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September 15 2011

09:44

Daily mail student media awards?

Yeah, wouldn’t happen. But should it?

The always interesting Wannabehacks posted yesterday stating that The industry isn’t doing enough to support student journalists. The post really should have been titled The Guardian isn’t doing enough to support student journalists as it takes a pop at the frankly risible prize the Guardian is offering for its Guardian student media award:

[T]he quality of prizes has diminished year on year: “Seven weeks of placement with expenses paid (offered 2003-2006) is a good way to spend the summer. Two weeks of self-funded work experience is an insult to supposedly the best student journalists in Britain.”

It’s a fair point. Just how good you have to be to actually be paid to work at the Guardian?

Maybe we are being unfair to the Guardian though. Why do they need to carry this stuff? I know plenty of students who don’t want to work for the Guardian. So why don’t more papers step up? If it’s about spotting talent then shouldn’t every media org have a media award?

Truth is there is a bit of black hole out there when it comes to awards. Aspiring journos could be forgiven for thinking that there is very little on offer between that letter writing competition the local paper runs for schoolkids and the Guardian awards. There are actually quite a few – the NUS student awards for example. But none with the direct association of the Guardian awards.

But maybe it’s not about the award. The wannabe hacks post (and the letter it references) suggests that there is more a problem of expectation here.

The Guardian is a very attractive proposition to many aspiring journos. In a lot of respects it plays on that strength; it presents itself as a like the paper where things are happening. But there is a danger that things like competitions exploit that aspiration and begin to suggest a slightly dysfunctional relationship - aspiring journos trying their best to please the indifferent and aloof object of their affection.

Show them the money.

This isn’t just a print problem. The truth is the industry has a bit of problem of putting its money where it’s mouth is when it comes to student journos.

As an academic I see more offers of valuable experience than paid opportunities in my inbox. They tend to coincide with large events where industry doesn’t have the manpower to match their plans for coverage. In that sense there is no secret here, the industry is living beyond its means and it’s increasingly relying on low and no paid input to keep newsrooms running. But student journo’s bear the brunt of that. Yes, they get experience, but not much else.

No return on investment

Of course the flip-side to that argument is that many of those who enter the competitions would happily benefit from the association but don’t put back in. I wonder how many people who enter the Guardian student media awards have regularly bought the paper rather than accessing the (free) website?  You could argue the same when talking about work experience. How many students actually buy the product they aspire to work on?

But the reality is that, regardless of how much is put in, if you court an audience, you have to live up to their expectations – unreasonable or otherwise.

This is happening at a time when those same newsrooms are reporting on the commercial realities of education and how students need to demand value from their investment. As someone trying to respond to those expectations, perhaps I can offer some advice.  Perhaps the industry need to reflect on their advice to prospective students the next time they reach out or connect with student journalists.  Just how much are you expecting them to invest in your newsroom and what’s the return?

 

September 14 2011

07:51

Newspaper video: Time to reconsider your video strategy?

A few issues have popped up in my reading round the web that make me think that if online video has fallen off your agenda then it may be worth thinking again. A few things make me think that.

Engagement with HTML5 by publishers means that the idea of cross platform (web, tablet etc) video becomes a reality. The recent announcement by FT that they were moving away from the apple fold to deliver their apps from a web base shows a certain maturity in that area. It may not be universal but those publishers who engaged with apps with half an eye to html5 and associated tech are starting to see the benefit. They also have an exit route from Apple’s walled garden.

The announcement that the WSJ is upping it’s online video would, on the surface, seem to be a simple illustration of the point. But theres a bit more to it:

The Journal has expanded its video content in spite of its contract with CNBC, the leading business news network on television, and in spite of the fact that The Journal’s parent has its own business network, Fox Business.  The CNBC contract expires in about 15 months, but already Journal reporters tend to appear more often on Fox than on CNBC.

The shifting approaches of print in particular to the challenge of keeping your voice in a spreading market, often rests on the idea of impartiality. An alignment to Fox is as blunt a move to prove the point as you can get. But if you want to establish a ‘voice’ then video can be a key part of that changing ‘brand’.

Newsless broadcast

But there is also a shift on the other side of that relationship. There is a very clear by broadcasters towards product and not a service focus. That will leave a gap that print will have to backfill. Yes there is a big investment in online delivery services but the commercial driver is very much a product proposition. Most of the large broadcasters are seeing a real benefit in exclusive and value-added programming online. The ‘watch again’ of the iplayer-like channels, the webisodes and web exclusive episodes are all examples of how broadcast has ‘finally’ found its feet online.

I think that news is low on the agenda in a broadcasters strategy. For broadcasters, news is very much a service. It’s often something they have to do as a requirement to a license or a sop to public service. It’s easier to advertise around the x-factor than it is news at ten and that’s where the money will go. Non-broadcast providers will pay the price for that.

If you buy in your video from a third party, expect the prices to go up and the quality, range and relevance to go down. 

LocalTV

Here in the UK, we also have the looming Spector of localTV. There is obviously a new market to explore there. I’m skeptical about the range, depth and return that market will have for journalism but, hey, it never hurts to consider it.

So video gives you a good opportunity to extend your identity and cut free those ties with an increasingly newsless broadcast sector. Just invest a little in understanding the technology underlying the new platforms.In the long run it might be a better investment than simply paying to be on those platforms.

 

July 15 2011

10:23

Community journalism or “Local nosey parkers with mobile phones “

Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud!

What’s that Andy?

It’s me banging my head against the desk…

There’s a story about the Beskpoke project on Hold the front page. I was interested in it as (full disclosure) my Uni is one of the partners in the project. Inevitably I got sucked in to the comments.

But just to put things in to context:

The project has been established to look at the issue of digital and social exclusion in the Fishwick and Callon areas of Preston.

