Monthly Archives: May 2013

WordPress: Beyond Posts

As I said previously, the decision to move news to WordPress seems a straightforward one – it’s used by millions of websites to serve up News, including our own faculty and department websites – but our key justification for the migration, to provide story functionality, isn’t something that WordPress does out of the box so over the last few months we’ve developed something from scratch.

While I’d love to take credit for everything, my involvement was mostly limited to the initial proof of concept and vague arm-waving spec-changing suggestions for how it should work and look. Such is the power of a manager.

WordPress has come a long way since it’s blogging roots and now has some powerful features that can be used to tailor the system to a wide range information. Custom Post Types were first introduced in version 3.0 and provide a way of storing structured information without having to create additional database tables. WordPress itself uses CPT for posts, pages, attachments (e.g. images) and menus but the possibilities for extensions are endless. Plugins often make use of CPTs to implement things like events listings, movie reviews and product catalogues but anything can be put in them and you get all the functionality that WordPress posts or pages have for free.

We have a really basic Story custom post type containing – as a minimum – just a title, image and a paragraph introduction:

Creative Edge - Take a fly through - News - Edge Hill University(2)

Stories and Posts are linked together with a many-to-many mapping using jQuery Tokeninput to make it easy to select which story a post should be related to.

Viewing a story triggers a custom template in our theme that is used to render the page. The template first displays the story title, image and content then looks for all linked posts and outputs them to the page, newest first.

Creative Edge - Take a fly through - News - Edge Hill University(5)

We’ve tried to keep the Story custom post type simple enough that it can be used flexibly in lots of different ways. By specifying just a title, image and content, stories can work as a lightweight wrapper for related posts. They’re not designed to replace a full website – for example the Short Story Prize story still links to the Prize’s standalone website – but act as a focal point for the latest news on a subject.

WordPress mints permalinks from the title on initial publication and only change if forced to do so after that so links to stories will still work even if the introductory text changes.

Stories can work as a live blog by streamlining the process of getting content online – once  a story is set up, say for something like a Graduation ceremony – it’s a simple matter of clicking Add Post to Story in the WordPress admin bar and bashing out a quick update, or pasting in a link to a video, tweet or photo:Edge Hill Short Story Prize 2013 - News - Edge Hill University(2)

Custom post types are the key to extending WordPress’ capabilities by managing structured content but there are other features that allow us to expose this information in new ways. Next time we’ll be looking at how our design is able to make the most of our rich media content.

Telling the story

Last time I introduced the new Edge Hill News website and this time I’ll introduce one of the major new features.

News published through our site often starts life as a press release posted online. Typically it’s a few hundred words accompanied by a photo and calls to action at the bottom telling the reader where to find more information or how to get in touch. These articles have a reasonable half life – linked to from the news website; syndicated across to department websites; sometimes featured on the homepage – and live on in the news archive for search engines to find.

Sometimes, though, we need articles to continue to run and with our old system this involved a bit of a hack – taking an existing article, updating it with the latest details and republishing it to get it to the top of the pile. This never seemed like the best thing to do, but it’s not uncommon for news websites to operate in this way.

Then ITV News broke the mold with their March 2012 redesign. Design agency Made By Many threw away all the preconceived ideas of traditional news websites and moved to a stream of news design – the homepage constantly updating with the latest updates.

What got me interested wasn’t how the homepage implemented the stream idea – unless you’re a regular user I find it a little hard to follow – but how it works with evolving news stories.

Let’s look at one of this morning’s headlines – the news that Morrisons is to begin online delivery via Ocado. On the BBC News website they published a story early morning and I first read a version of their story published at 07:54:

BBC News - Morrisons to offer online shopping in Ocado tie-up

But refreshing the page an hour later adds some new information:

BBC News - Morrisons to offer online shopping in Ocado deal

Can you spot the differences?

  • Headline swaps “tie-up” for “deal”
  • Chart showing share price half way down the page
  • Two new paragraphs saying about the Ocado share price inserted at the very bottom of the article

As someone who read the article at 8am I have to scan through the whole thing just to find an extra 30 words.

The ITV News site handles things completely differently. Their stream of news updates clearly show evolving stories. Just like a blog where posts are shown in reverse chronological order we can see the latest news at the very top:#

Morrisons to begin online sales - ITV News(1)

Just like the BBC News site, the latest take on the story is how the Ocado share price has jumped 40% but this time it’s clearly marked as being updated 42 minutes ago. In this instance they beat the BBC to it – that update was added 36 minutes ahead of Auntie.

