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August 24 2012

14:35

This Week in Review: Twitter’s ongoing war with developers, and plagiarism and online credibility

[Since the review was off last week, this week's review covers the last two weeks.]

More Twitter restrictions for developers: Twitter continued to tighten the reins on developers building apps and services based on its platform with another change to its API rules last week. Most of it is pretty incomprehensible to non-developers, but Twitter did make itself plain at one point, saying it wants to limit development by engagement-based apps that market to consumers, rather than businesses. (Though a Twitter exec did clarify that at least two of those types of services, Storify and Favstar, were in the clear.)

The Next Web’s Matthew Panzarino clarified some of the technical jargon, and Marketing Land’s Danny Sullivan explained whom this announcement means Twitter likes and doesn’t like, and why. ReadWriteWeb’s Dan Frommer gave the big-picture reason for Twitter’s increasing coldness toward developers — it needs to generate tons more advertising soon if it wants to stay independent, and the way to do that is to keep people on Twitter, rather than on Twitter-like apps and services. (Tech entrepreneur Nova Spivack said that rationale doesn’t fly, and came up with a few more open alternatives to allow Twitter to make significant money.)

That doesn’t mean developers were receptive of the news, though. Panzarino said these changes effectively kill the growth of third-party products built on Twitter’s platform, and Instapaper founder Marco Arment argued that Twitter has made itself even harder to work with than the famously draconian Apple. Eliza Kern and Mathew Ingram of GigaOM talked to developers about their ambivalence with Twitter’s policies and put Twitter’s desire for control in perspective, respectively.

Several observers saw these changes as a marker of Twitter’s shift from user-oriented service to cog in the big-media machine. Tech designer Stowe Boyd argued Twitter “is headed right into the central DNA of medialand,” and tech blogger Ben Brooks said Twitter is now preoccupied with securing big-media partnerships: “Twitter has sold out. They not only don’t care about the original users, but they don’t even seem to care much for the current users — there’s a very real sense that Twitter needs to make money, and they need to make that money yesterday.” Developer Rafe Colburn pointed out how many of Twitter’s functions were developed by its users, and developer Nick Bruun said many of the apps that Twitter is going after don’t mimic its user experience, but significantly improve it. Killing those apps and streamlining the experience, said GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, doesn’t help users, but hurts them.

Part of the problem, a few people said, was Twitter’s poor communication. Harry McCracken of Time urged Twitter to communicate more clearly and address its users alongside its developers. Tech entrepreneur Anil Dash offered a rewritten (and quite sympathetic) version of Twitter’s guidelines.

There’s another group of developers affected by this change — news developers. The Lab’s Andrew Phelps surveyed what the changes will entail for various Twitter-related news products (including a couple of the Lab’s own), and journalism professor Alfred Hermida warned that they don’t bode well for the continued development of open, networked forms of journalism.

Plagiarism, credibility, and the web: Our summer of plagiarism continues unabated: Wired decided to keep Jonah Lehrer on as a contributor after plagiarism scandal, though the magazine said it’s still reviewing his work and he has no current assignments. Erik Wemple of The Washington Post lamented the lack of consequences for Lehrer’s journalistic sins, and both he and Poynter’s Craig Silverman wondered how the fact-checking process for his articles would go. Meanwhile, Lehrer was accused by another source of fabricating quotes and also came under scrutiny for mischaracterizing scientific findings.

The other plagiarizer du jour, Time and CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, has come out much better than Lehrer so far. Zakaria resigned as a Yale trustee, but Time, CNN, and The Washington Post (for whom he contributes columns) all reinstated him after reviewing his work for them, with Time declaring it was satisfied that his recent lapse was an unintentional error. However, a former Newsweek editor said he ghost-wrote a piece for Zakaria while he was an editor there, though he told the New York Observer and Poynter that he didn’t see it as a big deal.

