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Blogs as a Student Content Management System
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In the summer of 2004, as work crews began to put up the walls of what would become the Stan and Madeline Stauffer Multimedia Newsroom, the University of Kansas School of Journalism faced some heavy-duty technological issues. By that fall, our new newsroom was supposed to be turning out students who could work on the Web with the same assurance that they could work on a newspaper or a newscast.
Our cross-platform teaching strategy was, and is, an ambitious one. We first strive to prepare every news student in the basic skills of text, video, and online reporting and then they move on to the classes in specialized media required to graduate. The multimedia newsroom is a part of that cross-platform teaching strategy at both the basic and advanced levels. The faculty believes that, at some point, our students will have to work with a variety of platforms, no matter what medium they choose as their primary emphasis. We also believe they ought to be prepared to switch media.
For two years, perhaps more, we had been teaching the Multimedia Reporting course by having students use Dreamweaver, Adobe's software for designing, developing, and maintaining Web sites. At the time, Dreamweaver was a tool that many professionals used. Although it was touted as a WYSIWYG application that would allow students to integrate text, graphics and video without having to write code, it was never an easy application to master.
All news majors, regardless of media specialty, had to take and pass the course, which we built on student newswriting and video skills learned in an introductory course. This was the course that introduced Web journalism.
The success of our approach was, to be generous, mixed. After two hours of software training, we turned students loose to do two online stories, first in teams and, finally, alone. We set up templates in Dreamweaver and then provided technical help in labs staffed until the wee hours of the morning when assignments came due. Some of those projects produced online journalism that would make any teacher proud: well-sourced text stories accompanied by well-edited video segments, rollover maps, graphics, and hot links. Other projects? Only a mother could have loved those: garish red type on black backgrounds; gothic sites with rambling, pointless stories spiked with ugly video and bungled HTML code in links that didn’t work on uploads that failed — all turned in at grading time on CDs that wouldn’t play.
Blaming these kids for their online shortcomings was a cop-out. Dreamweaver proved to be too much program for the generic journalism student. It is important to note that our KU convergence strategy is and has been irrevocably and doggedly cross-platform, which is why we chose Dreamweaver. Students with strong computer skills did fine, and even enjoyed the chance to work with Dreamweaver. Several advanced courses in online journalism had produced Web projects with no more than the usual teaching tussles. KU wants every news student to have a basic introduction to Web-based writing and reporting, yet far too many of our students were experiencing online journalism as a sweaty, late-night, bad dream of lost files in muddled folders. Even with increased training and locked-down templates, our teaching of basic online production skills was too often an experience of waiting for an already-on-overtime labbie to come around and fix mysterious root file problems. It also seemed like some students spent more time picking their lime green color scheme than gathering, writing and editing the stories to work on the Web.
We needed another approach. We needed something to handle class content, display text, video, links, digital photography, slide shows, audio files, and graphics, and that woul allow us to manage them at minimal expense with minimally skilled content creators: a content-management system.
Content Management Systems
Before the summer of 2004, the news faculty at KU probably had never used the term “CMS.” Of course, we had been dealing with content management systems on student newspapers since the days of paper-tape-loaded programs on central processing units from Compugraphic. Our TV newsroom had just purchased “Newsroom,” a specialized CMS for its newscasts. We needed something broader, and quickly developed a set of requirements for the system we wanted:
- A system that was well documented and provided a corporate and technological infrastructure that could survive local manager and administrator turnover
- A simple-to-maintain system with simple-to-update templates
- A system that was student-user-friendly
- A stand-alone system that could survive the corporate demise of the system provider
- A professional support team available to assist with design, implementation, and other issues that might arise
- Phone support (24-hour was best)
- Company support of the product on both Mac and PC platforms
- Easy to use, Microsoft Office-style implementation for end users
- Company training that would send instructors on-site
- Simplified Web publishing for the end user that did not require any technical knowledge of how the Web works or experience using WYSIWYG (graphical “what you see is what you get”) Web editors
- The ability to communicate with multiple back-end databases (specifically Oracle)
- Consulting services available for designing workflow using their product
- The ability to access data using various methods (i.e. using multiple templates to repurpose content)
- Open standards architecture
- An interface that was not tied to one specific Web browser
- Reasonable cost upfront, and reasonable cost for maintenance and upgrades
There is a whole industry out there willing to supply universities with just that kind of setup— for a price. What we found was not pretty. The systems that could handle all our needs would have chewed through a quarter of our whole budget for the newsroom.
A cost analysis of the final contender, Ingeniux , follows:
- 1st year – $49,980: Includes technical support, upgrades, the server software for both the development and deployment servers, unlimited users, and a week’s worth of training from their team.
- 2nd year - $5,000-6,000: Includes technical support and upgrades
- Nth year - $5,000-6,000 to unknown: Includes technical support and upgrades
Clearly, we needed another solution.
Journalism schools are not alone in the quest for a better way to manage content. Many media organizations are struggling to catalog, maintain, and archive text, images, audio, and video. As creating multimedia content becomes easier, and as the demand for multimedia content increases, journalism schools and media organizations face the daunting task of organizing all this new data and making it available to reporters, producers, and the audience.
