s free and supported by thousands of developers who continue to improve upon it.” BRIAN LUNDY

Initially, I found WP to be quite daunting when I tried to set it up. Heiman suggested I look for a consultant and I was lucky enough to hire Amber Narro from Southeast Louisiana University. Narro came to Tech for a day to train the student journalists and to get us started on WP. She gave the students and me the information to get started, and we were on our way to publishing online. As Narro described it to me recently, WP use is so widespread that wherever you are, the chances are very good there is someone close by who has experience with the Content Management System.

The decision to go with WordPress was straightforward. Most importantly, it would allow me to lead the students in concentrating on producing quality content and not worry about designing pages.

Plus, the WordPress universe is very robust. In my research, I even found a web site that will analyze the contents of any URL you plug into the search field and tell you what percentage of the site is produced with WordPress elements.

WordPress support was also crucial. WP is everywhere, is used by many people and at numerous publications. One result of this widespread use is that most of the challenges folks confront have been seen before and therefore are handily resolved.

I must stress the value of high quality content. Finding and telling stories that will be valued by our readers is my most important goal as a faculty adviser. From my viewpoint, the decisions involved in determining which of our available assets to deploy to tell those stories – writing, photographs, video, graphics and audio – also hold the most valuable lessons for the student journalists here at Tech. Another factor is that the student journalists here are limited by state laws concerning how many hours they are allowed to work weekly. In addition, several had other jobs to help pay for school. As a result, the time we had to produce content for our publications was a very dear resource.

One valuable result of all this work is that now there is a group of students here at Tech who can talk to prospective employers about their experiences helping to set up, launch and maintain a CMS.

As you were working with Louisiana Tech this year, what pros and cons did you find with WordPress?

WordPress is just one aspect of the many things I’ve learned during my first year as a student publication adviser.

In my experience, the biggest challenge was getting our CMS online. Once we accomplished that, the rest has been pretty straightforward. We’ve used video elements recently on our newspaper site, The Tech Talk (https://thetechtalk.org). It’s been exciting to see the reactions of the student journalists and getting feedback from readers. That type of enthusiasm for what we’ve been able to do has been very rewarding for me as a former career journalist who’s been fortunate enough to have a second career in academia.

Pros

  • Widely used with a wealth of documentation online
  • Open source
  • Updates available frequently
  • Tremendous range of choices in hosting and templates
  • Quality is highly commendable
  • Everything we learned, we shared with one another.

Cons

  • You have to stay on top of the updates.
  • Security.
  • My advice to novice users would be twofold – “Don’t get discouraged and don’t get complacent.”

Con that turns into a Pro

WP has a steep learning curve when, as I did initially, you go in cold. Once you get into the system, it’s pretty easy to pick up. I think it’s accurate to say new users will have some frustrations. This is the part where creative problem solving and hard work come into play.

Should I let WordPress host my site or find a third-party host?

We have third-party hosts. Most of the folks I spoke with during the process do the same. I’m fortunate to have the budget to operate in this manner.

If I go down this path, I have to find a host and have to register a domain name. There are a lot of details. How did you deal with all that?

There is no question that there are countless details to be dealt with in going online. I received some very valuable advice as a new photographer at the Associated Press in their Columbus, Ohio bureau – “Figure it out.” As a photojournalist, I learned a valuable skillset that included decision making, self-reliance, an instinct to act immediately and make adjustments during the process. Key to this was the knowledge that mistakes are unavoidable. When those occur, you learn to correct them, own them, learn from them and move on. My opinion on working with WordPress is that if you wait for everything to be perfect before you launch, you’ll never make it online. We’ve worked hard on creating interesting content on our sites for our readership. The layout and design is good, but I know it will be better the longer we work at it. From my perspective, it’s a process. We’ve accomplished a tremendous amount this year, but we will do better in the future.

That has always been a source of motivation for me as a journalist and an educator. I create opportunities for myself to be learning continuously since I think that makes me a more effective mentor. That’s one of the reasons I teach – I want to equip the students as effectively as possible so they’ll succeed in the workplace.

You also have to find a WordPress theme. And that can be daunting. There are free ones. There are expensive ones. What advice would you offer for selecting a theme?

I have very strong opinions on this topic.

I was trained as a news photographer and worked as a photo editor in NYC at AP and Bloomberg News. I have studied design in a successful effort to supplement the compositional skills I developed as a visual journalist.

