Illuminations Blog, JTM News

A tale of two platforms

It’s possible to build a news site from scratch in less than a day, but before getting started it’s important to decide on what platform to build.

While sites like The New York Times, CNN, and The Huffington Post are running custom content management systems, or CMS, that cost hundreds of thousands to develop and refine, there are hundreds of well-established news sites running software that is either free or very low-cost.

CMS options

The United Kingdom’s Metro newspaper is powered by WordPress, as is the Web site for CBS New York, the New York Observer and even the corporate site for The New York Times Company. WordPress is a free open-source software program that can easily be installed on most servers. Sites can also be hosted on, but some of the features do cost money.

Another popular CMS is OpenPublish. OpenPublish is a platform specifically designed for news sites that are built on top of a CMS called Drupal. Like WordPress, OpenPublish is free and open source. More than 150 sites are running OpenPublish including The Nation, the New Republic and the Washington Examiner.

Another option is NationBuilder, which is the software that powers the Journalism that Matters site. Unlike the other options suggested, NationBuilder is neither free nor open source, but pricing starts at $19 a month, so it’s still an affordable option for most publications. Not many news organizations are using NationBuilder today, but the platform is increasingly being used to power Web sites for documentary films.

Though I don’t have any experience using OpenPublish, I have worked extensively with both WordPress and Nationbuilder and will be comparing these two solutions throughout this article.

WordPress: The gold standardWordpress_Blue_logo

WordPress is probably the most popular CMS. It’s the software powering most of the blogs online, but the blogging platform is highly adaptable and a great tool for creating professional portfolio sites, e-commerce stores and even online job boards.

The difference between a blog and an online news Web site comes down to the theme chosen and the way the site is configured. This 2008 article from Smashing Magazine walks through the difference between WordPress blogs and “magazines,” but it almost completely comes down to what theme is running on the site. There are a lot of ready-made WordPress newspaper themes. Here’s a list of 30 good ones I found on another Smashing Magazine article. Each of those themes can be customized in a variety of ways to create a unique brand identity. Sometimes these changes can be implemented without any coding skills, but a basic of knowledge of HTML and CSS will quickly become essential. It is even possible to build a completely custom theme from the ground up, but doing so will typically require both technical skills and a strong sense of design.

NationBuilder: A new paradigm in online publishing

ph-nationbuilder_2xNationBuilder launched in 2009 as a platform for building political campaign Web sites quickly and easily. After gaining popularity in political campaigns, the tool was quickly picked up by nonprofits who realized that the same tools that worked for tracking votes and driving contributions could be used for engaging members and generating donations. In addition to basic publishing tools similar to those offered by WordPress, NationBuilder provides the ability to send and track mass e-mails, collect money online and maintain detailed lists of the sites’ users. NationBuilder is also integrated with both Facebook and Twitter.

These tools allow news organizations to engage their audience in new ways. By collecting the e-mail addresses and phone numbers of readers, it becomes possible to stay connected to an audience through e-mail and reach out to supporters directly when trying to raise money. While it might not be easy to convince visitors to sign up on the site, NationBuilder allows admins the ability to make posts only visible to people who are logged in as a way create an incentive.

It’s also possible to use this process to create a paywall on the site.

Augmenting WordPress to provide the same functionality

Just about anything that can be done in NationBuilder (and a whole lot more), can be accomplished in WordPress by adding plugins. There are several plugins available to create a paywall on a WordPress site, and it is even possible to use WordPress to create a metered-paywall, like the one at The New York Times, which allows visitors to see a certain number of pages each month without paying.

There are also a number of WordPress plugins that facilitate the kind of engagement made possible through NationBuilder. These tools are called CRMs, which stands for customer relationship management. There are free CRMs available for WordPress as well as a number of solutions that cost money. One of the most popular CRMs out there is SalesForce, and the company offers a plugin to integrate SalesForce with WordPress.

Some CRMs have a mass e-mail function built in, but MailChimp is a great solution for any that don’t include that feature.

Two solid options

Both WordPress and NationBuilder offer powerful tools to launch a news site in less than a day. Both tools offer a variety of customizable themes to create a unique look and both WordPress and NationBuilder offer plugins that expand the abilities of the software. However, there are thousands of themes available for WordPress and Nationbuilder only offers 15. Similarly the number of plugins available on Nationbuilder — or apps — is dwarfed by the number created for WordPress.

