MA Online Journalism Assignment 1: Exploratory Portfolio

“As a multimedia journalist your content exists for the web. And so to not have your own web presence is ludicrous.”
Westbrook (2009)

The Experiment

The goal of my exploratory portfolio for assignment 1 of my MA in Online Journalism, was to establish a professionally hosted, WordPress-based, news website with its own, unique domain name in order to transform a WordPress-hosted site into a more professional, self-hosted platform for news distribution.

As part of this learning process, I would also aim to provide several brief, succinct guides in how to set up a news website from scratch, for non-technical journalists and professionals , that would assume very little prior knowledge, in order to address a problem I’d identified when providing blogging training and consultancy to staff at Birmingham City University.

The Problem

With over 46 million downloads, and as the content management system behind almost 19% percent of traffic on the web (‘WordPress now powers 18.9% of the Web, has over 46m downloads, according to founder Matt Mullenweg, The Next Web), WordPress is the most successful and flexible blogging platform/content management system, and tends to be the most commonly recommended platform (‘Which Blogging  Platform Should I Use’, Life Hacker) for those looking to establish their own professional website or blog for the first time.

Yet many non-technical web users, dutifully search Google for ‘install wordpress’ – a search keyword trend that continues to rise – only to be confronted with the top Google UK search result for the term, a page called ‘Installing WordPress’ on WordPress.org, that starts:

“WordPress is well-known for its ease of installation. Under most circumstances, installing WordPress is a very simple process and takes less than five minutes to complete.”
Installing WordPress, http://codex.wordpress.org/Installing_WordPress

In fact, WordPress make a big thing of its “ease of installation”, stating confidently that installing the site takes “less than five minutes to complete”.

Yet instructions, such as step 2 of their ‘Famous Five Minute Install'; “2. Create a database for WordPress on your web server, as well as a MySQL user who has all privileges for accessing and modifying it,” (Installing WordPress) evidently assumes a significant amount of prior technical knowledge of web hosting, file transfer protocol (FTP), domain name registering, and database management that runs contrary to slightly condescending use of the word ‘simple’ in the copy.

<WordPress.com vs WordPress.org, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Nh11GI4-Gc>

The process even seems to alienate even the more technical users:

“When I came to know about WordPress I thought it is [sic] easier to download and install Worpdress [sic] on the server. I thought it is as easy as installing any general software on the PC. But when I tried it, I was bit confused. I learned several tutorials on the web but I was satisfied with none of them. I found the tutorial given on official WordPress codex is most appropriate. But it lacks images and it is somehow difficult to understand in the first glance. WordPress installation is not a very difficult process but it require some technical skills. You should know about computer work, Cpanel, My SQL, database terms. It also requires transfer files through FTP clients.”
Himanshu Yadav (2009), How to Install WordPress (Step by Step Guide of WordPress Installation)

‘Not a very difficult process’ is clearly relative then, yet in 2013 there are genuinely simpler methods than those quoted above for installing WordPress, and that don’t require technical expertise.

Upon investigation, I found that most hosting providers now offer a relatively simple ‘Install WordPress’ button during the registration process. Even then, this is often not communicated prior to purchase, while such methods usually involve using hosting sites that often attempt to ‘up-sell’ add-ons and features that are often free or add little value, no doubt bemusing those new to web hosting.

For instance, the hosting provider I used for this assignment, GoDaddy, offer ‘Search Engine Visibility’ during the purchasing process, which includes a ‘Sitemap Creator’ – a service already bundled in with the basic hosting service, as well as an “Easy, one-click website submission to Google, Yahoo!, Bing, and AOL®”, a service free elsewhere online, and one that, as of November 2013, impacts little on a site’s SEO (discussion thread).

From a personal perspective, although I even occasionally deliver ‘Introduction to Blogging’ workshops, and have managed the content side of large-scale web projects, I had never managed a WordPress installation, and half-hearted attempts to follow WordPress’ ‘Famous 5 minute installation’ had proved unsuccessful in the past.

So, I wanted to use this assignment to improve my own experience in an unfamiliar area, whilst providing a simple guide to setting up a ‘self-hosted’ website for non-technical users to follow, or refer to in relation to the blogging consultancy and training sessions I deliver.

Background

Along with other students on the Online Journalism MA, I helped set up and design the ‘Birmingham Eastside’ hyperlocal news site on WordPress.com at birminghameastside.wordpress.com.

The site aims to provide ‘news for people living and working in Eastside, Birmingham’, whilst providing a publishing platform for journalism students at Birmingham City University.

The Project

WordPress.com site

As to begin with, the scope, title and function of the website and its’ content strategy hadn’t been fully mapped, I recommended to the module leader that a wordpress.com hosted website was setup for ‘Birmingham Eastside’ first, which could then be transferred to a self-hosted domain at a later date.

Doing so would allow the group to easily change website’s title and URL without the expense and complication of registering new domains. In addition, it allowed me to play around with trying out different themes and layouts with actual – as opposed to dummy – content.