Some defended Zakaria on a variety of grounds. Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon evaluated a few of the arguments and found only one might have merit — that the plagiarism might have resulted from a research error by one of his assistants. The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer, meanwhile, argued that plagiarism has a long and storied history in American journalism, but hasn’t always been thought of as wrong.

Others saw the responses by news organizations toward both Zakaria and Lehrer as insufficient. Poynter’s Craig Silverman argued that those responses highlighted a lack of consistency and transparency (he and Kelly McBride also wrote a guide for news orgs on how to handle plagiarism), while journalism professor Mark Leccese said Zakaria’s employers should have recognized the seriousness of plagiarism and gone further, and Steven Brill at the Columbia Journalism Review called for more details about the nature of Zakaria’s error.

A New York Times account of Zakaria’s error focused on his hectic lifestyle, filled with the demands of being a 21st-century, multiplatform, personally branded pundit. At The Atlantic, book editor and former journalist Peter Osnos focused on that pressure for a pundit to publish on all platforms for all people as the root of Zakaria’s problem.

The Times’ David Carr pinpointed another factor — the availability of shortcuts to credibility on the web that allowed Lehrer to become a superstar before he learned the craft. (Carr found Lehrer’s problems far more concerning than Zakaria’s.) At Salon, Michael Barthel also highlighted the difference between traditional media and web culture, arguing that the problem for people like Zakaria is their desire to inhabit both worlds at once: “The way journalists demonstrate credibility on the Web isn’t better than how they do in legacy media. It’s just almost entirely different. For those journalists and institutions caught in the middle, that’s a real problem.” GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram argued that linking is a big part of the web’s natural defenses against plagiarism.

Untruths and political fact-checking: The ongoing discussion about fact-checking and determining truth and falsehood in political discourse got some fresh fuel this week with a Newsweek cover story by Harvard professor Niall Ferguson arguing for President Obama’s ouster. The piece didn’t stand up well to numerous withering fact-checks (compiled fairly thoroughly by Newsweek partner The Daily Beast and synthesized a bit more by Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review).

Ferguson responded with a rebuttal in which he argued that his critics “claim to be engaged in ‘fact checking,’ whereas in nearly all cases they are merely offering alternative (often silly or skewed) interpretations of the facts.” Newsweek’s editor, Tina Brown, likewise referred to the story as opinion (though not one she necessarily agreed with) and said there isn’t “a clear delineation of right and wrong here.”

Aside from framing the criticism as a simple difference of opinion rather than an issue of factual (in)correctness, Newsweek also acknowledged to Politico that it doesn’t have fact-checkers — that its editors “rely on our writers to submit factually accurate material.”  Poynter’s Craig Silverman provided some of the history behind that decision, which prompted some rage from Charles Apple of the American Copy Editors Society. Apple asserted that any news organization that doesn’t respect its readers or public-service mission enough to ensure their work is factually accurate needs to leave the business. The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates said the true value of fact-checkers comes in the culture of honesty they create.

Mathew Ingram of GigaOM wondered if that fact-checking process might be better done in public, where readers can see the arguments and inform themselves. In an earlier piece on campaign rhetoric, Garance Franke-Ruta of The Atlantic argued that in an era of willful, sustained political falsehood, fact-checking may be outliving its usefulness, saying, “One-off fact-checking is no match for the repeated lie.” The Lab’s Andrew Phelps, meanwhile, went deep inside the web’s leading fact-checking operation, PolitiFact.

The Times’ new CEO and incremental change: The New York Times Co. named a new CEO last week, and it was an intriguing choice — former BBC director general Mark Thompson. The Times’ article on Thompson focused on his digital expansion at the BBC (which was accompanied by a penchant for cost-cutting), as well as his transition from publicly funded to ad-supported news. According to the International Business Times, those issues were all sources of skepticism within the Times newsroom. Bloomberg noted that Thompson will still be subject to Arthur Sulzberger’s vision for the Times, and at the Guardian, Michael Wolff said Thompson should complement that vision well, as a more realistic and business-savvy counter to Sulzberger.

