WordPress 3.6 Coming – But I Really Want Workflow

We’ve got another fairly interesting release from WordPress on the way – 3.6.  From Mark Jaquith’s post on features:

  • Post Formats:  Post Formats now have their own UI, and theme authors have access to templating functions to access the structured data.
  • Twenty Thirteen: We’re shipping this year’s default theme in our first release of the year. Twenty Thirteen is an opinionated, color-rich, blog-centric theme that makes full use of the new Post Formats support.
  • Audio/Video: You can embed audio and video files into your posts without relying on a plugin or a third party media hosting service.
  • Autosave:  Posts are now autosaved locally. If your browser crashes, your computer dies, or the server goes offline as you’re saving, you won’t lose the your post.
  • Post Locking:  See when someone is currently editing a post, and kick them out of it if they fall asleep at the keyboard.
  • Nav Menus:  Nav menus have been simplified with an accordion-based UI, and a separate tab for bulk-assigning menus to locations.
  • Revisions: The all-new revisions UI features avatars, a slider that “scrubs” through history, and two-slider range comparisons.

All good features.  However I would suggest that it’s time for WordPress to address the one major feature of a CMS that they have woefully ignored: Workflow.

At it’s basic level, Workflow is the movement of information or tasks through a work process. In our case, it’s content as it moves through the WordPress system. This might be as simple as the blogger opening the editor, writing his content, adding a couple pictures, and then clicking publish; essentially three workflow steps.  In a larger media organization, that general process becomes much more involved as more people perform separate and distinct tasks.  The workflow might look more like:

  • Editor assigns story and deadline
  • Writer researches story
  • Writer writes story
  • Writer archives story research items (not for publication but as resources that may be used later)
  • Copy editor edits story
  • Photographer takes photos,
  • Photo editor edits photos
  • Editor (or someone) adds photos to story

So our simple task now involves 5 people at least, as well as spanning 8 distinct workflow steps.  Now realize there may be several cases of back and forth, for example., the editor sends the story back to the writer for rewrite, or the photo editor realizes they need another photo, etc.  Similarly, these same people are each involved in multiple workflows at the same time.

How do we keep it all straight?

Basically, we’d need a way to provide a “To Do” list for each of the members of our team.  The items on that list all might have separate deadlines, which would then allow our editor to see the progress of the story, as well as adequately budget time for the various resources.  Obviously your photographer isn’t going to be at two ends of the county at once…thus the editor is able to “budget” his resources.  Now extrapolate that to including not just your human resources, but perhaps your equipment.  Perhaps you’ve got two events your covering and you want to film both with your Red Camera.  Problem is that you’ve only got the one, and the events are both at the same time.

For your human resources, they are able to get notifications when something is ready for them.  In the newspaper world, a copy editor would see the article appear in his “queue” (his task list) and then he’d proceed to edit it.  This article might be assigned specifically to him, or perhaps it might be generically assigned to someone with the role “copy editor”.

Perhaps this system also enables us to get notifications on things.  Such as impending (or worse yet, passed) deadlines.  Or new work that needs to be done.  And maybe that notification is can be made at several levels of urgency.  Level one just sends an email, whereas level 4 alerts you via sms, email, tweet, and probably also warns the editor to something such as a missed deadline.

…And then, magic happens.

So let’s think about those steps in our workflow again.  We’re assuming that all of these steps are human steps.  They probably aren’t.  You might have videos uploaded to the system, and perhaps once they have been edited, you have an automated step that sends then through a program (which isn’t part of WordPress) to convert them to various formats.  Or maybe you have a program that extracts keywords from a post and creates a summary post that gets automatically tweeted out.  Simple stuff…but important.

So that is sort of what I’d like to see.  In it’s core, WordPress works well as a CMS, but the management of people and work is sorely missing. Yes, it is possible to cobble much of this together, but in my mind, there is no reason not to provide it in the system itself.  Many of us would be working much more efficiently and the system would certainly get much more acceptance as a real CMS for Media and Enterprise.

(If you’re interested in how you can setup a system with this level of functionality let me know – I’ve already got some of this working right now)

Again with the “WordPress Isn’t Secure” Meme

As I was going about my morning reading, I came across an article with this dire headline: “The Perils of Using WordPress as a Hotel Website Content Management System.”  Of course, being a professional who spends much of his time working on WordPress, my interest was piqued.  From the article:

WordPress technology is ill-fitted to power hotel websites’ content management systems and is only adequate as a blogging technology.