But the one advantage of this smaller ecosystem is that everything just works. There are no compatibility issues, and things are a lot less likely to mysteriously break on Nationbuilder, whereas new versions of WordPress have been known to create compatibility issues with certain plugins.

And while NationBuilder is often easier to configure, there are a lot more people skilled in working on WordPress sites than there are people experienced with NationBuilder.

No system will ever be perfect, but it’s easier now to launch a site than ever before. Now if only it were as easy to create content to populate that new site.

Illuminations Blog, JTM News

The Weekly Illumination — Issue 20

Welcome to the Weekly Illumination, a JTM newsletter offering a quick look at the week in journalism with a focus on what’s working in today’s news ecology. In this week’s Illumination we’ll visit SXSW, look at how entrepreneurial journalists are running their own businesses and share the best tips for journalists posted online this week.

The Illuminations Blog looks at Climate Desk

JTM alum Jacob Caggiano takes a look at the collaborative project Climate Desk, which brought eight distinct media organizations together to provide in-depth coverage to a topic that’s often addressed in a superficial level. This is the first freelance piece we’ve published on the Illuminations Blog and we look forward to publishing more pieces from Caggiano and other writers.

Tips and tricks

Dispatches from SXSW

This year’s Austin conference included talks from Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. Of course, none of them were actually in attendance due to each man’s respective relationship with the U.S. government.

But many of the speakers actually were in attendance, including Upworthy Co-founder Eli Pariser who was asked during a panel about the company’s careful approach to crafting viral headlines. In another panel, Poynter’s Kelly McBride, a JTM Alum, joined a discussion about how the algorothims that increasingly rule the Web and decide what we see on Facebook will impact our perceptions of the world. On the other side of the feedback loop, ONA presented five challenges it has identified in using social media for news gathering.

After attending SXSW, Angela Washeck concludes on PBS MediaShift that journalism’s future will be tied to social, mobile, and data. A future that The Atlantic’s Scott Haven’s said is still ripe for great business opportunities.

And outside of the sessions, the Harvard Graduate School of design set up a pop-up library known as the LABRARY to show off experimental library technologies.

Odds & ends and odd ends

Going Solo

At one point in time it looked like every town with a Post Office would one day have a Patch, but today both Patch sites and Post Offices are endangered species. But for the hundreds Patch editors who have suddenly found themselves without work, the company’s downfall may spell opportunity for them to strike on their own, as both Caroline O’Donovan and Kaylin Bugos reported this week in separate stories.

While the Internet creates new opportunities for journalists to launch their own publications, like I.F. Stone before him, John Maginnis has been making a living off his own publication since 1972. Maginnis started his newsletter about Louisana politics as a weekly subscription that he delivered over fax; today most people get it on the Web. While Chumel Torres wasn’t even born when Maginnis launched his site, he too has built a sustainable business providing political coverage. The satirical Mexican video blogger has attracted 483,000 subscribers to his program El Pulso de la Republica.

As Vanity Fair pointed out this week, it’s important for journalists to develop their own brand, and in order to build that brand it’s probably a good idea to define your news philosophy as well.

Jobs of the week


The Illumination is a curated collection of stories about journalism innovation, notable job opportunities, grants and updates about Journalism that Matters. It is distributed to e-mail subscribers, through the JTM Google Group, and posted to the Illuminations blog

Activities at JTM, JTM News

JTM announces new executive director

Journalism that Matters is excited to announce that Peggy Holman, a JTM co-founder and long-time board member is now serving as the organization’s Executive Director.

In 2001, Holman joined three career journalists in founding Journalism that Matters to support the pioneers who are shaping the emerging news and information ecology.

In her new role, Holman will oversee JTM’s growth as the organization matures beyond event production and expands into a hub for supporting journalism innovation and community engagement. Said Holman:

“I see an opportunity for us to fill a vital niche by connecting people who are reinventing ways in which the public’s voice enters into news and information. News organizations that are forging new ground around engagement often find themselves alone in the wilderness. We want to provide a place for them to benefit from each other’s work.”