Broadly speaking, the project has two parts. The first is for us to set up a team of community/citizen journalists who will report on the issues that are important to them and to their local community.

The second part of the project is centred on innovative design. Partner universities (Dundee, Falmouth, Newcastle, Surrey, and UCLan) will use the news stories, as well as other information gathered during the lifespan of the project, to design digital technologies that can meet the needs of the area. This collaboration between emotive, technological and functional design with hyper-local journalism is a ground-breaking exercise and, as far as we’re aware, has never been tried before.

Hold the Front page focus on the journalism aspect

The group of citizen journalists were trained as part of a project called Bespoke, a scheme that sees members of the public in Preston provided with flip cameras, mobile phones and journalism training in order to generate their own news stories.

One that stood out began:

Years of training, university degrees, shorthand classes ad infinitum.

And the reward? Local nosey parkers with mobile phones are netting page leads.

Given the usual anti-degree tone that pervades it was nice to see degrees get a mention.

Traffic Chaos continues:

So-called citizen journalism should not extend beyond a phone call or submission of on-the-spot footage to the nearest newsroom.

There’s really no such thing as citizen journalism outside of the egotistical “blogosphere”, populated by keyboard warriors and bigots who feel they can do a better job than anybody else at everything – especially the news.

Hmm. I think they actually mean that the term Cit-j has little or no meaning outside a limited circle of egotistical journalists. But everyone is allowed a view (except it seems local nosey-parkers!)

You wouldn’t call a citizen-MD would you?

Update: Jon Walker tweeted to suggest that the phrase MD related to managing director, not Medical doctor.

@digidickinson It's a small issue but I'm pretty sure that moaning hack meant managing directors, not doctors
@jonwalker121
Jonathan Walker

My response is Doh!

Of course you can’t mention Cit-j without a hackneyed and inappropriate comparison. Hacked off duly obliges

 

Can’t wait for the day they introduce Citizen MDs thus clearing out an entire layer of over-paid fools and replacing them with an entire layer of fools for free.

A great comment that:

a) conflates journalism with medicine –  because they are exactly the same aren’t they.

b) insults journalists as well as the apparent cit-j’s in such a short space – nice work!

The general tone of the comments is to wonder what impact this will have on the journos at the LEP. I don’t want to play down the plight of shrinking regional newsrooms for one minute. Or belittle those who lose jobs. But to see one as a cause of the other is a leap.

Room for all

About the same time that the LEP published it’s first newspaper (1886) my great-grandad borrowed money to buy his first house. He didn’t go to the bank, he went to the butcher. The local butcher! (We have the receipt to prove it.) Would the butcher have advertised that service in the LEP? Not sure. No doubt a local nosey parker would have told him. Oh and if that butcher had sold him a dodgy steak the chance are, nearly 60 years before the NHS he wouldn’t have gone to a doctor.

That’s how my great-grandad’s community worked. It’s how communities still work. Not on definitions of professional pratcice but on people who have the means and the skills doing the jobs that need doing.

My point to hacked-off and traffic chaos would be that there is a world outside the newsroom, full of people who do and discover in different ways. They’ve done it that way before you and they will do it that way after you. You only play a role in a community if you are part of it. Please don’t contribute to an attitude that means they chose to do it without you.

And here is that sentiment in morse code…

Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud!…

May 09 2011

09:59

Playing to the audience

…in which I mangle a metaphor in search of a thought about the relationship between journo and audience.

Time was that when I was asked about the value of social media platforms like twitter for journos, amongst the reasons I would give is the capacity to build audience.

The value of the individual journalist as a brand in a networked world (in contrast to the large media org) is something I repeatedly bang on about. But the truth is that there will always be some intersection between the sole trader and the big media hubs. In fact the prevailing model seems to be that apart from a tight core of full-time staff, most big orgs will have a steady stream of freelancers in their orbit to keep their mass.

In that respect having an audience that already follow ‘brand you’ rather than ‘brand x’ is just as attractive to the big media orgs as it is your own work.

I used to liken this to the idea of being in a band.

Record companies, even venues, wouldn’t look at you without some proof that you had audience. Signing mailing list sheets, following on myspace and now twitter and Facebook are ways that bands tried to do that.

But a chat with my excellent colleagues clarecook and Robert beers and the recent blogging about guardian local got me thinking about the danger of taking that idea too far.

How long would a band have an audience if they didn’t listen to those fans? If they didn’t tell the fans where they were playing next or what they were up to?

Many journos still stick to the idea that communication with an audience should only be one way. Some will tell you it’s because of the problems with managing the flow (busy, busy people journos) whilst others will happily tell you that they have no interest in the dribbling rantings of a few nut jobs ( because anyone who uses the web other than them is a nut job).

Truth is that if the audience isn’t behind you, you have nothing.

You could argue that the best musicians do what they do regardless of what the audience wants. They are artists. I’ve got news for you. When it comes to the web you’re not an artist. You can’t create in a platform or hack away in a garret.

If you don’t nurture and talk to the audience then, in a world of pay-to-play journalism you’ve got nothing.

Increasingly the opportunities are there for those who look out in to the audience rather than those who point their sites in a singular dash for a job with the media mothership. The crowd is not just a means of getting you there. They are the measure of your success and integrity (not just other journos)

It’s a lesson that big media orgs could learn too. Stop thinking like a record company think more like a concert promoter. The days of being the big media ‘stadium acts’ are fast becoming numbered. Maybe there is room for a few headliners at the festival but the vast majority of people are here for the rest of the bill (the long tail!).

So maybe, in future, when I’m asked about the value of social media, I’ll still be talking about the value of audience. But maybe I’ll put the band metaphor to bed. Truth is the dynamics are being rewritten everyday, just like the opportunities, and they are being written on an individual level – no band required.

09:57

Playing to the audience

…in which I mangle a metaphor in search of a thought about the relationship between journo and audience.