This is a really simple example but the approach scales to much bigger stories too where  there is scope to show off the story in different ways. Below is parts of their story on Google’s appearance before the Commons Public Accounts Committee:

Google 'devious over tax bill' - ITV News(5)

I’ve included only a selection of types of update from the full story:

  • Video: pulled in from a branded Vimeo channel thought they also use YouTube. Often accompanied by some text to put it into context.
  • Short update: gives the feel of a live blog without the lack of context that traditionally occurs.
  • Tweet: includes a link back to the original tweet – nice to see journalists citing their sources!
  • Quotations: formatted so it’s easy to distinguish “expert” opinion and comments from journalist’s reporting.
  • Photos: nice and big (that’s not a comment on Vince Cable!)
  • Links to “full story”: importantly, ITV still publish the more typical 500 words + image + video + quotes” article written by one of their editors which make use of content already published in the news stream. If you’re looking for everything in one place then this is where you can read it, but if you’re following the stream live you can skip the duplicate content.

You can read more about the ITV News design in a blog post by Made by Many and Martin Belam (née Currybet) has written a couple of times about the site.

“Nice story, but what has this got to do with Edge Hill?”

There appeared to me to be many possibilities for this style of news publishing at Edge Hill and it could solve some problems we have with the old site.

  1. The hack of resurrecting old articles whenever typically minor changes were made and it needed a renewed lease of life. In these situations there is usually something new that’s happened so adding that information at the top of a story draws attention it.
  2. Over the last year or so Corporate Comms have commissioned and produced an increasing amount of rich media content such as video, photos and audio interviews. These have been included in articles but their half life is probably less than we might wish for.
  3. Events often have several phases which previously haven’t linked together. For example, the Edge Hill Short Story Prize comprises (off the top of my head):
    • Nominations open
    • Long list announced
    • Short list announced
    • Awards ceremony
    • Winner announcement
    • Interviews with winner
    • Possible follow-up activity such as visits to campus

During the autumn term we discussed the idea with colleagues in Corporate Communications and after mistakenly assuming that the ITV News website was built in WordPress claimed that it would be possible for us to do something similar.

After realising that ITV News isn’t a WordPress site and that no one appears to have done anything similar in WordPress we set about building a proof of concept. This gave us enough to justify migrating the news site to a new platform and has been the key part of the development.

With the site only live for a few weeks, the Press Office are just beginning to make use of WordPress stories, but you can see them in action on pages about the Short Story Prize, Edge Hill’s involvement in Liverpool Sound City and the new £16 million Creative Edge development.

Personally I’m looking forward to seeing, watching, hearing and reading the great stories has to tell over the coming months, whether that’s awards, new buildings or graduation ceremonies.

Next time we’ll go into more detail about how stories were built in WordPress.

News moves to WordPress

It’s a little over five years since our last major redevelopment of the Edge Hill news website when it moved from a classic ASP application into Symfony with lots of new functionality. In that time it’s been well used (and abused) with 1337 new articles plus an archive of 537 articles dating back to July 2001 imported across. News gets piped around the website with RSS feeds and machine tags to populate the homepage, department websites and various other places – it’s a bit string-and-tape, but it’s worked pretty well!

Two years ago we began moving some websites to WordPress in order to devolve control of content and structure to Faculties and Departments. WordPress has proved itself a very capable content management system, but more importantly it is now a solid web development framework. It has moved beyond its blogging origins and has handled everything we’ve thrown its way.

Until now we hadn’t migrated any of our “applications” (online prospectus, news, events, jobs etc) to WordPress as the cost of re-writing systems outweighed the benefit but our latest project sees us make the move with a brand new News website.

Latest News from Edge Hill University

While news might seem like an obvious thing to move to WordPress there were still a number of significant challenges we had to overcome in order to make the move. We also had a list of requirements from colleagues in Corporate Communications that we needed to tick off and some ideas of our own to make our news website more than “just another WordPress site”.

Over the next week or so we’ll be blogging about how we built the site and some of the new features.

If you work in Higher Ed Web Design you may be interested in hearing us talk about our use of WordPress at IWMW 2013 next month. Sign up for workshop session A7 – “WordPress: Beyond Blogging“!