WordPress 3.6 Coming – But I Really Want Workflow

wordpress-logo_318-40291.pngWe’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  • Writer archives story research items (not for publication but as resources that may be used later)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)

The Blog is Dead, Long Live the Blog!

Over the weekend, The New York Times proclaimed that blogging is dead.  I guess with their vast experience working with dead and dying media, they’d probably be able to recognize a fellow dinosaur headed for an early grave…

All kidding aside, they’ve hit on something.  The days when everyone and their brother gets into blogging are probably over.  A year or two ago many “blogging gurus” would tell us that “we’re all media now”.  The truth of the thing is that most of us don’t have that stuff in us.  It’s one thing to configure wordpress and throw up a few posts, and quite another to update the thing on a regular basis.

I’d know, I’ve been doing this since 1995 or so.  I’ve been through a few cycles where I lost steam, and the post volume slowed to a crawl.  I’ve also setup hundreds of blogs for other people, and honestly, I will tell you right now, I cannot tell at the outset of any project who will be part of the magic 25% that are still updating their blog 6 months later.  And in that other 75% a good portion never update after the first week.

The important thing here is that blogging has gone from being ultra-kewl to being one more electronic communication means with it’s own pros and cons. Very useful for somethings and utterly useless for others.

The days of blogging to be cool are over.  Time for all the gurus and SMDBs to check out and head onto the next big thing, whatever that is.

Yes, comments have virtually dried up over the past year or so on many blogs.  Yes, most of the discussion about my posts now goes on in my Facebook account, away from the mainstream.

It makes blogging no less important.  Think of the blog as your personal long tail.  It is the bit of you that is indexed in Google, that unique bit that is both an opening of yourself to the world at large, as well as a living record of your life online.

Think of the blog as what it was when we invented the thing, a simple online journal. Forget what the gurus tell you, you don’t have to “be the expert.” Being yourself is good enough…and often that’s the part of your blog we like the most.

Twitter Just Became Relevant

I’ve got a long and storied history with Twitter.  At first, hated it.  Then loved it…and recently have been somewhat ambivalent.

Personally I think the short form blog, which is what Twitter is, appeals to some of the very things that are wrong with modern society.  It’s designed for the ADHD generation, feeds the growing cults of personality, and in general, is a prime expediter of the dumbing down process.  The whole thing was designed to be scanned, not read, a very fact against which the writer in me is compelled to rebel.  Beyond that, I attribute it to the ongoing decline of blogs and blog commenting.

That was until I saw a new app for the iPad called Flipboards (free).  This app takes your twitter and facebook feeds, as well as just about anything else RSS and on the fly retrieves the summary data from the links which are embedded and constructs an online newspaper format for you to read it in.

So now, instead of reading a limited 140 character post, with an unintelligible shortened url, the app pulls down all the content, pictures and all and creates a very user friendly representation of the data.

That’s the point at which the world changed…

Now instead of this:

I get this:

(Sorry for the blurry photo – it’s actually visually stunning, but I had to take the pic with my iPhone in my dark cubicle and with my hand tremor in full force today, that’s as good as it gets)

Overnight, that makes Twitter (and Facebook) a crowd-sourced news clipping service which brings me all the news that’s fit to link.

Oh, and by the way, RSS is dead as a reading format.  It’s now a cross-site content transfer language.

Try it, I think you’ll be as blown away as I am.

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.

On the Fly Website Translation in Google Chrome

I stumbled on this neat trick the other day while having a look for information on a Russian website.  If you are browsing using the Google Chrome Browser and open Google Translate in one tab, when you surf to any foreign language sites, it will offer to translate the site for you.  You click yes, and bang, you’ve got that site in English. The actual translation is as good as the library they have, hence Spanish is pretty good, while you can probably bet that Urdu or Swahili will offer mixed results.

I’m now using Chrome for most of my browsing although I do use Firefox for css debug, and IE just to be sure my work is accessible in all browsers.  I expect we’ll see Chrome really take off this year.

Designing for the iPad?

I was listening to a netcast this morning (This Week in Media) and the host Alec Lindsey put forward the suggestion that many content related businesses were planning on developing specific content for the iPad.  I had a couple thoughts…

  • Why would you funnel development dollars into creating something for a single platform, when that platform has not yet been released.
  • How could you develop effectively for a platform, when that platform has not yet been released.
  • The suggestion was made that there would be 5 million iPads in the wild within the year.  Maybe, but I wouldn’t count on that…and even at that, 5 million is a mere drop in the bucket compared with the internet at large.
  • Specific versions for ANOTHER platform?  C’mon, we’re back to the old Mac vs. Pc, Netscape vs. IE battles here.  We have a common mode of delivery for these types of devices, it’s HTML, have you ever heard of it?

If the iPad becomes wildly popular, I’ll have a look at developing specific content for it, but for now, I’ll expect users with that device to fire up Safari and visit the old fashioned way.  We’ll get an idea today as preordering started about 9 minutes ago for the wi-fi version of the product.

Demand Media and the New Economy of the Journalist

Demand Media has been a constant topic of conversation among online journalists of late.  It all began with this article in Wired entitled “The Answer Factory: Demand Media and the Fast, Disposable, and Profitable as Hell Media Model“.