Time was that when I was asked about the value of social media platforms like twitter for journos, amongst the reasons I would give is the capacity to build audience.

The value of the individual journalist as a brand in a networked world (in contrast to the large media org) is something I repeatedly bang on about. But the truth is that there will always be some intersection between the sole trader and the big media hubs. In fact the prevailing model seems to be that apart from a tight core of full-time staff, most big orgs will have a steady stream of freelancers in their orbit to keep their mass.

In that respect having an audience that already follow ‘brand you’ rather than ‘brand x’ is just as attractive to the big media orgs as it is your own work.

I used to liken this to the idea of being in a band.

Record companies, even venues, wouldn’t look at you without some proof that you had audience. Signing mailing list sheets, following on myspace and now twitter and Facebook are ways that bands tried to do that.

But a chat with my excellent colleagues clarecook and Robert beers and the recent blogging about guardian local got me thinking about the danger of taking that idea too far.

How long would a band have an audience if they didn’t listen to those fans? If they didn’t tell the fans where they were playing next or what they were up to?

Many journos still stick to the idea that communication with an audience should only be one way. Some will tell you it’s because of the problems with managing the flow (busy, busy people journos) whilst others will happily tell you that they have no interest in the dribbling rantings of a few nut jobs ( because anyone who uses the web other than them is a nut job).

Truth is that if the audience isn’t behind you, you have nothing.

You could argue that the best musicians do what they do regardless of what the audience wants. They are artists. I’ve got news for you. When it comes to the web you’re not an artist. You can’t create in a platform or hack away in a garret.

If you don’t nurture and talk to the audience then, in a world of pay-to-play journalism you’ve got nothing.

Increasingly the opportunities are there for those who look out in to the audience rather than those who point their sites in a singular dash for a job with the media mothership. The crowd is not just a means of getting you there. They are the measure of your success and integrity (not just other journos)

It’s a lesson that big media orgs could learn too. Stop thinking like a record company think more like a concert promoter. The days of being the big media ‘stadium acts’ are fast becoming numbered. Maybe there is room for a few headliners at the festival but the vast majority of people are here for the rest of the bill (the long tail!).

So maybe, in future, when I’m asked about the value of social media, I’ll still be talking about the value of audience. But maybe I’ll put the band metaphor to bed. Truth is the dynamics are being rewritten everyday, just like the opportunities, and they are being written on an individual level – no band required.

October 28 2010

07:48

Flyposting newspaper websites

Aaaaaaaarrrrrrggggggh!

Imagine the scene. I’m on the bus. I’ve found a seat that isn’t near the bloke who shouts at cars and smells vaguely of rabbits. My headphones are in (but not too loud,of course).

I take out my copy of the Birmingham Post and open it up. Scanning around the page I see an article that catches my eye. But just before I start reading…the person sat behind me pulls out a pot of wallpaper paste and slathers a great billboard poster across the top of the page.

It turns out that in scanning around I inadvertently caught the eye of an advert nestling in the corner of the page.

Sound plausable? No I didn’t think so.

So please stop doing it on your bloody websites newspaper people.

That is all.

October 16 2010

13:39

ScraperWiki: Hacks and Hackers day, Manchester.

If you’re not familiar with scraperwiki it’s ”all the tools you need for Screen Scraping, Data Mining & visualisation”.

These guys are working really hard at convincing Journos that data is their friend by staging a steady stream of events bringing together journos and programmers together to see what happens.

So I landed at NWVM’s offices to what seems like a mountain of laptops, fried food, coke and biscuits to be one of the judges of their latest hacks and hackers day in Manchester (#hhhmcr). I was expecting some interesting stuff. I wasn’t dissapointed.

The winners

We had to pick three prizes from the six of so projects started that day and here’s what we (Tom Dobson, Julian Tait and me)  ended up with.

The three winners, in reverse order:

Quarternote: A website that would ‘scrape’ myspace for band information. The idea was that you could put a location and style of music in to the system and it would compile a line-up of bands.

A great idea (although more hacker than hack) and if I was a dragon I would consider investing. These guys also won the Scraperwiki ‘cup’ award for actually being brave enough to have a go at scraping data from Myspace. Apparently myspace content has less structure than custard! The collective gasps from the geeks in the room when they said that was what they wanted to do underlined that.

Second was Preston’s summer of spend.  Local councils are supposed to make details of any invoice over 500 pounds available, and many have. But many don’t make the data very useable.  Preston City council is no exception. PDF’s!

With a little help from Scraperwiki the data was scraped, tidied and put in a spreadsheet and then organised. It through up some fun stuff – 1000 pounds to The Bikini Beach Band! And some really interesting areas for exploration – like a single payment of over 80,000 to one person (why?) – and I’m sure we’ll see more from this as the data gets a good running through.  A really good example of how a journo and a hacker can work together.

The winner was one of number of projects that took the tweets from the GMP 24hr tweet experiment; what one group titled ‘Genetically modified police’ tweeting :). Enrico Zini and Yuwei Lin built a searchable GMP24 tweet database (and a great write up of the process) of the tweets which allowed searching by location, keyword, all kinds of things. It was a great use of the data and the working prototype was impressive given the time they had.

Credit should go to Michael Brunton-Spall of the Guardian into a useable dataset which saved a lot of work for those groups using the tweets as the raw data for their projects.

Other projects included mapping deprivation in manchester and a legal website that if it comes off will really be one to watch. All brilliant stuff.

Hacks and hackers we need you

Give the increasing amount of raw data that organisations are pumping out journalists will find themselves vital in making sure that they stay accountable. But I said in an earlier post that good journalists don’t need to know how to do everything, they just need to know who to ask.

The day proved to me and, I think to lots of people there,  that asking a hacker to help sort data out is really worth it.

I’m sure there will be more blogs etc about the day appearing over the next few days.