The Daily Beast’s Peter Jukes pointed out that many of the BBC’s most celebrated innovations during Thompson’s tenure were not his doing. Robert Andrews of paidContent also noted this, but said Thompson’s skill lay in being able to channel that bottom-up innovation to fit the BBC’s goals. Media analyst Ken Doctor argued that the BBC and the Times may be more alike than people think, and Thompson’s experience at the former may transfer over well to the latter: “Thompson brings the experience at moving, too slowly for some, too dramatically for others, a huge entity.” But Mathew Ingram of GigaOM said that kind of approach won’t be enough: “The bottom line is that a business-as-usual or custodial approach is not going to cut it at the NYT, not when revenues are declining as rapidly as they have been.”

Joe Pompeo of Capital New York laid out a thorough description of the Sulzberger-led strategy Thompson will be walking into: Focusing on investment in the Times, as opposed to the company’s other properties, but pushing into mobile, video, social, and global reach, rather than print. And Bloomberg’s Edmund Lee posited the idea that the Times could be in increasingly good position to go private.

The Assange case and free speech vs. women’s rights: WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange cleared another hurdle last week — for now — in his fight to avoid extradition to Sweden on sexual assault accusations when Ecuador announced it would grant him asylum. Assange has been staying in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London for two months, but British officials threatened to arrest Assange in the embassy. Ecuador’s decision gives him immunity from arrest on Ecuadorean soil (which includes the embassy).

Assange gave a typically defiant speech for the occasion, but the British government was undeterred, saying it plans to resolve the situation diplomatically and send Assange to Sweden. Ecuador’s president said an embassy raid would be diplomatic suicide for the U.K., and Techdirt’s Mike Masnick was appalled that Britain would even suggest it. Filmmakers Michael Moore and Oliver Stone argued in The New York Times that Assange deserves support as a free-speech advocate, while Gawker’s Adrian Chen said the sexual assault case has nothing to do with free speech. Laurie Penny of The Independent looked at the way free speech and women’s rights are being pitted against each other in this case. Meanwhile, Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian excoriated the press for their animosity toward Assange.

Reading roundup: We’ve already covered a bunch of stuff over the past week and a half, and there’s lots more to get to, so here’s a quick rundown:

— Twitter and Blogger co-founder Evan Williams announced the launch of Medium, a publishing platform that falls somewhere between microblogging and blogging. The Lab’s Joshua Benton has the definitive post on what Medium might be, Dave Winer outlined his hopes for it, and The Awl’s Choire Sicha wrote about the anti-advertising bent at sites like it.

— A few social-news notes: Two features from the Huffington Post and the Lab on BuzzFeed’s ramped-up political news plans; TechCrunch’s comparison of BuzzFeed, Reddit, and Digg; and a feature from the Daily Dot on Reddit and the future of social journalism.

— The alt-weekly The Village Voice laid off staffers late last week, prompting Jim Romenesko to report that the paper is on the verge of collapse and Buzzfeed’s Rosie Gray to chronicle its demise. Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon said the paper still has plenty left, and The New York Times’ David Carr said the problem is that the information ecosystem has outgrown alt-weeklies.

— Finally, three great food-for-thought pieces, Jonathan Stray here at the Lab on determining proper metrics for journalism, media consultant Mark Potts on a newspaper exec’s 20-year-old view of the web, and Poynter’s Matt Thompson on the role of the quest narrative in journalism.

Photo of Jonah Lehrer by PopTech and drawing of Julian Assange by Robert Cadena used under a Creative Commons license.

August 20 2012

15:57

April 24 2012

14:00

Knight-Mozilla OpenNews Sponsors Dual Journalism Hack Days

There's no better example of the global scale of the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project than the dualing hack days we recently sponsored in New York City and Buenos Aires.

In New York, we gave money for travel scholarships to bring top-notch developers to town to take part in the Wall Street Journal's Data Transparency Weekend, which brought more than 100 developers and privacy experts to town to create tools to help people see and control their personal data online. The "hackathon" grew out of the Wall Street Journal's excellent ongoing series that looks at how your online footprint is being used by corporations.

