Behind the scenes: How to upgrade a citizen journalism website

Updated 22nd December 2010 with list of plugins used on the site.

Groundviews launched its new version today. It was a radical departure from the look and feel of the old and first version to the new avatar.


Old / original version

Groundviews New
Current version

Counting articles and comments, Groundviews has, at last count, well over 5.5. million of words of content published since 2006. This does not include the photos, audio and video featured on the site. The sheer size was its own worst enemy – once an article went off from the homepage in the previous version, readers had a hard time rediscovering it. Site search was ineffective, inaccurate and slow to boot. While the site had a distinct look and feel loyal readers had come to love, it was evident that a lot of the content useful for researchers and historians, as well as serious readers, was simply too hard to access.

The new site officially launched today with key improvements. What was done to enhance the features, readability and discoverability of content is not something any other media site in Sri Lanka comes even close to achieving today.

How did we do it? Key to the new site were the following three considerations.

  1. Content discoverability and enhanced search features
  2. Mobile phone and mobile browser friendly content, with particular emphasis on Apple’s iOS based devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch)
  3. Integration with Facebook and Twitter

We didn’t move away from WordPress, which from the get go has served Groundviews well. That said, there was no plugin on WordPress capable of serving the search functionality we required. We turned to Google’s Custom Search Engine instead. For $100 per annum, the CSE we created is the most comprehensive search currently available for a site, bringing to bear Google’s power (including boolean logic operations and specific filetype searches) to enhance content discovery on the site. To complement this new search engine, we created a new Archive page on the site, making it easier to visually navigate to content published in the past.

Groundviews, through the WordPress Mobile Edition plugin, already automatically rendered content on mobile devices to suit each device and browser. This plugin was retained in the new version. The option to go to the full site is present and works best with iOS, Android and Symbian devices.

A strict a standards based design and the switch to HTML5, non-Flash based video was done with Apple’s iOS devices in mind, which don’t run Adobe Flash. All the videos, and the scrolling features on the homepage, are non-Flash based, and work perfectly on any iOS device.

The earlier site had patchy connections to Facebook and Twitter. The new site streamlines these connections. At the end of each article, tight Twitter and Facebook integration make it possible to highlight the story quickly and easily. In addition to this, we continued the use of Apture, first introduced to the site over a year ago. Featured on sites like the Economist as well, Apture comes into its own when one scrolls down any page. The resulting header makes it easy to search for content, as well as post anything to Twitter or Facebook. An added bonus is that double-clicking on any word, or set of words, opens an Apture window that searches Groundviews for that key word or phrase, as well as the wider web. It is an elegant solution that helps retain readers on the site.

Several new technologies are incorporated on the new version of the site. Google’s Feedburner now powers email subscriptions to site content. Full feed RSS is provided by default. The idea that readers have to come to the site itself to read and engage with content is laughable, and yet one that animates the majority of news websites in Sri Lanka. In addition to email subscriptions and full feed RSS, another new technology is the site’s tight integration with Instapaper. As Instapaper’s website notes,

“Instapaper facilitates easy reading of long text content.We discover web content throughout the day, and sometimes, we don’t have time to read long articles right when we find them. Instapaper allows you to easily save them for later, when you do have time, so you don’t just forget about them or skim through them…. The times we find information aren’t always ideal for consuming it. Instapaper helps you bridge that gap.”

It’s also important that Instapaper has iPhone / iPad apps, making it very easy to save and read site content on these devices, with seamless content synchronisation.

As noted in the email sent out announcing the launch,

“The site update has preserved links from the previous avatar and Google indexing. What this means is that references to site content made for example in academic journals are still valid, and that existing indexing of site content on Google is unaffected by the upgrade.”

The point about preserving Google indexing is important because over 2009 and 2010, the website of the Daily Mirror, one of Sri Lanka’s leading mainstream media newspapers (published by arguably one of the most profitable and tech savvy media houses, the Wijeya Group) underwent around over 3 major revisions. One revision completely rendered the Google indexing of the site’s articles worthless by changing the internal site links. Further, even today, this leading online news site offers a pathetic search engine seemingly designed to hide content rather than expose it. As I noted in Daily Mirror’s online woes reveal an industry issue,

It is one thing to know about web and new media, quite another to strategically leverage it to strengthen brand identity, content consumption and forge new models of participatory, independent and indeed, investigative journalism. Though newspapers in Sri Lanka have embraced the likes of Twitter, Facebook and web media, there is no real understanding of any of the platforms, the manner in which content needs to be tailored for each of them, the varying consumption and delivery patterns or through them, how consumers can be made to engage with the news in more engaging ways.

Underlying technology aside, the new design uses a new typography and layout, leveraging white space, line spacing and content placement to enhance readability.

Other key plugins for WordPress used on the site are:

  1. Akismet, for handling automated comment spam
  2. WP Captcha Free, complements Akismet, and guards against comment spam from contact and comment boxes
  3. Audio player, for MP3 playback
  4. Similar posts, for reader retention and content discoverability
  5. WP-Print, for easy formatting of a post for printing
  6. WP-Post Views, for displaying how many times an article has been read
  7. WP-CommentNavi, for page navigation on the site

The design, content migration and technical features were implemented by Cezar Neaga. It is almost impossible to find WordPress expertise in Sri Lanka to the level of complexity Groundviews demands. Cezar’s keen eye and technical proficiency helped a great deal to realise our core requirements for the new version.

At the end though, what drives a site is its content. All of the design elements and technical features are anchored to the international award winning content featured since 2006 on Groundviews. The new site makes this content more easily accessible and more visually appealing. It is also the basis for new, compelling ventures in citizen journalism lined up for 2011 and beyond.

Watch this space.

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