Thanks to everyone concerned for asking me along.

October 14 2010

16:05

Hacks and Hackers hack day Manchester

Any sufficiently complicated regular expression is indistinguishable from magic

A bit of a nod to Arthur C.Clarke there but something that hits home every time I do any hacking around under the bonnet of the interwebs.

When it comes to this data journalism malarky some might say (to steal another movie quote) a mans got to know his limitations. But I firmly believe a good journalist, when stuck, knows who to ask. I’m very excited that more and more journos are realising that there are no end of tools and motivated people who can be part of the storytelling process.

So I was delighted to be asked to be one of the judges for ScraperWiki’s hacks and hackers hack day in Manchester tomorrow and see that in action.

The event just one of a number of similar days around the UK.  The successes in Birmingham and Liverpool amongst others, mean that tomorrow should be fun.

If your going, see you there (later on). If not I’ll tweet etc. as I can.

October 09 2010

13:15

October 08 2010

14:07

Editorial and commercial: Part of a journalists job description

John Slattery picked up on a job ad at the MEN for two community reporters. Great stuff. But commenting on the job description, he points out:

In a sign of the times, the ad also says: “The ability to identify editorial and commercial opportunities is key” as well as an excellent knowledge “of contemporary social media and a solid understanding of multimedia gathering”.

I wish I had that with me yesterday when I talked to third-year students about convergence. I talked about how convergence contributed to the problems paying for journalism (both consumer and provider).

I mentioned how this issue was not a rarified one, distant from the journalistic process.  Its going to have a very real impact, especially as hyperlocal grows. And, of course process,will have to change to accept that.

To illustrate that point I used a quote from ‘godfather of hyperlocal’ Rick Waghorn talking to The Independent about the nervousness of journalists when it comes to ‘things commercial’

They really don’t like the idea of knocking on the door and asking for an advert. Fascinating that those same journalists will knock on a door after a teenage boy is killed in a road accident. They see that as part of their journalistic DNA. Ask that same journalist to knock on the door and ask for a ten pound a week advert and its ‘that’s not my job’.  I think it will be their job on a level. Certainly on that local level anyway. We have to master new skills and from mastering new skills there will come a demand for new tools.

I pithily commented that in the future would have to do a death knock and add that for 10 quid you’d could do a really nice job on a obituary.

That’s a step too far, I know. But maybe the job ad goes some way to proving both of us right (and what many of us already know) the economics of news is everyones business, especially  journalists.

October 01 2010

08:00

Death Knocks

IMG_3176 Door Knocker
A really, really good post from Alison Gow recalling her first ‘Death knock’.  Not something you would look back on fondly but:

Today I contributed a content strategy, with particular emphasis on what sort of feeds we should consider aggregating and the level of showbiz news a user might require. Which might explain why I’ve been reminiscing about reporting days.

As Alison points out, the knock is an inevitability for reporters.

I’ve never done it (thankfully) but it was on my mind this week as well.

I was talking to the second years about using pictures from facebook as part of a chat around communities and the content they create (social media). One student said it would be better to ask the parents for a picture they could use rather than ‘steal’ one.  Of course the reality of that is ‘you have to go and ask them’. I asked them “Which would you rather do. Take the picture off facebook or go and do a death knock?”

In the intro to her post. Alison notes:

There are a few set questions anyone applying for a job in journalism gets asked at interview – among them is a request to summarise what they would do if Newsdesk sent them out on The Knock – which usually means a death knock.

Just to be clear. ‘Avoid it by getting the details from facebook’ is probably not the answer they would want.

Image from marlambie on Flickr

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September 30 2010

20:36
15:45

Ivory tower dispatch: Nothing is simple anymore

I’m going to try and share a little of what I do each week with the students and now that teaching has settled in a little bit after freshers it seemed a good time to start.

This week I wanted to get all the students thinking about some of the issues that contribute to the ‘changing media landscape’ that we have to function in as journalists.

Process in to content

For my second year, Digital Newsroom students I picked on process.

The lecture was really about how the process has changed because of digital. So I took a very basic view of the process – find, research and report – and looked at where in the process digital had made an impact. Here are the slides from my lecture (a bit cryptic without notes I know – come to the lectures!)

I started by saying that the reporting part was where the real medium specific stuff really made itself known (the mechanics of output for a particular platform). Given that we are platform agnostic, this was not where we wanted to be.  Maybe the first parts where more generic? More about broad journalism.

In truth, the process is no longer that discreet. In a multi-platform world we can’t simply focus on one ‘point of delivery’ when the point of delivery is changing all the time. By rights we are (and should be) generating content all the time; what Robin Hamman called turning process in to content. (I’ve written on that issue before.)

But in stumbling along to that conclusion we looked at how digital allows us to inject input from ‘communities’ in to the early parts of our process. We also started to explore the pros and cons of that involvement – legal, ethical and practical.

As a conclusion and starting point for more discussion later on, I picked out three ‘keywords’ that I wanted them to think about.

  • Community
  • Social media
  • Crowdsourcing

All of which, in some form, have contributed to the changing media landscape in which we practice, regardless of medium.

Where chips go, the nation follows.

I didn’t see the thirds year print students this week as they were putting together their first newspaper (1st. week back. No hanging around). But the time I spent with our post-graduate newspaper students looked at similar issues to the second years.

I started with a little debate. I split the group in to two. One side took the position “newspapers will die in five years”. With the other side getting “newspapers will survive the next five years”. As you can imagine interesting debates ensued. Including the position that newspapers weren’t even used to wrap chips in anymore(and the wonderful statement that headed this section), countered of course by ‘you can’t wrap your chips in an ipad’.

It was great to see that the range of debate broadly mirrored the industry concerns(or you may see it as a sad reflection of the echo chamber!) and that the students took a admirable middle ground. Passionate but realistic.

