OJR 2006: Controlling tech before it controls you

A wide-ranging conversation about technology reflected the OJR 2006 audience’s diverse level of experience in this area. But I’m guessing everybody at the conference’s second session got a taste of something fresh, thanks to the deft guidance of moderator Janine Warner, a self-described “techie translator” and author, journalist and creator of DigitalFamily.com.

Blogging platforms: Which do you use?

Warner took a quick poll, and we found that we did indeed represent a pretty good sampling of what’s available in the blogosphere: the majority of the group uses Blogger, followed by Moveable Type and TypePad. Other choices included ExpressionEngine, WordPress, PostNuke and Drupal. Robert Niles, OJR editor and conference host, was the only self-publisher who coded his content management systems from scratch. He said he uses ColdFusion, a tag-based language which he said is easy to learn but difficult to host because of “system resource drains.”

Predictably, many held differing opinions about the various platforms. Staci Kramer, contributing editor for OJR and executive editor for paidContent.org, said that Drupal “isn’t really ready for prime time yet” but that the community is good. Dan Gillmor, author and founder of the Center for Citizen Media, warned that WordPress would be too much for beginners, but I responded that I had chosen it, even though I’m a beginner, because it has such a lively and well-established support community.

Mark Heckendorn, former intelligence specialist and new blogger, liked WordPress because of some easy-to-use features like one-click installation on his server account. He also recommended Rapid Weaver for Mac people.

Participants acknowledged that different personal needs colored their view of various blogging platforms. Some demanded a free system, others were willing to pay. Some had recently created new sites, while others needed systems that would support months of already-published archives. Some promoted open source solutions, others retorted that clients demanded proprietary software.

Gillmor urged the group, no matter what they chose, to look ahead and select only systems that support easy export of content and data into a transferable format like a MySQL database. Kramer echoed the thought, and reassured frustrated publishers, “There’s a solution to almost everything. Someone has had the problem before.”

Travis Smith, owner of Hop Studios, suggested to consider the blogging tool’s interface when making your selection. Smith offered a couple of other interesting pointers:

  1. Consider the size of your comment field because it is related to the type of comments you will get. A small field will encourage short, choppy comments, while a long field might encourage comments that go on and on; and
  2. On wikis: “a wiki depends on the power of the community to stay vibrant, to stay current.” Smith said that 10 or 15 dedicated users make a viable wiki community.

Mack Reed, creator, editor and publisher of LAVoice.org, said he is now “saddled” with PostNuke. Reed shared a story that perked up the ears of this newbie for sure: he woke one day to find instead of his homepage a white page with the words “you are owned” on it. After some investigation, he found that script kiddies in Brazil had exploited a flaw in an old version of his un-updated publishing system to rewrite the index document in each of his directories. Reed said the incident taught him the importance of keeping your platform up-to-date with the latest version — and to backup your data regularly. This suggestion prompted vigorous nods from the audience as Warner reminded people to backup data in different places, not just elsewhere on the same server.

Finally, Kramer advised to get to know people at your server’s hosting company so that you have a contact in the event of an emergency. She explained how helpful it was to have someone to go to when, with an older version of Moveable Type, someone she worked with accidentally wiped out all the subject lines in the entire blog!

Next on the scene: Vlogging

Online video producer David LaFontaine switched gears with a brief presentation about up-and-coming technologies and websites. He said that excitement about podcasting has given way to excitement about vlogging (video blogging). LaFontaine suggested looking at video hosting options like VideoEgg and YouTube and Gillmor added archive.org.

The group then discussed whether it is desirable to have the “YouTube” logo that appears in the viewing window when embedding video on your own site via YouTube. LaFontaine quipped: “Storage and bandwidth don’t come cheap.”

Looking for inspiration? Sites to watch

LaFontaine showed the group a section of Spain’s prominent newspaper, El Pais, called EP3. The service, conceived to attract younger readers, invites users to submit creative content through its community section. At first, LaFontaine said he didn’t like the interface because it’s complicated and all created in Flash. But when doing a case study of how the feature was used, he discovered that young people preferred the complexity, viewing the user interface as a challenge, like a video game. He said when the users would find things they liked, they would text message each other. Surfing the Net is “a group activity now,” LaFontaine said.

In another case study from Santiago, Chile, a newspaper called Las Últimas Noticias reinvigorated itself by having the online version of the paper dictate the print version; the newspaper is now number one in a nine-newspaper market, LaFontaine said.

“The tail is now wagging the dog.”

Warner wrapped up the session with a call for URLs to website where journalists could find ongoing support and guidance on tech issues. Among those suggested were:

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Related stories from OJR’s archives:

About Diana Day

By day, Diana is the Internet and Communication Technologies Coordinator at Westridge School for Girls in Pasadena, CA.

By night, Diana moonlights as the Digital Diva for the LATimes.com's education blog

Diana recently received her master's degree in online journalism from USC. She was managing editor of the readers' blog at Online Journalism Review.

Before attending USC, she was a schoolteacher and reading specialist for 14 years in both Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

While at USC, Diana launched two online news publications -- BeTwinned.com, a magazine for parents of twins and multiples, and inSierraMadre.com, a community journalism site for Sierra Madre, CA.