Plenty of other companies — About.com, Mahalo, Answers.com — have tried to corner the market in arcane online advice. But none has gone about it as aggressively, scientifically, and single-mindedly as Demand. Pieces are not dreamed up by trained editors nor commissioned based on submitted questions. Instead they are assigned by an algorithm, which mines nearly a terabyte of search data, Internet traffic patterns, and keyword rates to determine what users want to know and how much advertisers will pay to appear next to the answers.

Demand Media is what we’d generally call a content mill.  Instead of the old days of the newspaper where the editorial and advertising teams eyed each other distrustfully, in this case, the entire editorial side is essentially outsourced, and it’s done at rates that would make any professional writer cringe. From their Wikipedia page:

Contributors choose among available titles that were previously identified by the company’s algorithm. They are paid once their work has been automatically checked for plagiarism[7] and is approved by editors. Typical compensation is $20 for a video clip, $15 for an article of a few hundred words, $2.50 for copy-editing an article and $1 for fact-checking an article.[6]

To put that into context, I used to write similar content online for a rate of $500.00 per article.  Ouch!

For the record, there’s a huge gulf between what you buy for a $20 article and a $500 article.  In the $20 version, I’d suggest that some of the little things go out the window, such as revision, or perhaps even contacting sources.  Wired puts it well:

Nearly every freelancer scrambles to load their assignment queue with titles they can produce quickly and with the least amount of effort — because pay for individual stories is so lousy, only a high-speed, high-volume approach will work. The average writer earns $15 per article for pieces that top out at a few hundred words, and the average filmmaker about $20 per clip, paid weekly via PayPal.

The question I have in mind is this:  at what point does Google start to put some weighting behind their search results that will,instead of just promoting stories that are well optimized for SEO, help good content rise to the top?

In This Week in Google’s latest podcast, Matt Cutts, spam guru at Google made the statement that 2010 would be a bad year for low value content, when Leo Laporte pressed him on the issue (note: this is not a direct quote, I’m going by memory here, but the gist is fairly clear…).

How do I think they could add value to search results?  A few suggestions:

  • Leverage the actual search experience of real users with vote up, vote down, hide capability.
  • Identify and utilize subject matter experts to fine tune results.
  • Allow us to add weight to the search experience of our friends (note: that doesn’t simply mean using everyone in our contacts list!).

In the long run, fixing this hole may make things a lot harder for those of us who do SEO optimization as part of our services.  However, I’ve got to think that things only improve for those who use the only time proven SEO tactic I know: providing good pertinent content in a tight, well ordered presentation.

The thing that truly worries me is what this portends for journalists.  We’ve seen steady erosion in jobs for journalists over the past couple years, as newspapers and magazines cut back.  Now it would seem that even online their services are devalued.  Is there room in this new online economy for good content at a fair price?

I certainly hope so…

Death of Newspapers – RIP Editor and Publisher

When I worked in the Atex marketing department, we lived and died by what we could get published in Editor and Publisher.  The once vaunted trade journal was the place you wanted to get mentioned, the measure of your having “made it” in the print world.  Those days are now gone – from E&P themselves:

Editor & Publisher, the bible of the newspaper industry and a journalism institution that traces its origins back to 1884, is ceasing publication.

An announcement, made by parent company The Nielsen Co., was made Thursday morning as staffers were informed that E&P, in both print and online, was shutting down.

The expressions of surprise and outpouring of strong support for E&P that has followed across the Web — Editor & Publisher has even hit No. 4 as a Twitter trending topic — raises the notion that the publication might yet continue in some form.

Its sad to see an industry that was once so much a part of my life now unable to even sustain a trade journal.  In my youth, it was impossible to imagine a world without newspapers.  Increasingly, it is becoming hard to visualize a future with them…

I could ruminate for hours on the subject, but I think the point is already made.  Even the journal of the print publication industry can’t make print work and is looking for a way “continue in some form.”

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.

A Few Coherent Thoughts on Murdoch Blocking Google

Yesterday Rupert Murdoch, Chairman of News Corp, said that he was going to have Google blocked from all New Corp. websites.  That means something

From EditorandPublisher.com:

The Chairman of News Corp. said in an interview with Sky News Australia (reported here in MediaWeek U.K.) that once the newspapers get their paywalls, News Corp. plans to pull its content from the likes of Google and others.

Murdoch said: “We’d rather have fewer people come to the Web site and pay. Consumers shouldn’t have had free news all the time — I think we’ve been asleep. It costs us a lot of money to put together good newspapers and good content. No news Web sites anywhere in the world are making large amounts of money.”

Immediately the web went all a flutter, myself included, predicting that that Murdoch would rue the day.  Joe Mandese at Mediapost.com noted:

According to an analysis of Google-generated traffic released late Monday by Experian’s Hitwise service, Google and Google News currently account for more than 25% of the daily traffic to the Wall Street Journal‘s WSJ.com site.

That’s an awful lot of traffic to put at risk.  Now the other side of the coin is that Murdoch knows that showing tons of traffic low cost network ads begging them to Punch the Monkey or telling them they just won a lottery is the absolute path of least resistence.  You go there when you have nothing else to possibly do… Continue reading “A Few Coherent Thoughts on Murdoch Blocking Google”