The three-day event (documented extensively here, here, and here) resulted in code for almost 30 different projects with winners in "Scanning," "Education," and "Control" tracks.

hacks.jpeg

Five-thousand miles to the south, we sponsored the Hacks/Hackers Buenos Aires ShowTimeLine Hackathon, which brought 45 developers together to work on making new timeline-based visualization tools. The OpenNews sponsorship went to hosting the hack day, as well as a small amount of seed money to keep projects going afterward.

The team of developers and journalists in Buenos Aires took a series of different approaches to displaying data over time, from automatic data-and-date extraction from documents, to translating pre-existing timeline libraries into Spanish, and more.

These are exactly the kind of topic-driven code-based events that we're looking to help sponsor at OpenNews. If you've got an idea brewing for a journalism hack day, we'd love to hear about it. Let's work together to make this year the year of journalism code.

A version of this post first appeared here.

December 08 2011

15:20

PANDA Project Releases Alpha 2 (and Needs Your API Ideas!)

Last Friday, we closed out our eighth iteration of PANDA Project development and published our second alpha. We've added a login/registration system, dataset search, complex query support and a variety of other improvements. You can try out the new release now by visiting our test site here.

panda.jpg

The PANDA project aims to make basic data analysis quick and easy for news organizations, and make data sharing simple. We've incorporated much of the feedback we got in response to the first release, though some significant features, such as support for alternative file formats, have been intentionally put off while we focus on building core functionality. We will have these in place before we release our first beta at the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting conference in February.

As always, you can report bugs on our Github Issue tracker or email your comments to me directly.

Building a complete API

PANDA is built on a robust API so that it can be extended without modification. This is a tried-and-true way to design web applications, but it's also a permanent hedge against the project becoming bloated or obsolete. By making PANDA extensible, we encourage other developers to add features that they need, but which may not fit our vision of what belongs in the core offering -- user-facing content, for example. Ideally, this will lead to a community of expert users who sustain the project after our grant is finished.

Over the next month, I'll be adding the trickiest, but most exciting, part of the API: a mechanism for programatically adding data to the system. Once this is complete, developers will be able to write scripts which insert new data into their PANDA instance and have it immediately be made searchable for reporters. Here are some example use-cases:

This last use-case is particularly exciting. One feature we have on the roadmap is to investigate how we can integrate directly with ScraperWiki. This is speculative at the moment, but has the potential to make the API useful even to novice developers who might not be entirely comfortable writing shell scripts or cron jobs.

I'm really excited to be building out this feature. If you've got ideas for how you might use it or use-cases you want to make sure we support, let me know!

Image courtesy of Flickr user woychuk.

May 10 2011

15:23

April 14 2011

14:00

Love me, love my NPR: Public radio listeners can show off their loyalty

NPR executives have been known to brag that theirs is just about the only news organization to show up in people’s personal ads. For example: “I am in need of some intelligent male company…I am an avid reader, npr listener, talkative, curious and always up for trying something new.”

Media companies salivate over that kind of loyalty and identification with the brand. “People not only have an affinity for NPR but an affinity for each other, as listeners,” Kinsey Wilson, NPR’s general manager of digital media told me. “We’re the only news organization where public trust has increased over the last decade.”

While there is as yet no dating site for public radio nerds — though Wilson said the idea has come up — his development team recently whipped up a way for listeners to show off their support and discover friends with similar passions. A new Facebook app called I Heart NPR asks fans to put themselves on a map with thousands of others. Users can play games, such as Name That NPR Theme Song (I earned four-of-four virtual tote bags, thank you), and then share the results with friends. Secret games will be “unlocked” with every 100,000 new users, Wilson said.

NPR is already among the most “liked” news organization on Facebook, with 1.4 1.6 million fans. So what’s different about this? “The NPR Facebook page is first and foremost an extension of our news brand,” Wilson said. The I Heart NPR app, he said, is for fans of the organization itself and what it represents to them — the NPR personalities, the weekend rituals, the shared values that bring together like-minded people on a first date.