I’m always examining different sites in much the way I used to compare newspaper fronts at newsstands.

Asking questions constantly is a favorite strategy of mine. “Is it user friendly? Are layout and design logical? Does it make effective use of white space?”

We can agree most folks use their smartphones for everything now (at least it seems that way to me sometimes…). That leads to the inevitable question, “How will this look on a phone screen?”

Early research in this space taught me you have only a few seconds to capture a visitor to your site.

I looked at scores of templates, winnowed the candidates to five templates each for the student paper and quarterly magazine. Then I let the student editors pick them. My attitude with this approach is that it allows students to develop a sense of ownership and get practice making decisions. Part of that process is that they knew going in that they’d have to live with their decisions.

Choosing templates was an enjoyable process for me. I approached it just like photo editing. I scanned the thumbnails of the landing pages. I’d mark the ones I liked and compare them in full-screen mode. When I had a handful of finalists, then I would do serious research on those templates.

From my perspective, one of their strong points of the bounty of available templates is that if you aren’t satisfied with you choice, you can go back and pick another one.

I avoided the free templates since the overall look was important me. However, as I’ve noted, I have the luxury of a budget for the templates we’re using to showcase our work.

Design and first impressions are crucial from my perspective. There is a tremendous amount of competition online for readers’ attention.

I gravitated to sites that allow you to effectively use all your elements – words, photos, video and audio. When you purchase a template, you also buy more options that lead to creative flexibility.

If I would offer advice to folks selecting a site, it would be don’t let the process induce frustration or anxiety. Think about sites you visit frequently and ask yourself questions. “Why do I like this site? How do they use images? How do they package stories? What don’t I like about the site and why? What aspects of this site stand out? Think about the use of color, too. For me, a lot of this process was instinctual.

I’d encourage people to ask questions such as, “Does this template offer me flexibility in the elements I use (or am considering using in the near future)?

Regarding free templates, I suppose a lot depends on what sort budget people have access to for templates. I consider myself fortunate since I had a budget this past school year and am allowed to pay student journalists an hourly wage.

Free templates have a restriction on the number of features and design limitations.

In today’s society, security is also a concern. How did you deal with security issues including backups?

We have Secure Sockets Layer with our two sites.

Another key component of robust security is encouraging the student journalists to create strong passwords.

Finally, I think it’s wise to stay on top of software updates.

Security was and is a major concern. Backups are vital (and one of the reasons I went with a third-party hosting plan). In addition, I have several friends and family members who work in the Information Technology space so I enjoy a perspective on the topic that not everyone might share.

If you were giving someone one piece of advice about using WordPress, what would it be?

For anyone embracing CMS cold, I will say the following:

  • Be patient
  • Work hard
  • Keep in mind that WP is very good at marketing. My experience (and others I have spoken with on the topic) is that it’s not as easy as the marketing makes it seem.

Based on the anecdotes I have heard, the landscape is littered with a lot of sites whose creators started but just weren’t able to finish. Probably the single most valuable lesson I have learned is that there are a lot of folks out there who are willing and able to help.

DEVELOPMENT OF WORDPRESS

WordPress started in 2003 with a single bit of code to enhance the typography of everyday writing and with fewer users than analysts could count on their toes and fingers. Since then it has grown to be the largest self-hosted blogging tool in the world, used on millions of sites and seen by millions of people every day.

Everything, from the documentation to the code itself, was created by and for the community. WordPress is an open source project, which means there are hundreds of people throughout the world working on it — more than most commercial platforms. It also means anyone is free to use it for anything from a cat’s home page to a Fortune 500 website without paying anyone a license fee.

WHAT YOU CAN USE WORDPRESS FOR

WordPress started as simply a blogging system, but it has evolved to be used as a full content management system and so much more through the thousands of plug-ins, widgets and themes. WordPress is limited only by the user’s imagination.

A LITTLE HISTORY

WordPress was born out of a desire for an elegant, well-architectured personal publishing system built on PHP scripting language and MySQL relational database management system and licensed under the GPLv2 (or later) open source license. It is the official successor of b2/cafelog. WordPress is fresh software, but its roots and development go back to 2001. It is a mature and stable product. By focusing on user experience and Web standards, the company hopes it can create a tool different from anything else out there.

SOURCE: Democratize Publishing: The freedom to build. The freedom to change. The freedom to share.

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