Also, this approach allowed students new to content development to begin generating and publishing content right away, and begin to build a following for the news site. My intention was to test how successful this approach would be, and offer it as a potential model for those new to blogging and website management to follow.

In taking this approach, I published my first instructional style blog post related to the assignment, aimed at newcomers to website creation, ‘How to set up your first blog or website.’

The Domain Name

In order to construct a basic guide to publishing a self-hosted website, I first needed to gain a thorough understanding of how to do it myself.

Having used 123-reg.co.uk extensively in the past for simple domain name registrations and forwarding, I searched for the availability ‘birminghameastside.com’ and ‘.co.uk’, before purchasing them.

For the time being, I then set up ‘301 redirects’ to redirect users to the site located at  ‘birminghameastside.wordpress.com, using the site’s control panel ‘web forwarding’ feature. In addition, I also set up an info@birminghameastside.co.uk email forwarding address, to provide a professional, shared contact email address for website administrators.

The Hosting

After researching the best value, and best reviewed web hosting service (http://top10best.webhosting.co.uk), I decided to host a website with GoDaddy, which was cheap, and well reviewed.

Taking screenshots and screencasts, along the way I purchased hosting through the site, as I tried to follow WordPress’ ‘Famous 5 Minute Installation’ at the same time.

Upon purchasing hosting, I was then given the option to ‘Upload Files/Folders’ to the server space, or simply ‘Install WordPress’, using a big button:
site building


Deciding to attempt the more difficult route, I tried the follow WordPress’ ‘Famous 5 Minute Installation‘ and use the ‘Upload Your Website’ method. So, I downloaded and unzipped the WordPress install files, and created a MySQL database for the site.

Then came the fiddly – albeit optional – task of adding this database information to the .php in Dreamweaver:

(Optional) Find and rename wp-config-sample.php to wp-config.php, then edit the file (see Editing wp-config.php) and add your database information.

After doing so, I then uploaded the WordPress files as instructed by WordPress, and entered my domain details with GoDaddy, where I was warned that the domain wasn’t purchased with them, so they were going to make life difficult unless I paid to transfer it to them.

scary message

 

I proceeded regardless.

Before getting this error message:dns set up

Essentially, I needed to learn how to change Domain Name Settings (DNS) without breaking everything, so read 123-reg’s DNS Management Guide (PDF) before venturing into the ‘Advanced DNS Settings’ for birminghameastside.com and entering the destination address provided by the hosting server:

advanced dns

Further research then uncovered that it usually takes 24-48 hours for the DNS changes to kick in, meaning I couldn’t really test that they’d worked for two days.

After two days they DNS settings had successfully rerouted birminghameastside.com to the web server. However, the site was now reporting a database error when accessing the site:


oh dear

 

Several seconds later, this screen simply asked me for a domain name, and a new username and password to access it:

where to install

So yes, I cheated to save a few hours spent tweaking with setting still it all worked okay, but the basic site was now live at least. While it also confirmed to me that WordPress’ ‘Famous 5 Minute Install’ was anything but.

success!

My next step was to export all the blog posts and pages from BirminghamEastside.wordpress.com website, into the new one, which was fairly simple following a bit of research.

In an attempt to make the two sites identical, I downloaded and uploaded the ‘newsy’ WordPress theme, The Morning After, setup Google Analytics tracking and began matching the theme to fit the legacy site.

Pleasingly, the new theme also made it fairly easy to introduce section headings to the main navigation, each of which had it’s own auto-generated RSS feed. Anecdotally, this was a positive step towards addressing fellow MA student concerns, that the site felt more like a blog than a news website.

eastside-home

However, the implementation of the theme was also more difficult than first imagined. In addition to matching the widgets, many menu items now overlapped or had disappeared in their entirety, causing the site’s ‘search’ bar to disappear behind a menu bar.

More awkwardly, many of the articles were no longer attributed to the correct contributor, with some of the site’s previous contributors not imported to the new site as authors, and so articles becoming attributed to the site admin accounts by default.

In addition, some of the formatting in blog posts seemed to have been lost in the transfer and/or installation of theme:

As an end result, I have delayed inviting the admins and contributors to the new website until I can find an appropriate workaround that fixes any broken image formatting.

Second Blog Post

Based on the experience of this experiment, I decided that a literal translation of the above process would neither meet my secondary goal of creating a “clear, succinct, guide”, nor one aimed at ‘non-technical users’.

The complication, seemed to come from the numerous ways in which WordPress could be installed, and the numerous  hosting websites, some of which offered a WodPress installation as part of a special package (e.g. 123-reg), whilst others included it, but didn’t mention it up front (e.g. GoDaddy).

Instead, I focused on ‘GoDaddy’ in my second instructional blog post, ‘How to install WordPress easily‘ in an attempt to demonstrate a single, ‘clean’ method for lay users.

Evaluation and Analysis

Reaction to blog posts

My first blog post as part of this assignment, ‘How to set up your first blog or website‘ published on my work blog, ‘Higher Ed Blogging‘, was published on 19 November.