At the top of the Facebook app is a Twitter-inspired #gopublic stamp, which the network uses as branding on all social platforms. Local stations can also use the stamp and embed the Facebook app on their own sites.

I Heart NPR was conceived, Wilson reassured me, prior to the controversy that forced out two NPR executives and intensified a debate about federal funding of public broadcasting. (It looks like that funding survived the 2011 budget, by the way.)

Wilson said this is a lighthearted experiment and he chose not to define any hard goals for it. “We’re not trying to promote this in an aggressive way. We’ve put it out there and if it takes off, fabulous.” A half-dozen programmers, working part-time, built the app in about two weeks.

NPR’s digital team works on a bold schedule: Programmers work on two-week coding cycles to encourage rapid development. These so-called sprints encourage both failure and innovation. It’s what allowed NPR to develop its iPad app in one month, or two sprints, just in time for the iPad’s launch in April 2010. (That app just surpassed one million downloads.)

I asked Wilson, who used to run digital operations at USA Today, why it can be so difficult for other large organizations to churn out new projects — and how he’s able to do it now. “From my perspective, it comes from long, hard experience doing it badly,” he said. “Resources are always tight and so there’s probably a fear of burning too many cycles on something that either doesn’t go right.” But he said the rapid-release schedule encourages unconventional projects like I Heart NPR, and very few ideas are swatted down.

“The digital media staff here is about half the size of the one I had at USA Today and probably produces twice the output,” he said.

February 17 2011

18:30

How public is public data? With Public Engines v. ReportSee, new access standards could emerge

A recently settled federal court case out in Utah may affect the way news organizations and citizens get access to crime data.

Public Engines, a company that publishes crime statistics for law enforcement agencies, sued ReportSee, which provides similar services, for misappropriating crime data ReportSee makes available on CrimeReports.com. In the settlement, ReportSee is barred from using data from Public Engines, as well as from asking for data from agencies that work with Public Engines.

At first glance, the companies seem virtually identical, right down to their similar mapping sites CrimeReport.com (Public Engines) and SpotCrime.com (ReportSee). The notable exception is that Public Engines contracts with police and sheriff departments for its data and provides tools to manage information. ReportSee, on the other hand, relies on publicly available feeds.

In the settlement between the two websites, a new question arises: Just what constitutes publicly available data? Is it raw statistics or refined numbers presented by a third party? Governments regularly farm out their data to companies that prepare and package records, but what stands out in this case is that Public Engines effectively laid claimed to the information provided to it by law enforcement. This could be problematic to news organizations, developers, and citizens looking to get their hands on data. While still open and available to the public, the information (and the timing of its release) could potentially be dictated by a private company.

“The value in this kind of crime data is distributing it as quickly as possible so the public can interact with it,” Colin Drane, the founder of SpotCrime, told me.

In its news release on the settlement, Public Engine notes that it works with more than 1,600 law enforcement agencies in the US. Greg Whisenant, CEO of Public Engines, said in the statement that the company is pleased with the outcome of the case, concluding, “The settlement ushers in a new era of transparency and accessibility for the general public. It clearly validates our perspective that law enforcement agencies should retain the right to manage and control the data they decide to share.”

Naturally, Drane sees things differently. “I just don’t think people recognize that the data is being, essentially, privatized,” he said.

That may be a slight exaggeration, evidenced by the fact that SpotCrime is still operating. Instead of signing contracts with law enforcement agencies, SpotCrime requests data that is available for free and runs ads on its map pages. The company also partners with local media to run crime maps on news sites.

Through Drane sought to create a business through data mapping, his methods are largely similar to those of news organizations, relying on open data and free mapping tools. And just like news organizations, Drane finds that the hardest part of the job can be negotiating to get records.

“The technology has been here for years, but the willingness to use it is just starting for many cities,” Drane said.

