Easy Web publishing utilities for journalists

Great online journalism is increasingly expected to combine writing, audio, video, images and graphics, with each part of a story told in the medium best suited to the information being presented. This sounds great in theory, but if you are like most journalists, you are not a software guru or a multimedia specialist and you probably have relatively little experience creating video or graphics, let alone getting them on the internet and strategically placing them in a story.

Journalists should be excited by the Internet. On the Web, words, pictures, video and audio can be woven together in ways that tell stories more effectively than is possible with any of these mediums alone. But in order to weave exceptional, rich, carefully planned online stories, you have to become proficient at a lot of techniques, skills and technologies, many of which you probably thought you were avoiding when you chose journalism as a career.

To help you learn some of these skills and start experimenting with online journalism, we’ve assembled a list of sites and programs that will help you quickly and easily begin using multimedia and the internet to advance your reporting and your storytelling. All of these applications are low-cost. Most are free, though some ask you to pay to access advanced functionality. All are free of spyware and adware, as far as we know (though it is always good to do an Internet search on anything you download and install to be sure). And each should make the work of creating great journalism online at least a little easier.

Our list of easy online publishing tools is a wiki, so please feel free to add links to tools that you’ve used, which fit our criteria, and that are likely to be of great use to other online journalists as well.

Web journalist, know thyself

[Editor’s note: OJR welcomes its newest contributing writer, Jonathan Morgan, a Web producer for the New York Times and an online technology aficionado. Morgan will write about Web publishing technology for OJR.]

About nine months ago, I decided to free myself from the shackles of submission editors and paper-based journalism and join the legions of writers who publish online.

I dabbled in journalism in college at my school newspaper while earning a computer science degree, but left it behind for a career in computers. After six years of managing and implementing systems integrations, serving off and on as a systems administrator and cringing as I saw America get less and less well-informed, though, I decided to return to journalism and see if I couldn’t be of some help.

I am convinced that systems to better manage reporting and reporters are essential to the future of news, as important as reporters putting boot to pavement and talking to people, face to face. I have had trouble convincing editors of this, however, and so I decided to become a blogger.

As a blogger, my mom can read my work whenever she wants. I can publish articles on conspiracy theories and journalism technology, even when I can’t find anyone who thinks people will be interested. And as I blog, I’ll also be gaining the kind of down-and-dirty knowledge of Web publishing software I need to make some of my ideas a reality. It’s going to be great.

Finding a blog tool

I looked into hosting packages as well as sites like blogger.com and typepad.com and tried to answer some basic questions. Will I need to be able to serve more than one site, for instance – one for weightier work and one for food writing and pictures of pigeons and the microscopic dogs people carry in their purses here in New York? Do I need to be able to customize CSS or to allow guests to write on my site? I even studied the hardware requirements and features of various blogging programs and considered building a server myself.

After careful consideration, I decided on a professional account at typepad.com for its good balance between ease of use, features I thought I needed – multiple blogs with pictures of rats on subway tracks are in, and so are guest bloggers – and the ability to customize. The available templates are pretty obviously pre-built, but you at least can choose from many layouts and tweak the CSS. Best of all, I don’t have to worry about operating system updates or patching databases or Web servers.

My first blog site is named sideways_reporting, implying that journalists need to collaborate more with each other – between publications, across great distances, etc. And if you haven’t heard of it, it’s because I haven’t posted a word to it in the nine months I have been paying for the account. I am still keeping Mom and the rest of the world waiting.

After weeks spent finding the perfect mix of features and flexibility for all the things I hoped to do, when push came to shove and I actually looked at what it would actually take to get my blog up and running, the solution I chose ended up being too complicated for what I had the time and desire to do.

Tech should serve content, not the other way around

In focusing on features and technical specs, I ignored what I think is the single most important factor in choosing software (or choosing a car, creating a budget, planning reporting for an article, designing software, etc.): before you do anything else, you need to step back, take stock at a basic level of how much time, money and skill you have to dedicate to online publishing, then decide how you want to use your resources.