For them, the list of things to ponder was longer but similar:

  • Community
  • Multi-platform
  • Multimedia
  • Hyperlocal
  • Data Journalism

I also included Profile/engagement on the list but that became a broader discussion of brand and identity.  Something that began to touch on the deeper issues of professionalism and ethics.

Nothing is simple

If this week could be summed up in a nutshell it would be “nothing is simple anymore”. We don’t just simply write for newspapers ( or make TV/radio etc) – we have an eye on multiplatform.  It’s not as simple as just talking to the community anymore – we interact. Everything is made more complex by technology and the influx of digital. Some of it is in our control. Some of it isn’t.

What we can’t avoid is that some of that pressure lands on the journalist, right from the point they engage with a story,  regardless of where it ultimately ends up. It may not be your employer who brings that pressure to bear. It may be the audience…

PS. Just in case you thought that we do nothing practical they also started (or, in the case of the second years restarted) blogs (platform up to them) and google reader.  The postgrads got their beats and patches to play with and got to explore their hyperlocal/patch site.

Image from tim_ellis on Flickr

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September 28 2010

08:54

September 24 2010

14:19

How to create a wordpress magazine theme using Twenty Ten – Part 4

This is part three of a short series outlining how to tweak a wordpress template to get some magazine style functionality. Part onePart Two and Part three are available here.

In part three of this short series we looked at adding a second loop to our edited index page to get round the problem of our Featured Post being repeated on the front page. In this final part I’ll look at adding a thumbnail and styling up the page.

Image thumbnails

Over the years, theme designers magazine themes have come up with many weird and wonderful ways of getting thumbnail images on front pages. But it’s only recently that WordPress developers added solid support.

One of the things I wanted to do with this series is to avoid too much tweaking of files. So I’m going to be relying on some of the core features for wordpress to get thumbnails on the page rather than fancy tricks. So beefore we get back in to editing the template code to display thumbnails there are few things we need to check.

Media settings

When you add an image to a blog post you are given the option to add it as a thumbnail, medium, large or original size. We are going to be using the standard function to to get a thumbnail (you may remember it from part 1) and it uses the same shorthand to get an image

[php]

[/php]

The sizes for each these are set in the Media section of the settings tab.

The image size options

So our edited front-page is going to be based on these sizes. If you want any other sizes for your page you should set them here first. The downside of working this way is that this will impact on the sizes of images placed in your blog posts -that’s the trade off of keeping things simple.

Adding a featured image.

Version 2.9 of WordPress included a new post thumbnail option which allowed you to define an image to display “as the representative image for a Post or Page. The display of this images is up to the theme. This is especially useful for “magazine-style” themes where each post has an image.” The feature was renamed “featured image” in wordpress 3.0 – I’m guessing to avoid confusion with thumbnails. Whatever it’s called it’s ideal for our front page.

Adding a featured image

When you write a post you should see a panel called Featured Image. Clicking the Add featured image link opens up a standard image browser. You simply find the image you want to use and click the Use as Featured Image link and you’re done.

So before we go on, add a featured image to the post in your Featured Story category.

Adding the thumbnail to the template

Now that we have set up the Featured image we can edit our template file and get an image on our frontpage.

Open up the Main Index Template file and add the following and edit the first loop so it looks like this:

[php]

Our medium thumbnail

Now do the same with the second loop.

[php]

Thumbnails added to each loop

And that’s it.

Adding some style.

Technically we are done. All the elements we want are on the page. But it’s not looking as good as it could be. We need to add some styling information and make some amendments to the stylesheet file.

I’m not going to go in to a big write up of CSS here (try the excellent W3Schools for a basic intro) but if you’re interested in tweaking wordpress templates it’s one of those areas you’ll be spending a lot of time with.

For now, its enough that when dealing with stylesheets, we need to keep our eye open for two things; divs and classes.

Divs

If you look at the Main Index template file, you’ll see the following lines
[html]

……


[/html]

The div tag is an html element that doesn’t actually display anything by default, it defines a section of the page. When it comes to look and feel, the key part is the id . This ‘connects’ the div to display instructions defined in the stylesheet. The style definition for container is:

[css]
#container {
float: left;
margin: 0 -240px 0 0;
width: 100%;
}
[/css]

Anything that sits between the div tags will be effected by this definition.

Classes

One restriction of ID’s is that you can only use them once on a page. So if you have a lot of elements on a page that you want to style you have to use a class. Remember the html we used for our post title:

[php]

[/html]

That means we take the standard H2 formatting and add some custom styling.
[css]
#content .entry-title {
color: #000;
font-size: 21px;
font-weight: bold;
line-height: 1.3em;
margin-bottom: 0;
}
[/css]

This says, any time the class entry-title (denoted by the full-stop) is referenced inside the content div (denoted by the # symbol) apply the following styling.

Image Alignment

The first thing to sort out is the alignment of the images. I’m going to cheat a little here and pick up the standard style call for images.

Change the post_thumbnail function call in the first loop to the following :

[php]
“alignleft”)); ?>
[/php]

The post thumbnail function allows you to stack extra information in parameters that can be ‘added’ to the code as it’s generated. We have stuffed a reference to a style called alignleft. If you call up the Stylesheet file in the theme editor you can find the definiton of that style (you may have to search for while)

[css]
#content .alignleft,
#content img.alignleft {
display: inline;
float: left;
margin-right: 24px;
margin-top: 4px;
}
[/css]

This is very similar to our post title example above but this time there is also a reference to the image tag (img).

To finish up we can add the same class to the thumbnail call in the second loop:
Change the post_thumbnail function call in the first loop to the following :

[php]
“alignleft”)); ?>
[/php]

Boxing in the featured story

To make my featured story stand out I’m going to wrap it in a grey box. To start with I’m going to use a DIV to define that extent of the box.

[php]

…the rest of the loop….