Holman will continue to oversee the Illuminations Project, an initiative shining a light on what’s working in the changing news landscape, that JTM has produced since last year. She is also leading development of the Engagement Hub initiative, a collaborative endeavor to create a peer-based community of practice for sharing resources, connecting people, and growing understanding and skills for journalism that engages communities. Both projects were made possible by a generous grant from the Mott Foundation.

An author and consultant based out of the Seattle area, Holman brings to her new role her experience with engaging organizations and communities in discovering creative solutions to complex issues.

In the second edition of The Change Handbook, she joined with her co-authors to profile sixty-one engagement processes.  Her award-winning bookEngaging Emergence: Turning Upheaval into Opportunity, dives beneath these methods to make visible deeper patterns, principles, and practices for engagement that can guide us through turbulent times.

Journalism That Matters is a nonprofit that convenes conversations to foster collaboration, innovation, and action so that a diverse news and information ecosystem helps communities to thrive. A core belief: journalism matters most when it is of, by, and for the people. Best known for convening unconferences, JTM has a proven track record catalyzing disruptive innovation and fostering new collaborations within the news industry.


Illuminations Blog, JTM News

The Weekly Illumination — Issue 19

Welcome to the the Weekly Illumination, a JTM newsletter offering a quick look at the week in journalism with a focus on what’s working in today’s news ecology. In this week’s Illumination we’ll explore the controversy surrounding Newsweek’s Bitcoin cover story, look at the exploding world of data-driven journalism and offer the best tips for journalists posted online this week.

JTM Co-founder Peggy Holman now Executive Director

Peggy-Holman-smallWe’re excited to announce that Peggy Holman is now serving as JTM’s Executive Director. In her new role, Holman will oversee JTM’s growth as the organization matures beyond event production and expands into a hub for supporting journalism innovation and community engagement.

“I see an opportunity for us to fill a vital niche by connecting people who are reinventing ways in which the public’s voice enters into news and information,” said Holman. “News organizations that are forging new ground around engagement often find themselves alone in the wilderness. We want to provide a place for them to benefit from each others work.”

Tips and Tricks

“I am not Dorian Nakamoto”

Newsweek returned to the world of print this week with a bang. But if it turns out the Temple City man outed by the long-running newsweekly is not Bitcoin’s creator will the barely resuscitated print product survive? In a comment on the ning group where he first announced Bitcoin v0.1, the pseudonymous online Satoshi Nakamoto denied being Dorian Nakamoto, the man exposed by Newsweek’s Leah McGrath Goodman.

“All I can think of is I’m so glad I’m not the editor,” said Tina Brown, Newsweek’s former editor, when Bloomberg Television asked her about the possibility that Goodman got it wrong.

But Felix Salmon points out in the Columbia Journalism Review that despite the merits of hiding in plain sight, perhaps Newsweek should’ve couched their thesis that Satoshi Nakamoto was hiding out under his own name as theory rather than fact.

In reporting the story, Newsweek published the city Nakamoto lived in, along with a photograph of his house and another of his face. While there’s a case to be made for publishing this information if the story were accurate, there is no argument to do so if their assumption proves false.

Odds & Ends and Odd Ends

What’s the big deal about big data

Following last week’s computer-aided reporting conference NICAR 2014, which now has audio archives available for those unable to attend, the web has been abuzz with stories about how to use and gather data along with the legal and ethical issues inherent with obtaining it in the first place.

If you have to bypass firewalls and manipulate URLs to obtain information that isn’t clearly in the public domain, you may be crossing an ethical line and could find yourself in legal trouble, writes Kimberly Fields after attending the Hack or Hacker session of the conference. Allen Zeng, a computer science student without a journalism background wrote his account of the same session for Northwestern University’s knight lab blog.

For journalists without the programming chops to scrape data on their own, new tools like OutWit Hub and are making it increasingly easier to gather datasets that can drive investigative reports and uncover new information.

In some cases datasets are already available from government agencies and ProPublica has launched its own data store offering the databases its used in its own reporting to journalists for only $200 each. Some of the sets on the ProPublic Data Store can be downloaded for free.

But data doesn’t only exist in the virtual world, much of it originates in the physical world and that data can also be presented through all kinds of physical manifestations, writes Anushka Patil for the Northwestern University knight lab. And with data becoming such a significant element for everyone, Caroline O’Donovan explores whether journalists should start reporting — and critiquing — the actual algorithm’s themselves in a post for Nieman Lab.

