Snapshots from the future of online student news

Those of you (er, both of you) who have been following this blog since its outset (onset?) in February 2005 will recall that I first got involved with the actual production of online news at the Spartan Daily, the student newspaper of San Jose State University, where I remain a graduate student, believe it or not.

I walked into Prof. Richard Craig‘s office one day in the summer of 2005 and said “Why isn’t there an RSS feed for the Daily?” and he and the other advisers and Daily-adjacent faculty members basically gave me the keys to the site and told me to go out and do whatever I could to improve it.

It turned out that adding an RSS feed was easy, but my interest — and sudden new role as the contact for the hosting and CMS provider (back then it was a company called Digital Partners) — led me to my first news site redesign, turning the Daily’s site into something slightly more pleasant to look at.

I think I must have taken a few independent study credits and the title of Webmaster the next semester.  I wasn’t the Online Editor, whose job at that point in time was mostly to do a lot of painful copy/paste webmonkey work very late at night, but I helped the staff try to figure out a little bit about what more they could do with the system.

Digital Partners was promptly swallowed up by College Publisher, and I redesigned the site again, with the excuse of porting it over to a new CMS and hosting system.  It was fun, and I was working with the incoming Online Editor, Shaminder Dulai, who started driving multimedia into the story count requirements at the Daily. (And then Daniel Sato and Neal Waters redesigned it.  And then Kyle Hansen redesigned it.  It should be redesigned every semester if there’s a student or two with a passion for online news design, and if you don’t have one or two of those around, something’s wrong. )

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This is all just to say that after working with a few versions of the dominant CMS/hosting tool for college newspapers, I came to the following conclusions:

  1. If all you’re interested in teaching or learning is content production, College Publisher is fine.  Stories, comments, blogs (?), video, photos — it can handle all that.  I’m pretty sure embeddable tools work as well.  But those are the limits.
  2. If you’re interested in teaching or learning anything at all about Web design, development, user interaction, interactivity, Flash-based multimedia or graphics, or community management, you need something more flexible than a turnkey solution.

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Once you get past that, you’re loose in the touchy and complicated world of how/why/when/where to deploy some sort of open source software and server setup that students can manage — and far more importantly, that the next student staff can manage.  And the next one.  And the next.

I’ve been excited to see a few projects appear in recent months to address that issue, and get past it.  Here’s the best I’ve seen, so far:

  • The Populous Project: This Knight News Challenge winning project intends to build a fully featured three-phase system for student (and small town?) news, from CMS to a front-end newsroom system for print and online, to a social networking tool to add on to news sites.  This project is based at the UCLA Daily Bruin, where they’re coding up a prototype in Django which they plan to open-source.
  • CoPress: This collective project features a bunch of online news students and recent graduates that I know from around the Web, and they’re applying for a Knight News Challenge grant this year. (Sense a theme here?)  Check out their answers to my questions about their proposal.  The gang at CoPress knows exactly what a student paper needs to get their jobs done and be innovative at the same time, and you can see that in their list of Ideal CMS Features, which includes things like the need for a system that plays well with InDesign and IPTC data.

(For a sense of what’s possible when you break out of the College Publisher mold and go your own way, check out the WordPress-powered Miami Hurricane.)

My most important questions for any student media CMS project have to do with scalability and repeatability:

How easy will this CMS be to host, given the variety of university and external systems in play at student media outlets with a wide range of organizational structures?

How easy will this CMS be to maintain for a steady flow of students through a newsroom, year after year?

6 Replies to “Snapshots from the future of online student news”

  1. I think CoPress has answers for both of your questions, Ryan. We’re interested in supporting a CMS that is as easy to deploy and maintain as WordPress (and choosing WordPress as our CMS would make that even easier). As much intellectual knowledge about this CMS would be put online as possible. If you don’t have the staff to support/maintain the CMS for a term, you’d be able to hire help at a nominal rate.
    These are the theoretical ideas, at least. Our goal is to be able to scale this into actuality over the coming months.

  2. I note that WordPress MU is supposed to eventually add social networking features, while WP regular will not. Don’t know how that would affect adoption. CP is now implementing version 5.0, which is a major change in the interaction behind the scenes.

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