[/php]

I’ve added a new DIV tag with an id called FeaturedStory and closed the div after the end of the loop.

If you update the file and looked at the page you should see nothing new. Remember DIV tags don’t show up till you style them.

Open the Stylesheet file in the editor window and scroll all the way down to the bottom. Add the following:

[css]
#FeaturedStory {
background: #f7f7f7;
color: #222;
margin-bottom: 18px;
padding: 1.5em;
height: 350px;
}
[/css]

This does the following:

  • Changes the background colour to grey
  • Changes the text colour to a dark grey
  • Pads the bottom of the box with 18 pixels of space
  • Pads the all the way round with 1.5 em of space
  • Sets the height of the box to 350pixels

Save the file and look at the results. You’ll see a box around the featured content.

Conclusion

That’s pretty much it. We’ve pulled in a featured post and thumbnail to go with it. Then we added a second loop to pull in the rest of the posts without duplicating our featured post on the page and added a thumbnail to them. Then we styled the results to align the thumbnail and wrap the featured post in a box to make it stand out.

Along the way we’ve touched on PHP, functions, variables and stylesheets. All of which are play a big part in theme development. But we have done it all with the minimum of alteration to the core theme files.

Some issues

This method is not without its issues. Editing the raw files like this is risky if you forget to back things up. There is also the risk that if the theme is updates by wordpress (as it is from time to time) then your customization will be deleted. But the exercise has been more about some of the basic concepts than a robust solution.

So I hope you found it useful and it made sense. Here’s the finished Main index template file:

[php]
/**
* The main template file.
*
* This is the most generic template file in a WordPress theme
* and one of the two required files for a theme (the other being style.css).
* It is used to display a page when nothing more specific matches a query.
* E.g., it puts together the home page when no home.php file exists.
* Learn more: http://codex.wordpress.org/Template_Hierarchy
*
* @package WordPress
* @subpackage Twenty_Ten
* @since Twenty Ten 1.0
*/

get_header(); ?>

/* This is the new loop to display a featured story.
* It creates a variable and then loads all the posts that match the query.
*/

$my_query = new WP_Query('category_name=Featured Story&showposts=1');

/* Now it loops through the results and displays the content.
*/

while ($my_query->have_posts()) : $my_query->the_post();
$do_not_duplicate = $post->ID;

/* We load the Page ID in to a variable to check for duplicates later on
* Then it displays the title as a working link with formatting to
* match the Twenty Ten template.
* Then we display the excerpt.
* Then we finish the loop with the endwhile statement
*/
?>

“alignleft”)); ?>

/* This is the second loop that replaces the standard loop
* It uses the standard loop function calls
*/

if (have_posts()) : while (have_posts()) : the_post();

if( $post->ID == $do_not_duplicate ) continue;
update_post_caches($posts);

/* This line gets the post ID and checks it agains our duplicate variable
* If it matches it does nothing. If it’s different we display the content
*/

?>

“alignleft”)); ?>

/* Run the loop to output the posts.
* If you want to overload this in a child theme then include a file
* called loop-index.php and that will be used instead.
*/
//get_template_part( 'loop', 'index' );
?>


[/php]

Don’t forget, you need to update the Stylesheet file as well.

Questions, comments etc always welcome

September 22 2010

10:00

How to create a wordpress magazine theme using Twenty Ten – Part 2

This is part two of a short series outlining how to tweak a wordpress template to get some magazine style functionality. Part one is available here.

The copy to clipboard option


Note: If you want to copy code directly from this tutorial roll you mouse over the top, right-hand corner of the code and a little window will pop up with a copy code function.

In the previous part of this tutorial we set ourselves up to experiment with the Twenty Ten Template. So at this point you should have

  • A working installation of the wordpress.org (version 3 or above)
  • The Twenty Ten theme set as the active theme
  • A number of posts sorted in to three categories – News, Sport and Featured Article
  • The permissions for the Twenty Ten theme folder set to 666

The next step is to take a look at the files we are going to edit.

The Main Index template

If you switch to Appearance > Editor and click the Main Index Template link on the right.

You should see the following in the editor window.

[php]
/**
* The main template file.
*
* This is the most generic template file in a WordPress theme
* and one of the two required files for a theme (the other being style.css).
* It is used to display a page when nothing more specific matches a query.
* E.g., it puts together the home page when no home.php file exists.
* Learn more: http://codex.wordpress.org/Template_Hierarchy
*
* @package WordPress
* @subpackage Twenty_Ten
* @since Twenty Ten 1.0
*/

get_header(); ?>

/* Run the loop to output the posts.
* If you want to overload this in a child theme then include a file
* called loop-index.php and that will be used instead.
*/
get_template_part( 'loop', 'index' );
?>


[/php]

We start with some comments. Notice that and see where the PHP starts and ends and you should be able to spot a few function calls. These essentially piece the page together bit by bit. For example…

[php]
get_header();
[/php]

…calls the first part of the webpage including all the HTML needed to set the page up and display the blog title and navigation. The only function that might not be immediately obvious is:

[php]
get_template_part( ‘loop’, ‘index’ );
[/php]

This function calls a template file called loop (loop.php) which contains all the information needed to get and display the list of posts on the front page. It also tells the function that this request has come from the index(homepage).

You can take a look at the loop.php template by opening it in the editor – pretty scary. But the loop is key to the way WordPress works.

What is the loop

Here’s what WordPress say about the loop:

The Loop is used by WordPress to display each of your posts. Using The Loop, WordPress processes each of the posts to be displayed on the current page and formats them according to how they match specified criteria within The Loop tags. Any HTML or PHP code placed in the Loop will be repeated on each post. When WordPress documentation states “This tag must be within The Loop”, such as for specific Template Tag or plugins, the tag will be repeated for each post.