The open data movement has certainly exploded in recent years, from property and tax records at the municipal level all the way up to Data.gov. As a result, news organizations are not only doing data-backed reporting, but also building online features and news apps. And news organizations are not alone, as developers and entrepreneurs like Drane are mining open datasets to try to create tools and fill information needs within communities.

I asked David Ardia of the Citizen Media Law Project whether this case could hinder development of more data products or have broader ramifications for journalists and citizens. The short answer is no, he said, since no ruling was issued. But Public Engines could be emboldened to take action against competitors, Ardia noted — and, as a result, developers looking to do something similar to what Drane has done may think twice about using public data.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Ardia said. “There are tremendous amounts of money to be made in government information and data.”

In this case, Public Engines saw crime data as a proprietary product — and Dane’s company as infringing on their contract. It also claimed misappropriation of the hot news doctrine, arguing that it gathers and publishes information in a timely manner as part of its business. (An interesting link Ardia points out: On its FAQ page, CrimeReports.com says it does not make crime data downloadable “to the general public for financial and legal reasons.”)

Ardia said the larger question is twofold: first, whether government agencies will let third parties exert control over public data, and, second, who can access that data. As more local and state departments use outside companies to process records, tax dollars that go towards managing data are essentially paid to limit access to the public. Drane and his company were barred from using or asking to use public crime data in certain cities: If crime data is the property of a third party, the police department could either direct people to CrimeReports.com or, Ardia worries, say that it’s not free to make the information available to others.

“This is a problematic trend as governments adapt to and adopt these technologies that improve their use and analysis of information,” Ardia said.

Obviously all of this runs counter to established practice for public records and data in journalism, and Ardia said that it’s likely the issue won’t be settled until a case similar to Public Engines v. ReportSee makes its way to the courts. (We should have a better view of how the hot news doctrine holds up overall, though, after an appeals court rules on the FlyOnTheWall case.) But a better option could be to adapt current open records laws to reflect changes in how data is stored, processed, and accessed, Ardia said. Businesses and developers should be able to build products on a layer of public data, he said, but not exclusively — or at the expense of greater access for the broader public.

“We don’t have to wait for the courts to resolve this. Part of this can be addressed through changes in open records laws,” Ardia said. “Put the onus on agencies to make this data available when they sign agreements with third parties.”

October 07 2010

17:00

Scripps fellows buy time for a local online strategy

When the E.W. Scripps Company announced its new “Scripps Fellows” program, cheers of “huzzah for jobs!” could probably be heard going up from around the news industry, not to mention on our Twitter feed. Granted, the 40 or so new media fellowships are 6-12 month stints, not the full-time gigs journalists crave, but it’s frontline work at newspapers around the country that have mostly been shrinking their staffs.

Maybe that cheer should have been “huzzah for strategy!” It’s not as catchy, but it’s on point: The fellows program, aside from offering opportunities for new and established journalists, is Scripps’ way of helping their papers shore up staff and create time to devise a localized web/print strategy for content and advertising.

“This frees up time for site managers and people like myself to focus on strategy,” Mizell Stewart, editor of the Evansville Courier & Press, told me. Stewart is a member of the task force overseeing the fellows program.

Instead of creating a cross-company strategy for integrating web and print or raising online revenue, Scripps has tasked each paper with finding out what works best in their community. With fellows in areas like multimedia reporting, web design/development, and user experience analysis, managers will be able to tasked with exploring things like CMS options, delivery of mobile products, and how to create stronger local content.

“The evolution of digital in a lot of local newspapers has started in the newsroom, broke off to a separate operation, and now we’re at the point where it is integrated into the newsroom again,” Stewart said.

Scripps papers are like countless others that find themselves spinning plates: Turning out a daily paper, producing a website, devising online advertising rates, attracting new readers, experimenting with social media, the list (or plates) go on.