Many people who publish online want to learn more about the technologies involved in blogging and publishing on the Web, especially given journalism’s employment insecurity, the value of computer skills in the job market and the sex-appeal of the hacker archetype (like the guy in the laptop commercial who walks into a cafe where a panic-stricken businessman is staring at a smoking laptop, closes the computer, places a new one down in its place, and walks out without saying a word – that is hard core).

Learning about technology is a great goal, and journalists must become more technologically literate, even beyond the career advantage it offers. The better journalists understand technology, the more chance there is that they can use it to inform better reporting and presentation of the news.

But time is valuable, and technology can soak up any and all time you have to give, if you let it. If you are reading this, chances are you are a journalist and not an IT worker. Before you even begin to look for Web publishing software, be brutally honest about what you want to accomplish online. If it involves writing and reporting, don’t let the siren song of technical knowledge or advanced features trick you into making decisions that will keep you from reporting news.

Regardless of your technical skill, it is easy to under-estimate the amount of your time managing your publishing software will take, and increased technical skill complicates things. You can do more, but you become tempted to take on work that you can manage if all goes well, but that can become overwhelming if things go wrong.

Should you decide, for instance, that you really want to learn about the technology involved in Internet publishing (or save on hosting), you might look at hosting your blog or website on your own server.

Hosting your own

Hosting your own website can be a great way to save money on hosting fees. You have the opportunity to learn about installing, configuring, securing, and using a range of technologies, from relational databases to Web servers to scripting languages. You get full control over configuration, implementation details and an imposing array of acronyms. If you are a mad genius trying to push the bounds of Internet news, you’ll never be limited by someone else’s rules.

You’d learn a lot this way, but you will be doing all of the operating system and application updates, all of the installing and configuring and all of the maintenance on your site yourself, just you and either the Unix shell prompt or the blank stare of a Windows desktop.

And you really must keep your software up-to-date. A minor security hole in one program could allow a hacker to exploit other bugs that deliver control of your whole server, and once a hacker gets that kind of access to your system, about the only way to guarantee that it is clean is to erase the hard drive and install everything from scratch. No program is too little to ignore.

Securing and configuring everything also can become a challenge as you update software. The new version of one program you need might not work with an older version of another essential program. You can try to reconfigure the connection between the two (which can range from easy to infuriating) but if you can’t get them to work together, you might be forced to decide between using older, less secure versions of programs or making up a new way of implementing whole sections of your site.

This strategy requires a considerable amount of work when all goes well (and even then it will create frustration), and things will not always go well.

Eventually you will suffer a hack attempt or a hardware failure and you will learn a great many things the hard way, in a very short amount of time. There’s no glamor here. Your site could be down for days, or could be lost entirely if you don’t have a good backup strategy (which you should – at least back up to a USB hard drive once a week). Your marriage, relationships, friendships, etc. will suffer. You will disappear from the Web and be unable to tell anyone why, even as the struggle to figure out which piece of hardware or software is causing the problem, what Web server patch you forgot to apply, slowly turns you into a desperate poster to tech forums and open source FAQs.

Hosting your own server can be done by a journalist, and you definitely would learn from the experience, but as you can see, it demands much non-journalism work and requires figuring out how to deal with a broad range of problems, most unforeseen.

Get someone else to host

Don’t worry if that sounds like a little too much for you. There is a reason many of the IT professionals you see walking around are pale and haunted looking, sometimes with a nervous twitch. I am a little haunted myself (I rarely admit to knowing anything about computers in polite conversation, and when someone figures it out, I cringe, waiting to hear something like “While I’ve got you, I’ve got this problem with my AOL email…”)

Maintaining creative control over your website without taking on all the responsibility for keeping a server up and secure is still possible, through different hosting plans. Hosts offer services ranging from housing a server that you have configured and continue to manage, to allowing you to use a server whose software is installed and maintained by the host.