Jobs of the Week


The Illumination is a curated collection of stories about journalism innovation, notable job opportunities, grants and updates about Journalism that Matters. It is distributed to e-mail subscribers, through the JTM Google Group, and posted to the Illuminations blog.

Illuminations Blog, JTM News

How circa constructs a story

On Wednesday, February 19 at 11 a.m. Pacific time, Journalism that Matters will host a hangout with David Cohn to discuss his experiences as an entrepreneur and to talk about how circa is changing the shape of news on mobile devices. Please join us.

The way people consume news has radically changed over the past twenty years, but the basic story structure has remained essentially the same. But what if the news itself were reimagined for our mobile-first hyper-digital world?

4568948042_d68ba4d32f_oThat’s exactly what JTM-alum David Cohn, who founded Spot.Us is now doing at circa, a mobile-only app that has taken the news apart into its most tiniest components and reassembled it in a new way.

“We don’t write articles. We tell stories and those stories persist over time,” said Cohn. “We can keep track of what a person has read or not read… as a result we can prioritize for each individual.”

Each story on circa is comprised of fragments of information that are written by circa’s 11-person editorial team. These pieces are then stitched together to create a story like a set of building blocks stacked on top of each other. It’s a little bit like the way young students are taught to write a research paper by putting each individual point on a separate strip of paper and then sorting them out and arranging them on their desk before assembling a rough draft.

Like Wikipedia, for every circa story each of these nuggets includes a citation to where the editor obtained that fact. This process creates stories that can be easily updated as new information becomes available and the stories are customized to put new information above the facts a user has already read.

Although the team doesn’t do any boots-on-the-ground reporting, they do corroborate information and communicate with sources to ensure their stories are as complete and accurate as possible.

In many ways circa represents the next step in the atomization of news. Before the Internet, the basic unit for news was the publication itself, pointed out Felix Salmon last week in a blog for Reuters. Sure, you could clip out an article to send to your cousin, but people subscribed to a limited number of publications and weren’t exposed to many news stories outside of those newspapers and whatever they saw on television.

As people began to rely on Google to search the Web and news sites, the basic unit shifted to the article itself. Now, with Twitter, it’s shifting to the individual facts themselves as people tweet and then retweet 140-character updates on everything from the deaths of celebrities to Supreme Court verdicts and breaking news.

In the same way that CNN led the evolution of television news in the 1980s, Cohn sees circa as a leader in producing news for mobile devices. The company is not only changing the way people engage with news but developing the technology to make that possible.

Circa allows people to read stories and identify new developments faster than they can by reading stories on a typical news site. This is increasingly important in general, but even more so when it comes to people consuming news on their phones during momentary lulls in their busy days. And circa makes it possible to dig deeper into any stories by linking every reported detail to another publication or the original primary source material where the information was first reported.

Cohn said that if other publications were to adopt this granular approach to news he would see it as a “huge validation for what we’re doing.” But such a change won’t be easy, he said.

“It’s actually a bigger shift than just technology,” said Cohn. “It would require a more fundamental shift.”

Though the reporting process itself would essentially remain the same, circa frees reporters from writing a new article every time there is something new to share. The approach also changes the way reporters relate to the stories they work on as anyone from the team can inject a new point into a developing article. These points can also be used in multiple stories, and transition are typically avoided.

“It’s actually a really efficient process of writing the news,” said Cohn. “We’re not necessarily there to create new article after article after article.”

While circa doesn’t do a lot of original reporting and relies on other news sites in much the same way that the AP wire service depends on its local members, Cohn said that if that source material were to evaporate it would be a boon and not a disaster.

“If all the newspapers ceased to exist that would actually create a market opportunity,” he said. “We don’t (do original reporting) right now because we don’t have the manpower.”

But unlike, Cohn’s nonprofit organization that brought crowd-funding to journalism before Kickstarter made it a household term, circa is a for-profit company with the resources to ramp up their editorial team. While the annual budget for never crested above $170,000, circa has raised more than $1.5 million. Cohn said that part of the reason circa has been so successful at raising money is because the company was founded by Ben Huh whose Cheezburger network of Web sites, which includes I Can Has Cheezburger and FAIL blog generates more than 350 million page views a month.

“For better or worse, money follows money,” said Cohn. “And that was true in the nonprofit world as well as the for-profit world.”