Hmmm…that’s a pretty serious allegation.  So I read on.  The crux of his argument was that a WordPress system can be hacked using the technique described in the post contained in this article. So where is the fatal flaw?  Apparently if a user creates an insecure password, the system can be breached by blunt force.

Blunt force.  Right.  So if you were to ignore WordPress’ own warnings that your password was not strong, you might be hackable. This is not a system problem, it is a user problem.  It is in fact a problem inherent in computing in general and in any system which uses passwords.

Read on further and you’ll find the co-writers of this article have designed their own hotel content management system.  I’m going to guess that they don’t use passwords though, since those would be insecure.  But I will venture a guess without looking at their system:  it is neither open source,  nor are there millions of users who are trained and ready to work in the system.

I could continue ripping their post apart, but on further reading, it is an obvious attempt to get some Google juice for their site. They are simply not worth it.  If you have a hotel and want a simple, easy to use, and effective hotel website, drop me a line and I’ll get you set up for a fraction of what they’d charge you.  In the long run, you’ll be better off.

 

WordPress Scalability

I know why I turn off many of the “tech experts” and “internet celebrities” – they’re wrong so often it makes my head spin.  Take Chris Pirillo today on Google + pitching Tiki as a CMS, as an alternative to WordPress or MediaWiki.

The statement as to why he doesn’t like WordPress was very plain: “it doesn’t scale”.

Bullshit on that I say!  It most certainly does scale and I’ve proven that over the years.  Geek.com alone used to withstand regular slashdottings, trips to the Digg homepage, etc.   The site regularly took massive traffic, although it was a long learning process to get there.

Here is what you need to know to make WordPress scale:

  • To truly scale on epic levels, you’ll need to have the ability to cluster webservers, cluster databases, etc.  Few sites really need that level of hardware, but some will.  If you do, you’ll need to drop your uploads on a common mounted drive, then use a CDN to distribute the images so you don’t really create a single point of failure.
  • You need to install and use the Super Cache plugin.
  • For massive sites, with lots of commenting, use HyperDB to separate your reads and writes.
  • Plugins: for the love of screaming monkeys, stick to only a handful of known, scalable, plugins.  Avoid anything that’s going to hit your DB every single time someone loads a page.  Also make sure the plugin obeys Super Cache.
  • Actually turn on Super Cache…really.
  • If you’re getting hammered by a traffic spike, turn on Super Cache lock down mode.
  • The real truth about WordPress scalability is this: most people don’t have hosting accounts that allow them to get traffic on this level.  Often the host will shut them down for bandwidth abuse, or simply throttle them, making it seem the system isn’t scaling.
So let’s review – scalability issue in WordPress come down to three things usually:
  • Issues with the host
  • Poor server setup
  • WordPress plugins
If you need more specifics, catch me on G+ or email me and I’ll be happy to help.

Updated to WordPress 3.0

Nothing major, just did a quick backup then hit the upgrade button.  While things may have changed significantly in the backend code, there really isn’t much to show you here.

  • WordPress MU (the multiblog variant of WordPress that is used on WordPress.com) is now built into the maintstream code.  Thus endeth the tyranny of MU, a code branch I personally despised.
  • Custom menus make it really easy to create a special nav menu.  I’ve already used this, and it’s a nice feature.
  • They finally let you pick your own username and password for the admin user during installation.  Seems like a little thing, but it’s been a system issue since day one with legions of users forgetting to either change the admin user password or to write it down.
  • Custom Post Types and Custom Taxonomies – I haven’t used either, but I suspect that I will soon.  Both of these are hardcore CMS functions.
  • Scads of new hooks and functions for plugin and theme developers.

WordPress 2.8.6 Released and a 2.9 Preview

I got the notice last night that WordPress 2.8.6 was released to fix a pair of security holes.  So I hopped right into the admin console from my Iphone and in 2 minutes, it was updated.  If you have a WordPress installation, I urge you to update right away as well.