When you sign on with a host, you usually pick between packages that let you decide how much the host manages and how much data you are allowed to serve out. As the host manages more of the software installed on your server, your cost increases and you sacrifice some control. Your money should include technical support, though, and while it feels good to know you installed and configured every piece of software you use, it can also be nice to have someone you can call at any time if you notice problems or have a question, and letting someone else worry about software updates and security gives you time to do other things.

Forget the hosting, and just blog

You also can throw in the technical towel, as I have for now, and get an account at a blog hosting site like blogger.com or typepad.com . They worry about keeping the server running, allowing you to focus on becoming comfortable with Internet publishing at a high level, first, and reporting news.

You won’t have exceptional flexibility or control, but you can still change your site’s basic layout and choose between different color schemes, and you can use blog sites to make some pretty substantial Web news destinations. Don’t let the generally accepted definition of a blog fool you. This is powerful, flexible publishing software and it can host a variety of content, not just short, sometimes poorly written and underreported opinion pieces.

In the end, regardless of the strategy you choose for publishing on the Web, keep the following in mind:

  • Your best-case estimate of how much time you’ll have to spend dealing with technology is probably too optimistic (unless you have an account at a blog site);
  • The worst case can take up a whole lot of time and might involve your site being offline for some time;
  • And it is better to over-estimate the cost of maintaining a certain strategy than to be overly optimistic.

Also remember that while this is an important decision, it isn’t exactly life or death. If you err on the simple side and end up feeling limited by the constraints of your myspace page or friendster blog, you can always switch to another hosting strategy, and take your content too (though pulling off the migration can be a challenge). And if you find the opposite is true and your solution is too technical, don’t be too proud to ratchet down your expectations and find a simpler way to get your stuff online.

In the process of writing this article, I once again logged in to my typepad account to see if it could be simple enough to let me get started blogging while I planned my next move. I considered other options, even myspace and friendster pages if that was what I needed to start writing. I finally decided I could get a very basic typepad configuration implemented in a couple of weeks that will require minimal maintenance and let me write while I plan my next move.

I want to start reporting repositories where journalists can access not only the 20% of reporting that makes it into a finished article, but also all the other stuff, information that might lead them in a different direction or help them to angle the story differently so that it can be more accessible to an audience they want to reach.

For now, however, I am going to use my blog to post longer reported pieces, put the reporting I can easily put in a digital format online, write shorter analytical pieces that expand on and emphasize select points from each article and then see how readers react.

It won’t necessarily be the future of journalism, but you’ve got to start somewhere and it is a first step.

And that first step is key. The features you select in online publishing software are important, and it is a great idea to pick a hosting strategy or software that will help you to learn more about Internet publishing technology and take advantage of technical skills. But remember not to lose sight of why you are trying to get on the Internet in the first place – reporting and writing.

As a Web journalist, you need to figure out how much you want to allow technology to keep you from gathering and sharing information and always keep this tradeoff in mind as you choose how to put your journalism on the Web.

For more in-depth information on choosing a Web host, check out the following sites:

  • How to Choose a Web Host (thesitewizard.com ) – Written by Christopher Heng, this is a simple overview of things to consider when choosing a Web host by someone who understands the tradeoffs inherent in the choice.
  • How to Choose a Web Hosting Service (ISP) for your Business Web Pages (wilsonweb.com) – This is an article from a Web marketing group that offers a little more detail on some of the points in the first web page, but that is still at a high enough level to be accessible.
  • General Web Hosting Articles (thewhir.com) – Articles and a glossary from the Web Hosting Industry Review. I poked around this site, and if you are looking for in-depth information, this looks like a good choice. It is not only for people looking for a host, but also for hosts themselves, so some articles might be too technical for the casual Web journalist. But don’t let that scare you away. From what I read, these people know what they are doing and seem fair and accurate, as much as I would ask of any journalist.

This is definitely a short list, and I am sure I haven’t found all of the best resources on Web hosting. If you decide to go with hosting and come across other good sources of information, please let me know so we can check them out and pass them along.