In this case each Scripps paper will hire and deploy the fellows to suit their needs, so while the Naples Daily News may get someone handy shooting and editing video, The Commercial Appeal in Memphis may get an online producer. Stewart said a number of fellows with programming or UX experience will work with the interactive newsgroup in Knoxville that provides support to their websites.

Just how aggressively are they going after these digital natives? They’re directing applicants to their Facebook page to get more information and apply.

“Oftentimes people who are just beginning their careers but coming out of those education institutions that do training in digital media, sometimes their skill sets are stronger than those who have been on our staff a long time,” he said.

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 03 2010

16:00

An open and shut case: At the new TimesOpen, different models for attracting developers to a platform

One phone rings, then another, then four more, now a dozen. The 15th-floor conference room is suddenly abuzz with an eclectic mix of song snippets and audio bits, an intimate peak at their owners before each is picked up or silenced. Having impressed the audience with the telephony technology behind the product, the presenter moves on to the next demo.

The intersection of mobile and geolocation is still an unknown world, waiting to be invented by hackers like the ones at round 2.0 of TimesOpen, The New York Times’ outreach to developers, which launched Thursday night. We wrote about the first TimesOpen event last year: It’s an attempt to open the doors of the The Times to developers, technologists, designers, and entrepreneurs, who can use Times tools to help answer some of the field’s big questions. This iteration of TimesOpen is a five-event series this fall, each focusing on a different topic: mobile/geolocation, open government, the real-time web, “big data,” and finally a hack day in early December.

On the docket Thursday were Matt Kelly of Facebook, John Britton of Twilio, Manu Marks of Google, and John Keefe of WNYC. Kelly presented Facebook Places; Britton gave one of his now New York-famous live demos of the Twilio API; Marks dove deep into the various flavors of the Google Maps API; Keefe — the only non-programmer of the bunch — discussed lessons learned from a community engagement project with The Takeaway.

Building community around an API

An API, or application programming interface, allow applications to easily communicate with one another. For example, any iPhone or Android application that pulls information from a web-based database is most likely it through an API. If you search local restaurants through Yelp, your location and query are passed to Yelp and results given in return. For any company with an API, like the three at TimesOpen, the challenge is to convince developers they should spend their time innovating on top of your platform. Strategically, when there’s an entire ecosystem living on top of your platform, your platform then becomes indispensable and valuable.

What’s most fascinating to me, however, are the approaches each company is taking to build a community around its API. The community is the most important key to the success of an API, a major source of innovation. One of the keys to Twitter’s explosive growth has been its API; rather than depending on its own developers for all new innovation, Twitter inadvertently created an entire ecosystem of value on top of their platform.

Let’s contrast Facebook and Twilio, for example. Facebook hopes Places, launched in mid August, will become the definitive platform for all location data. Interoperability can happen, but it should happen over Facebook’s infrastructure. Facebook envisions a future where, in addition to showing you where your friends are in real time, Places will also offer historical social context to location. Remember the trip through South America your friend was telling you about? Now you don’t have to, all of the relevant information is accessible through Places.

At the moment, though, Facebook’s only public location API is read-only. It can give a developer a single check-in, all check-ins for a given user, or check-in data for a given location. They have a closed beta for the write API with no definitive timeline for opening it publicly. Expanded access to the API is done through partnerships reserved for the select few.

Twilio’s demo power

Twilio, on the other hand, is a cloud-based telephony company which offers voice and SMS functionality as a service, and whose business depends wholly on extensive use of its API. Developer evangelist John Britton made a splash at the NY Tech Meetup when, in front of hundreds, he wrote a program and did a live demo that elegantly communicated the full scope of what their product offers. On Thursday, he impressed again: Using the Twilio API, he procured a phone number, and had everyone in the audience dial into it. When connected, callers were added to one of three conference rooms. Dialing into the party line also meant your phone number was logged, and the application could then follow up by calling you back. All of this was done with close to a dozen lines of code.