This will almost certainly be the last release prior to the much anticipated release of 2.9 which is our next major (feature related) release.  Aaron Brazell had a great preview on his site yesterday, and since I’m not currently running the beta, I’ll leave the full on feature review to him.  Here are the major bits to expect:

  • Enhanced image handling – scaling, cropping, and thumbnail sizing on a per picture basis.
  • Trash Can – this really goes back to the old notion we saw in newspaper editorial systems, delete doesn’t really delete, it just hides.  This will come in handy.
  • The_post_image – if you’ve ever tried to add an image to an excerpt of a post you will know why this is important.
  • oEmbed – video support, which I’ve had for years using Vipers Video Tag Plugin.
  • Custom Post Type – this is one of those CMS type functions.  It’ll make my life easier, although honestly in the past I’ve been able to make categories do my bidding with little trouble in WordPress CMS settings.
  • Comment Meta – I have no idea what to think about this one.
  • Metadata API – Another feature I’m sure I’ll use, but currently I can’t think of anything I’d use it for.  I guess this is like custom fields for everything, not just limited to posts.
  • Theme System Modification – this will allow developers to work on one theme, while real users look at another.  This has been needed for some time.
  • Rel=Canonical Optimization – seems like a little thing, but it will help a lot with SEO.

Check out the preview at Technosailor.com for the full scoop.

News Has Always Been Free…

Image couresy of WSJ.com

I read an interesting post this morning by Michael Hickins on The Faster Times that posit that “Internet Isn’t Killing Papers, We Are“.  His basic premise: that the tech industry, and the web in particular with with the dotbomb era and sky high salaries and insane stock packages, inflated journalist salaries well beyond their regular levels.

Why? Because salaries had to be adjusted for the stock options that artificially inflated the potential compensation packages offered by the dot-com start-ups. How could Walgreen’s compete against Drugstore.com without compensating for the stock options that could make someone an instant millionaire? They couldn’t. The dot-com bubble burst threw some people out of work for a short period of time, but did nothing to bring salaries back into line.

So all of a sudden, in 2001, I went from making $45,000 for the print publication to $60,000 per year for the online version while working for the same publisher, Conde Nast. Not that I complained. At my last full-time position, I made $90,000 per year working as an editor at Ziff Davis Enterprise – and had reporters working for me who earned well above that. It’s public knowledge that Walter Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal earns over $1 million per year.

I posted the link via Twitter and was quickly reminded by Stephen Hadley that “…Most of my reporter friends who are losing their jobs aren’t overpaid. It’s just that the papers they work for no longer are able to sell advertising to support their staffs. Ad dollars are moving.”

That, to my mind is the crux of the matter. You will definitely spot other problems throughout the newspaper industry, but the real problem right now is ad revenue going away.  This doesn’t mean that there aren’t a myriad of other compounding issues here, such as circulation declines, outdated technology, Jurassic management, etc., and certainly those are all factors.  But the real problem comes down simply to a matter of dollars not coming in the doors.

Brian Carr pointed me towards the AnnArbor.com launch – a Michigan newspaper opened a new site, using 54  staff members. (according to their site masthead)  Ponder this: 54 newspaper folk took a couple months to launch a site using what appears to be a bog standard MoveableType installation.  Frankly, given part of a weekend and a 12 pack of Mountain Dew, I could have outdone them.  Seriously…

The big problem for journalists is this: even though Hickins may tell us that the web got us big salaries back in the day, the sad truth is this: the prevailing thought on the Internet today is that content is free.  As content originators, that means our work isn’t under valued, if FLAT OUT ISN’T VALUED.

Back in the day, I got $500 for a blog post.  Granted, those were some excellent blog posts, but right now I do basically the same thing for free.

Look at the fiasco a few weeks back when Chris Anderson, of Long Tail fame, and EIC of Wired Magazine lifted huge sections of wikipedia articles for his new book “Free: the Past and  Future of a Radical Price” (and yes, he’s talking about free content…). If a Wired Magazine editor can’t even manage to properly cite Wikipedia, what does that say for his view of the value of content?  Oh, right, I guess we should re-read the title of that book…

The real problem inherent in all of this is that after we’re done killing off all the reliable primary news sources, such as newspapers, television news, or even magazines, is that we’ll find we’re left with a gaping void.  The thought is that blogs will take over.  unfortunately, while blogs are generally interesting sources of commentary and opinion, I see very few that provide anything like news, and when and where they do it, they generally do not do it reliably.  You can’t count on today’s source to have good info, or any info, tomorrow, and you definitely should not expect extensive enough general coverage that will allow you to get a good picture of the world, or any small part of it for that particular piece of time.