Just to put that in to context, a standard front page would use the loop to :

  1. Get the last 10 posts in the wordpress database, sorted in date order
  2. For each of each post, get the headline, content and other related content and create the HTML to display it
  3. Repeats that process until all ten posts are done.

This might sound complicated but it’s actually got a lot simpler in WordPress 3.0. In earlier versions the loop would be part of the index page. Instead of the relatively simple file above, you would have all the loop content in there as well. This meant a lot more to pick through to sort out a page. You could argue that it’s just shifted the complex stuff to another file. But as we’ll see, it does make life easy for us.

The bottom line is that getting a grip on the loop is the key to tweaking a template. So let’s have a go.

Backing-up

Make sure you have the Main Index Template file loaded in to the editor

  • Copy all the content
  • Open your text editor and paste the content in to a new document.

This is your back up of the file. If anything goes wrong, you can just copy and paste the original file content back. I would advise that you do this at regular intervals. Just copy and paste in to the file and you’ll have a big file with each iteration of the file.

Adding another loop

Now that we are backed up we can edit a file. When working I tend to have two tabs open so I can switch between the backend, where I’m editing, and the front end to see the results.

So, in the backend make sure your in the editor and your looking at the Main Index Template file .

Just after:

[html]

[/html]

Add the following:

[php]
$my_query = new WP_Query('category_name=Featured Story&showposts=1');
while ($my_query->have_posts()) : $my_query->the_post();
?>


[/php]

Click the Update file button to save the changes.

The new loop content

The result should be that the title for the most recent post in the Featured Story category appears at the top of the page with the original list of posts below. It won’t work like a link, that comes next.

[php]
$my_query = new WP_Query(‘category_name=Featured Story&showposts=1′);
[/php]

The first line defines a variable or temporary store for information called $my_query (In PHP variables always start with the $ sign). The ‘value’ of that variable is the result of a new database query which uses the WP_Query function to ask for 1 post from the Featured Story category. By asking for one, you’ll get the latest one.

[php]
while ($my_query->have_posts()) : $my_query->the_post();
[/php]

The second line starts a loop. It says that while our variable has content (posts) spit out the content of the post so we can do something with it. In this case we display the title:

[php]

[/php]

Notice the mix of PHP and HTML here. The H2 tag formats the title but its the function the_title() that gets the content. The last bit…

[php]

[/php]

…ends the loop and lets wordpress get on with the rest of the page.

Because we stipulated one post in the query the loop only goes round once. You could try adding more posts to the Featured Story category and adjusting the showposts value to see how it handles more than one post.

Dealing with errors

oops, you've missed something

When you bash around with PHP you will eventually come across an message like this when you look at your page. Don’t panic! All it means is that you’ve missed a bracket or other element in the code. Juts go back and check through. The error message even gives you a clue to what and where you made the mistake.

Adding more content

We can pull in more content from the post using some simple template tags.

Add the following after the_title() code:

[php]

[/php]

So the the bit you’ve added should resemble

[php]
$my_query = new WP_Query('category_name=Featured Story&showposts=1');
while ($my_query->have_posts()) : $my_query->the_post();
?>



[/php]

The added excerpt

Update the file and have a look at the results. You should get the title with a short excerpt and a continue reading link. Check out the wordpress codex entry for the_excerpt() function to see what’s going on.

It’s that simple!

Making the title in to a link

The last part for today is to get the title to work as a link. Here’s the basic code:

[php]

The formatted title

Conclusions

By adding another loop at the start of the index page we are able to control what which posts are displayed. Using template tags means we can pick which bits of the post we display. The simple nature of the new WordPress 3.0 main index template means we don’t have huge amounts of code to wade through and if we panic we can simply delete the stuff we have added and the original template is intact.

We still have some issues of styling and we also want to add some thumbnails to our posts. But if you look at the list of posts on the front page you will notice we have another problem – the featured post we called in our new loop is repeated in the original loop content. So quite a few things to sort out.

So tomorrow we will look at how we can replace the old loop all together and how to avoid that duplication. Then, in the final part we’ll look at how we can add the thumbnail and style the content to improve the look and feel. For now, heres the complete file we are left with (with comments added by me) :

[php]
/**
* The main template file.
*
* This is the most generic template file in a WordPress theme
* and one of the two required files for a theme (the other being style.css).
* It is used to display a page when nothing more specific matches a query.
* E.g., it puts together the home page when no home.php file exists.
* Learn more: http://codex.wordpress.org/Template_Hierarchy
*
* @package WordPress
* @subpackage Twenty_Ten
* @since Twenty Ten 1.0
*/

get_header(); ?>

/* This is the new loop to display a featured story.
* It creates a variable and then loads all the posts that match the query.
*/

$my_query = new WP_Query('category_name=Featured Story&showposts=1');

/* Now it loops through the results and displays the content.
*/

while ($my_query->have_posts()) : $my_query->the_post();

/* Then it displays the title as a working link with formatting to
* match the Twenty Ten template.
* Then we display the excerpt.
* Then we finish the loop with the endwhile statement
*/
?>

September 21 2010

12:47

How to create a wordpress magazine theme using Twenty Ten – Part 1

This is part one of a short series outlining how to tweak a wordpress template to get some magazine style functionality.

I’m in the process of updating installations of wordpress for our students to use. In one sense it’s a stop gap measure as we are in the process of commissioning a more “industrial strength” system for them. But even with a new system in place I think we will still leave some courses the option of going the wordpress route. The magazine students for example, love the flexibility (and low level of tech) that design templates offer. It doesn’t seem to have done them any harm in terms of nominations.

When it comes to design, finding a wordpress template you like is half the battle, there are thousands out there. As more people use wordpress to get publications online, magazine style templates have become a popular search and a big growth area for premium template developers.