At TimesOpen, Britton stressed API providers need to keep a keen ear to their community. Community members often have ideas for how you can improve your service to solve the intermediate problems they have. For instance, up until a week ago, Twilio didn’t have the functionality to block phone numbers from repeatedly dialing in. For one company using the platform, the absence of this feature became a significant financial liability. Once rolled out, the feature made Twilio much more valuable of a service because the company could more closely tailor it to their needs. To make experimentation even easier, Twilio also has an open source product called OpenVBX and brings together its community with regular meetups.

Facebook already has the scale and the social graph to make any new API it produces a player. But for wooing the hackers — at least when you’re a small and growing platform — open and inclusive seems to win out over closed and exclusive.

May 17 2010

10:13

Developers and journalists forging common ground

Back in April 2009 I listened as a group of bloggers at the G20 protests in London sent in reports using the new Audioboo iPhone application. The rules of the game are clearly changing fast, I thought.

The application allows users to record and upload high-quality sound files in an instant. In the same way that a photo of a plane floating in the Hudson river circumvented traditional channels and made its way around the world online, journalists (including Guardian staff) and bloggers on the ground were able to instantly upload reports on the unfolding activity with the immediacy and colour of front-line reports. I happened to be home ill that day and listened to the action with fascination. Then a contact from ABC News in the States contacted me via Twitter asking me if I knew any of the reporting bloggers and to pass on the direct number of the ABC newsroom. It was quick, energised and direct, and I was immediately hooked.

On the surface, the domain of the journalist and the developer seem poles apart. Journalists trace and shape stories, uncover information, and on a good day bring hidden truths to light. Developers build tools, marshal data and on a good day make the impossible possible. But a convergence is taking place that will ultimately rewrite the rulebook for both camps. Journalists have long been sifting and filtering forbidding mountains of data, looking for a story in the noise. Now they are going further, familiarising themselves with the tools to cohere and present this data, adapting to remain relevant in the new digital space. Developers in turn are doing far more than pushing data around. With rich social media tools and networks available to all, they are starting to report, telling stories with code and changing the way people in the online world relate, work and communicate. It’s a vast social experiment taking place in the production environment of the real world.

Back in March of this year, a small group of developers and journalists met in a pub in Islington to explore this overlap between coding and journalism in an intensely pragmatic fashion – the former teaching the latter the rudiments of web programming over a few beers. Ruby In The Pub was born.

A few days before, I overheard an online conversation between Joanna Geary of the Times and self-proclaimed ‘relapsed blogger’ James Ball. They were discussing the possibility of starting a regular event to get developers and journalists together. They touted Ruby as a possible language and with a speed typical of events incubated in social media circles the venue was sourced and the date decided.

As a Ruby developer (with the penchant for the odd beer) I immediately decided to attend and offer whatever support I could. The first event was warm and freestyle in nature, and the second drew a significantly larger group to the Shooting Star in Spitalfields, including the lead developer of the New York Times. One whole side of the pub was taken over by laptops and energised conversation. Due to the spotty wifi, I hardly managed any teaching at all, but became engaged in a wider discussion around journalism, the digital arena, and the changing media landscape.

Like that difficult third album, the next meet-up will probably define the future of this freestyle session. Ideas will gain traction, people will gravitate to familiar faces or pick up on projects that have been discussed. Karen Barber of Audioboo will be in attendance and has already taken up my offer of help on a project she has been kicking around for a while. We’ll get a drink, sit down, and start building it, responding to feedback from newbies and experienced hackers as we do so. Along the way, the communication channels between both sides will be strengthened and clarified and, what with all the activity on Twitter around the event, feelers of energy will spread out and spark up satellite meetings.

In fact, this has already happened. Paul Bradshaw, a journalist who teaches the MA in Online Journalism at Birmingham University, has already activated the wonderfully-named Ruby Tuesday up North and hopefully we’ll see a lot more. In a series of regular posts I will attempt to cover the process as it unfolds, as well as looking at the wider interface between word and code.

There’s no end to this journey, it’s a vibrant buzz of collaboration and exploration. Why not join us?

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