It was then that a light went on for us. Weblogs were, in fact, small content management systems. A Weblog (now more commonly known as a blog) was simply a Web-based publication system. Granted, blogs usually consisted of periodic articles (normally in reverse chronological order) that were more journal entries than news stories. But, we reasoned, there was no reason that blogging software couldn’t be used to do text, photo, audio, and video news. Since we first addressed the problem in 2004, events in the world of blogging have proved us more right than we could have ever known.
Most early Weblogs were manually updated, but by the summer of 2004 tools to automate the maintenance of such sites had made them accessible to a much larger population, and the use of some sort of browser-based software had become a typical aspect of blogging.
It was the no-cost, easy-to-set up, straightforward-to-teach, and simple-to-learn aspects of the blogging software that convinced us that Blogger, open-source software from Google, could be the answer to our CMS prayers; that, and the fact that we didn’t have to pay a dime for it.
The more we thought about it, the more we also saw the potential offered by blogging systems, technically speaking. Today’s blogging software is multimedia oriented and blog developers are also experimenting with cell phone and e-mail publishing tools as well as advanced methods for searching and syndicating content. Some of the brightest minds in technology and programming are contributing to the development of blogging systems. Their innovations provided us with new ways to manage course content online.
There were some concerns among some faculty that students would use the software to run amok: bloggers gone wild. Visions of obscenity, libel, or worse made some faculty hesitant to adopt the classroom blogging system. Some of that concern was salved by semantics. We never called a student’s personal Web space a “blog” in class. We called it a “personal Web portfolio.” While we have had to remove some content when we discovered plagiarism by a student, we have yet to experience a single incident of a blogger gone bad.
By the end of the first semester that we introduced blogging software, virtually all students could post text, video, slide shows, audio, and photos to a Web site with minimal training and lab time. In fact, all multimedia reporting assignments — from six-inch-long text stories to TV news packages — are now posted to the class site. We also found that the use of blogging software took much of the pain out of both training and learning online skills. With our blogging system, students can choose to do as little, or as much, HTML and other Web coding as they can handle. When students were ready, they would ask how to code for a new feature. For those who were challenged by merely posting text and video, well, their work still looked like a Web page, and virtually every student could get to that skill level. We also found that the small rush of seeing their stories on the Web could motivate students who may never have considered online journalism to do or learn more.
It didn’t take long for us to outgrow Blogger. In 2005 we moved from the Google Blogger system to an in-house installation of WordPress, an open-source blogging system. This move from Blogger to WordPress meant more control over the back-end of the content management system. Students no longer published individual blogs, instead, there is one class blog for multimedia reporting. As new technology develops, this blogging system will be flexible enough to allow us to grow and change. According to WordPress’s built-in Blog Counter, there are more than a million WordPress blogs registered with Weblogs.com.
Teaching by Blogs
Because we believe that part of learning about online journalism includes learning a little HTML, we teach the students the very basic code needed to create hyperlinks, embed images, embed video, and format bold and italic text.
We’ve found that the best way to teach the students how to use the blogs is to require that they publish their assignments to the Web. From the very first assignment, six inches of news, we do not grade an assignment until it is posted. We then build, step-by-step, a series of assignments requiring more, and more sophisticated, multi-media elements. The final story must include text, images, audio, and video. It’s overwhelming for the students to have to learn how to shoot, edit, write scripts, and post video online in a couple of lessons, but breaking the assignment into smaller chunks helps them learn one skill set at a time.
We do provide students with step-by-step documentation, complete with screenshots about how to perform each of the basic functions. This documentation is posted on our technical blog at http:///ehub.journalism.ku.edu/input. This documentation is written, updated and maintained by the more technically-oriented students and staff.
Some students want more control over the design and layout of their blogs. That is another reason that we found blogging systems to be a powerful teaching tool. We can teach our students a little about stylesheets and formatting with HTML and give them the opportunity to experiment without having to build an entire Web site from scratch.
The ability to set up and use basic blogs has, in a very short time, proved valuable to our students. Several have gone on to take jobs specializing in online journalism in both print and broadcast media. For example, a student who took a job as Internet Director for KPLC in Lake Charles, LA, set up several blogs for the news station, including a weather blog that became the centerpiece of the station’s news coverage during Hurricane Rita.
Blogs are not necessarily a solution for every content management need. We have found them useful for basic education for large numbers of students and as an introduction to online journalism. We use other content management systems, including one that we designed and built for the KUJH-TV News Web site at http://tv.ku.edu. The University Daily Kansan (http://www.kansan.com) purchased the CMS developed by The Lawrence Journal-World (http://www.ljworld.com) and Lawrence.com. These systems fulfilled functionality requirements that blogging software could not, and they provided more robust content management for these student media Web sites.
Blogging software has its role in teaching multimedia journalism, and in introducing students (and scholars) to the publication options available on the Web.
*This article is based on a paper presented at Media Convergence: Cooperation, Collisions, and Change, Brigham Young University, 2005.
Appendix: Comparing CMS Options
The chart below outlines our experiences and the pros and cons of Dreamweaver, blogs, and traditional content-management systems.
|No CMS (Dreamweaver)||Blog CMS||Traditional CMS|
|No CMS (Dreamweaver)||Blog CMS||Traditional CMS|