The blog post was auto-posted to my @BrummieDave Twitter feed (978 followers), Facebook profile, LinkedIn profile, School of Media Facebook page and Tumblr, the latter also posts a link back to my Twitter feed:

The above tweet was retweeted by @DianeKemp, whilst another, similar tweet was Retweeted by @BCUMedia (disclaimer: by me) and favourited by @Narrrdia, and @WebHireExperts.

As of 21 November 2013, despite all its social media postings and SEO-friendly headline, the post has managed 21 views. However, despite the low view rate, the content also provides a useful teaching resource for the blog training workshops I occasionally deliver.

During this project, while trying to understand of what makes websites work behind the scenes, I failed many times.

Things that went wrong

  • WordPress was uploaded incorrectly, and the database failed.
  • The domain name was not using the correct domain name settings
  • Installing the theme lead to major formatting and design issues.
  • Importing posts to the new site has caused many articles to lose their correct author attribution.
  • Due to a bug on my current blog, the ‘How to install WordPress easily’ blog post linked to a 404 page when published.
  • As a result of some of the above issues, although the website is live, I’ve delayed inviting the site contributors and administrators to transfer to the new site and redirect the co.uk domain, until the above issues are fixed.

Although frustrating, and causing a delay to my project, the problems did provide me with a useful learning experience. The difficulties I encountered in setting up the WordPress.org website, helped validate the problem I’d initially identified at the start of the project; that despite my research, there seemed to be few, independent and clearly written guides to installing a self-hosted, WordPress.org-based, website for a non-technical audience.

Also, this experience revealed the surprising complexities still present within website publishing, that still form a barrier to some, whilst not to others who happen to land on an easy-to-use system:

The problems I ran into whilst setting up the blog also forced me to reassess my original content plan – to show beginner-level content creators how to manually setup a self-hosted WordPress website – to instead produce clearer and more simplified, instructional blog posts (1 and 2), that presented users with a more efficient methodology:

“Now, my original plan was to show you how to setup separate hosting and domain name providers, install WordPress, and publish your site, but doing so, will involve fiddling with ‘.php files’ and ‘Advanced DNS’ in various settings pages, which seems to run contrary to the whole ‘introductory-level’ nature of this blog post.”
Allen (2013), How to install WordPress easily

The second blog post, How to install WordPress easily, published at 11am, on 20 November 2013, gained 1 favourite on twitter, 3 new followers, and a reply that correlated with my earlier research.

The blog post, which I scheduled to publish at 11am, has gained 13 views so far.

In summary

To summarise, as my experience largely lies in content, I wanted to use this assignment to gain experience in an area in which I was unfamiliar, and that would be practically useful for developing and establishing more advanced content distribution platforms in the future.

 

Bibliography

Please note: All references within this exploratory portfolio to content that online content sources (i.e. articles, blog posts, social media posts) have been formatted as embedded links, rather than linked to below.

Non-linked references

WESTBROOK, A. (2009) Advice for Multimedia Journalists. [Online] London: Adam Westbrook

Further background research

  • How to Install WordPress from Scratch, YouTube
  • WordPress Tutorials for Beginners or How to Install WP
  • Fantastico – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fantastico_(web_hosting)
  • https://www.netenberg.com/fantastico.php -
  • Installation the hard way: http://multimedia.journalism.berkeley.edu/tutorials/wp-install/manual/
  • http://top10best.webhosting.co.uk/
  • http://uk.godaddy.com/
  • WordPress.com vs org http://wpmu.org/wordpress-org-vs-wordpress-com/
  • http://www.wpbeginner.com/how-to-install-wordpress/
  • https://www.quora.com/Web-Development/How-do-I-build-a-website
  • installing WordPress the Hard Way: http://multimedia.journalism.berkeley.edu/tutorials/wp-install/manual/
  • http://www.wptavern.com/the-wordpress-learning-curve-how-steep-or-shallow-is-it
  • http://onlinejournalismblog.com/2009/10/14/85-wordpress-plugins-for-blogging-journalists/
  • Critical Evaluation examples: http://www.samuelnegredo.com/2011/02/10/experimental-portfolio-multi-layered-self-hosted-mapping-with-click2map/
  • http://carolinebeavon.com/2010/02/18/breaking-waves-a-google-waves-experiment/
  • http://support.godaddy.com/help/article/680/managing-dns-for-your-domain-names 
  • http://www.wpbeginner.com/wp-tutorials/how-to-properly-move-your-blog-from-wordpress-com-to-wordpress-org/
  • Updating URLs http://www.wpbeginner.com/plugins/how-to-update-urls-when-moving-your-wordpress-site/
  • Which platform? http://lifehacker.com/5878847/which-blogging-platform-should-i-use
The following two tabs change content below.

Dave Allen

Digital Marketing Manager at Birmingham City University
I manage the social media and online presence for Birmingham City University's Faculty of Performance, Media and English, and provide one-to-one social media consultancy for the Faculty's staff.

Latest posts by Dave Allen (see all)

Leave a Reply