Okay, I’m sure one of you is thinking now about the Iranian Election a few weeks ago, and how it broke on Twitter.  In fact, it would have broken on major news outlets as well, but it got bumped for the MJ Media Circus.  Even so, Twitter may be many things, but it’s not a reliable primary news source.  Yes, it may provide a lead here or there, but any good journalist knows, that’s just where the story starts…not where it ends.

Getting back to the original theme here, I think now that we can see that news generation was a loss leader for newspapers.  It took a lot of effort to do it right, but it was something they could monetize through ad revenue.  Today, we need to forget about how content gets delivered, and remember that content generation is still a valuable and necessary product.  When we rediscover a proper way to monetize it, the world for journalist and everyone will be a better place.

Because none of us wants to work for free…

Reel-Time.com Updated

rt_sshot1Over the past couple months, I’ve been working nights and weekends to get Reel-time.com updated and running on WordPress.  The project, while far from complete, reached critical mass this week and I was able to go live Tuesday night.

This site has been around since 1995, and frankly, if you knew where to look, it was showing it’s age.  The homepage was left justified, which is something designers haven’t been doing since around 2001.

There were a lot of challenges.  First off, a lot of the content was gnarly hand-coded html of varying quality, which for the most part has had to be moved by hand.  That task will no doubt continue for a while.  Secondly, I didn’t have call on a designer.  As such, what design work had to be done, was done by me…and if you could see how I dress, you’d understand humor in that. A few of the high points:

  • WordPress is my CMS – Yes, I’ve been running a number of sites on a version we’ve customized at Namemedia, Inc., but this is the first time I’ve gone with an out of the box installation.  All customization for the site is done by plugin or theme.  Absolutely no changes to WordPress code whatsoever.
  • Comments, Sharing, etc. – Reel-Time never had comments on articles before, so now it does.  A small change, but actually one that will help to extend the community from the forum out into the  site.
  • Syndicated News Feeds – In the past, we always avoided sharing the link love.  No longer – we’re running feeds of pertinent content on our landing pages which gives us more great content from around the globe and shares our link juice, being top in Saltwater Fly fishing rankings.
  • Landing Pages – We’ve started doing pages by article category, so now we can present a dense, targeted page on any topic in our vast arsenal of content.  Add to that feeds of content similarly tagged from our forum, and the syndicated feeds, and you’ve got tons of content on any particular subject.  I only have a handful of these pages up, but rest assured, if it swims in saltwater and fishermen like to catch it, it will eventually have its own page.
  • A Standard Theme – I went with a base theme from the WordPress Theme Gallery then customized.  It saved time, and honestly, without it, I doubt this project ever would have happened.
  • A Classified Ad System – I’ve thought this was one of the big missing functions on the site for a long time.  Now we have one.  The question is, are we late to the game?
  • Vimeo Videos presented in high definition – Everybody has small videos, so I went with really LARGE video presentation.  It looks great, although I need to get more ads on the page.
  • New Content – for the first time in a long time, we’ve got new articles coming in.  I have no budget for this stuff, so I asked our community.  They have responded.
  • More Social – I put in links to our Facebook Group, Facebook Fan Page and to the Reel_Time twitter account.  Again, there is a lot more to do here.

I still have a lot of stuff to do.  If you read this blog closely, you’ll know that I had a quandry about what to do with our fishing reports section.  I think I have a solution to that, which I’ll be working on next.  Also on my list:

  • Develop a Content Team – me working 30 hours a week won’t happen anymore.  The work must be spread around the community.
  • Import All the Content - about 50 stories remain to be imported.  From there I have old fishing reports with valueable intro sections by some of the best writers in our sport (many started out writing for us).
  • Get More Community Happening – I’ll hold this one close to the vest for new.  I’m well aware that this blog is read by some that participate in my niche, so no need to tip my hat here.

Remember, one of the salient points here is that this was a nights and weekends project, only a 2 days of actual “work” time went into it.  Also, the an important round of thanks to the moderators for the site, Bob Parsons, Sam Riley, Ray Avitable and Shaun Ruge who were of immense assistance in the planning and as always, in providing a firm sounding board for potential ideas.  Without them, the site, I fear, would crumble to dust.

Okay, there was one other MAJOR change and no one has commented on it.  Can you?