It’s tempting to pay for a template you like – nothing wrong with that. But it’s not as complicated as you think to get something up and running, out of the box, with very little tinkering. Especially if you build on existing templates. So I thought it would be useful to look at how easy it would be modify the standard Twentyten theme in to something with some magazine functionality.

Hacking around like this is how I learnt a lot of stuff about wordpress and it’s also a way to get your feet wet with a programming language. In this case PHP

To play along with this you’ll need:

  • Your own installation of the latest version of the wordpress.org software (as I write this it’s 3.0.1). Sorry wordpress.com won’t do.If you have webspace and your thinking of adding wordpress you could do worse than check out the wordpress codex entry on installing wordpress. Some hosts will offer automated installation of wordpress – very useful.
  • A text editor. Even word will do.

That’s it.

The design

The adapted Twenty Ten Theme

This is a screenshot of what we are going to end up with. It has a front page that has a featured post at the top and sections underneath for each category. You’ll also notice that I’ve tinkered around with the header to remove the big image. OK, it’s not going to win any design awards but this is more about exploring the concepts.

Normally you’d plan this kind of thing on paper first. You’d also work on the code in a development environment. An installation of WordPress that only runs on your machine, not the web.

If you’re feeling really brave you can set one up. Here are few resources

I’m going to assume that we dive straight in and edit the template live! I know, bad, bad, bad. All I’m going to say is do so at your own risk.

A word on programming and PHP

WordPress is written in a programming language called PHP.  This isn’t a programming tutorial (I’m not going to explain the basics of programming), but there are a couple of important things to know.

Spotting PHP

You may already be familiar with HTML. You can spot it in the raw code for a webpage because it is contained in pointy – brackets.

[html]

Anything here will appear as a heading two

[/html]

In a similar way, you can spot PHP in the raw code for a webpage because it is always between  <?php …. ?>. Here’s an example:

[php]

[/php]

But if you look at the source for this webpage in your browser you will only see HTML. Why don’t we see the PHP?

PHP is a server side language. That means the webserver looks at the page and processes any PHP it finds before it sends you the page. When we use PHP as part of wordpress themes we are using it to generate HTML.

Functions

When programmers write code they will always look for ways to avoid repetitive jobs. Rather than write the same code every time, they write a function. This is a set of instructions that can be called when needed.  The example of PHP above is a function:

[php]

[/php]

Whenever we want to show the title of post we call the function the_title() and the server runs the code needed to get all the right information. The semi-colon is also important. Here’s another example:

[php]

[/php]

This time it’s a function to show a thumbnail for a post. But there is also some content in the brackets. This is a parameter or extra information that the function might need. When the server runs the function to get the post thumbnail it tells the function it wants the thumbnail sized thumbnail. I know, sounds like repetition. We could also say:

[php]

[/php]

That says ‘get the thumbnail but make it medium sized’. In case you were interested, the thumbnail and medium sizes are defined in the media settings of your blog. But more on that later.

There are hundreds of these functions in wordpress. Some are specific to templates, like the examples above, but others do the heavy lifting of making the blog work. We’ll be scratching the surface of the template functions here but I thought it was worth a little intro.

So we are going to be looking at a little PHP to call some functions to help us modify the TwentyTen template. Hopefully, now, that might statement might make a bit more sense.

How wordpress themes work.

You can get a really good overview of the way themes work from the wordpress codex and plenty of other websites around. A google search for wordpress theme tutorials should give you plenty of options. But let’s break it down in to a few simple ideas.

A wordpress theme is split in to parts:

  • the content you want in a structured form
  • instructions on the way you want it to look.

This information is held in a number of different files.  These are stored in a folder, one for each theme, in the WP_content/themes folder of your wordpress installation. The more complex the theme, the more files there tend to be.

In a basic theme, for example, you will have a file called single.php. That’s the content and structure part. This is a mixture of HTML and PHP. But the way it looks, the colour and style of text, position on the page etc is controlled by a file called style.css. This is a cascading style sheet file.

The Twentyten theme we are going to edit, has 18 content and structure files and four style sheet files. We wont be using all of these for this tutorial. We are only interested in two.

  • Main Index Template (index.php)
  • Stylesheet (style.css)

Accessing template files

There are several ways we can get at these files:

Any of those will do. But I’m going to work through on the assumption you are using the built in editor.

First thing to do is check you have the TwentyTen theme activated by going to Appearance >Themes. It should show Twenty Ten as the current theme. Then click through to the editor panel (Appearance > Editor).

The Theme editor

You’ll see a list of the 18 template files down the right-hand side and an editor window. By default this displays the Visual Editor Stylesheet (editor-style.css). All  you need to do is find and click Main Index Template or Stylesheet on the right to load up the files we will be working with.

Permission to edit.

When you look at the bottom of the editor window you may see a warning: – You need to make this file writeable before you can save your changes

You need to set the permissions on the theme folder!

This could be the biggest stumbling block of the process. But if you are serious about having a go at theme development, even tweaking like this, it’s worth getting your head round.

To remove the error message you need to set the permissions for the Twenty Ten folder to be 666.

Does that make no sense? You could try:

If you set the permissions correctly, the message should be replaced by a big Update File button.

You're ready to start editing!

Some final preparation

From this point I’m going to assume that you have a working installation of wordpress up and running. But before we experiment with the theme we need to have some content to work with. So if your blog doesn’t have posts yet you need to add a few posts to work with. You could do this manually using the lipsum.com, a lorem-ipsum generator and some liberal cut and paste for content. There are also a number of random content generator plugins available. For this exercise I used demo data creator.

We will also need to create some categories and assign the posts across the categories. I’ve used the following for this demo:

  • News
  • Sport
  • Featured Story

Once you have done that we are ready for Part 2 tomorrow, where we will start to edit the front page to get that magazine look.

As always, feedback and suggestions always welcome

September 18 2010

12:11

What I read today…

September 17 2010

14:07

September 16 2010

18:33

What I read today…

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