Open Discussion: How to Crowd Source Weekly Fishing Reports

cape_led-july27

(Update: In thinking about this, I believe my fundemental problem is that while I’ve crowd sourced content generation, I am now at a point where I need to crowd source some of the content entry, formatting and editing tasks…)

I’ve been editing the Fishwire Reports at Reel-Time.com since 1995.  The task has generally been hugely manual, requiring tons of my time, most of which has happened over the years between the hours of 4am and 9am on Friday mornings.  In short, a really bad system.

The Scenario:

We cover 6 distinct regions throughout the northeast.  Each area is the responsibility of a different writer, although last year I wrote the reports for two regions.  The reports each contain around 6 subregions, such as “Boston Harbor” or “The Cape Cod Canal.”

Generally on Tuesdays I send an email out to my sponsors (generally area fishing guides) and regular contributors.  Then over the next two days the reports and images come back in via email.  If the weather is good, I probably have close to enough for a report.  If not, I go into our forum and look for posts that contain info from the general area.

I do a ton of cut and paste, much of which requires me to use notepad as an intermediary, since half the email comes in with nasty word or other formatting embeded.  Also, I get many of the images at full res, as many of the guides don’t have or don’t know how to use Photoshop.  Hence photo editing is a huge component of the task.  The images are generally optimized, have a caption added, and get a photo credit.

Then I put together the best of the images to use as the story leads for the homepage.

The current system, if it could be called that, is custom coded php that dates back to the dark ages.  I plan to move most of the non-forum components of the site to a highly customized version of WordPress that we use for many  of our sites.   If needed, I have the capability to make WordPress stand on its head and dance.  I do a LOT of WordPress development.

The Question:

My big problem is that I only see moderate improvement in the process no matter what I do.  Essentially, we’re managing a crowd sourced report here.  Many contributors, a writer, a photo editor,  and an editor.   How are other people doing stuff like this without having to use so many different skills?

The readers and sponsors really like the personal touch the writer gives the report.  I wouldn’t want to go to just a directory of reports, that’s been tried and failed repeatedly.  In fact, our presentation is one of the big differentiators.

Can you see a better way?  Do you have examples of how others are doing this in new and better ways?   Or should I just look at getting a couple interns to make it work manually?

As always, I look forward to the shining light of your collective wisdom…

(Oh, I’ve had a suggestion: why don’t you just do a blog – the short version to the answer is that I did that in 2004 as a test and found that only a very small subset of sponsors would post, so I ended up cutting and pasting again.  Plus, the subset that did post was way over represented on our site.)

WordPress 2.7 Released

It’s out and you can get it here.

Words to the wise:

  • There are some issues with Image Handling which have not been resolved.  These issues appear to be related to server setup, and not the actual code, but sites where images handling worked on 2.6.5 may find that it is broken in 2.7 – like this site. (Update:  yes, image thumbnailing is working for me now – it appears it’s finicky on large size images and doens’t like some formats.  Not a bug.)
  • In order to take advantage of the new comments threading feature you’re going to need to make changes to you theme.  You can either grab the comments.php bit out of a 2.7 compliant theme or follow the steps outlined here
  • Many plugins have been found to cause problems.  I suggest turning off everything you can and then turning your plugins on one by one to see if they break things, or if they cause general slowness. There is a good list here.
  • If you’ve customized your admin console be sure you test prior to upgrade. There have been substantial changes and the way they implement hooks in Admin has changed. 

Otherwise, the system appears to be pretty solid, and once again has made moves towards becoming more of a Content Management System (CMS) than Blogging Software.

Drinking From the Fire Hose #2 – the China Syndrome

One of the big complaints that the anti-Wordpress chorus croons is that the vaunted blogging platform doesn’t scale.  Certainly we’ve all seen sites brought low by the “Slashdot Effect” or the “Digg Effect” but my experience tells me that WordPress is getting a bad rap for poor server setup, poor plugin choice, etc.

How do I know?  Well, one of the sites I work with last week experienced the “China Syndrome” or potentially “The Great Fire Hose”.  The site, TheTruthAboutCars.com posted a story that the Chinese might buy GM, and that opened the flood gates for traffic.  The problem is, while we watch for excess traffic from Digg, or Slashdot, we don’t watch the Chinese sites that offer similar service.  In a matter of a couple hours, the traffic surged to 10 or 15 times its normal levels(and that’s conservative, once we max out server connections, we have no way of knowing how much is actually refused).  Our system administrator alerted me and I quickly through the SuperCache plugin into lockdown mode, ensuring that the site rendered virtually all its content as flat html, rather than going to the database every time.   Continue reading