Tag Archives: software

Why journalism may become software development

There’s an interesting comment from Soilman on my post on whether a donation model can fund web content. It’s worth a closer look.

He argues that the three things users may pay for are:

  1. Data
  2. Services
  3. Software/apps 

If you’re a business mag/website, you create a software programme that helps professionals in your industry do their job. Most of it is bespoke (ie it’s genuinely focused on solving a business problem, not on providing media services), but it happens to include some of the material you already produce. You do this with more and more little apps, aiming to create a global suite of specific industry software solutions that all have your existing content and brand publishing in common.

Yes – this is a radically different way of approaching “journalism”. In fact, I suspect many – if not most – people in the trade would say it wasn’t journalism at all. 

But I think that attitude is wrong. The changing face of technology makes this inevitable. Digital content is being presented and used in radically new ways. Users are no longer simply consumers of content, but producers and collaborators as well. 

It’s one reason why I am trying to start paying attention to relevant blogs by software developers and techies

Matt Bowen’s M.odul.us blog has a post on The Next Web that looks at the way new technologies will converge to help us communicate

His bullet-point list includes:

  • universal, persistent identification
  • fragmented and then reunified social networks
  • reputation management
  • real, easy metadata
  • location aware content
  • significantly increased usability
  • increasingly, more AI involvement in searching, navigating, and selecting

It’s not journalism as we know it – in the sense of worthy (and wordy) comment and investigation. But he is looking at the very heart of information – what it does, how to structure it, and why people will need it.

In fact, some forward-thinking media observers agree.

Paul Bradshaw’s Online Journalism Blog has already applauded The Guardian’s crowdsourcing MPs’ expenses tool for allowing readers to act as their own investigative journalists.

And there are commercial benefits. He notes:

When you treat news as a platform rather than a destination, then people tend to spend more time on your site, so there’s an advertising win there. 

So the idea that software development and journalism could be part of the same discipline is not crazy. 

From the same blog comes news of a service by online document annotation service A.nnotate that allows users to annotate PDFs of MPs’ expenses forms

Again, this is a software app that works to let people analyse and comment on things in the news. So we’re still in journalism territory. 

And while annotations on MPs’ expense forms were offered free as a promotion, A.nnotate usually charges for its service. Which is monetisation of web content, for anyone who wonders. The Holy Grail of media today.

And if you think about it, the whole point of web content is to do a different job from old-style, static media.

Maps and charts can be interactive. Surveys can be real-time. Databases can be interrogated. 

Figure out what readers value for their own business and you have a shot at levering some money from them to supply it. 

Is this journalism?

Certainly not as the old guard of printies and their noble-but-elitist goal of public betterment would have it.

But as an example of how we can work with information and think of ways to deliver it and make it useful, it is nothing but journalism.

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Great beginner’s guide to CSS

I’ve just come across this simple start-up tutorial to cascading style sheets (CSS), which is ideal for the absolute beginner.

Much like style sheets in QuarkXPress and InDesign, CSS is at the heart of the look-and-feel of content management systems (CMS). But unlike style sheets in QuarkXPress and InDesign, CSS code looks like, well, code. So it can be a bit daunting for novices (like me). 

It’s heartening that the author even made a mess of his own code, so the example doesn’t quite work. Instead, you’ll need to download the updated zip files he’s provided. 

Once you do, however, you can spend many happy minutes changing font style, colour and size. Before getting bored and wondering if that’s all there is to CSS.

It isn’t! Follow up with the CSS tutorial on w3schools.com and wet Sunday afternoons will never be the same….

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Navigating the CMS minefield

Regular, geeky readers of Freelance Unbound will know that I am striving hard to become literate in the ways of CMS – that is in actually constructing a CMS-based site, not just using one.

This stuff is pretty hard to get to grips with for a non-techie journalist, so I’ve been trawling the web for as much user-friendly information as possible. 

Thanks, therefore, to Matt Bowen’s really excellent M.odul.us blog for some comprehensive, readable and knowledgeable (if dense) content. 

I came on M.odul.us when I was looking into the relative merits of Drupal and Plone (yet another open-source CMS technology). I’m trying to figure out which is the best investment of my time and energy to learn, given that life is, well, short.

It turns out that each has its merits and, scarily, it might be worth learning both. Except that Plone is even harder to get my non-programmer’s head around. 

Matt’s blog has a very comprehensive and balanced assessment of the two programs, which is also very clearly written, though the material is still quite difficult for non-specialists. 

More than that, he also has some really solid material on writing and communicating for the web, and a tech-based view on where the web is going, to pick just two posts. 

Why should non-tech-minded journalists even care what a programmer is writing?

Because we need to understand much more about the context in which we are plying our slightly grubby trade.

And because, in this case, a programmer is communicating very tough material in a very clear way. 

A lot of this material does go over my head – but a lot is worth reading. This is certainly one for the blogroll and for repeat visiting in order to understand what goes on under the hood of the web…

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Quark 8 versus InDesign CS4

Steve Hill’s New Journalism Review blog has a note about the comparison of Quark 8 and InDesign CS4 in MacUser (which isn’t yet online, apparently). 

My take is that the debate on software features misses the point a little. The question of which to buy normally doesn’t depend on which is the best product. It’s pretty much the same decision as whether to buy VHS or Betamax back in the early 80s (and other similar technology quandaries subsequently) – which kind do your friends have?

For Quark v InDesign, of course, it’s which kind do your clients/employers have, if you’re a freelancer like me. Or which kind is the cheapest/easiest to run for a company, if you are a bigger publisher.

One company I worked for hung on to Mac OS9 for years after OSX came in, because it didn’t want to have to upgrade from Quark 4. Then, eventually, it upgraded all its IT at once – and switched the whole company to InDesign at the same time.

Why? Money, primarily. But even though InDesign was cheaper and made more sense to use, it took years to make the switch. That’s why it’s taken years for InDesign to become the dominant player.

I remember tech reviews from a decade ago, like this one, predicting that Adobe had created a Quark killer – but that took forever to come true. By the same token, it will take a long time for an InDesign killer to gain any traction in the market. Remember, Pagemaker was the dominant player back in the dawn of time of the mid-80s, and that limped on for decades before Adobe largely pulled the plug in 2004. You can even still buy it (though I suspect very few do). 

Quality isn’t really the key issue. InDesign is kind of better (though you do need to spend some time, effort and money on training support if you switch). But ultimately it all comes down to economics. Sure, Quark will retain a diminishing base. But even making Quark 8 fantastic will probably not help it regain the lead.

The review suggests this:

There are now fewer reasons for Quark users to make the transition to switch to InDesign, although it’s unlikely many users will make the transition the other way

Steve Hill argues that “It’s good to have competition in DTP” – which is true enough (competition is good in any market). But it will only make it more of a close call in choosing to switch to Adobe.

I wonder if framing the debate as Quark 8 versus InDesign CS4 is even relevant. I suspect the big threat to both will come from an open source model – maybe as Drupal/Joomla are driving in terms of CMS on the web. And also the big threat will be from the web, as more content bypasses the traditional DTP stage.

Given that InDesign is integrated with Adobe’s web design tools, that’s another disadvantage for Quark. I’ve never been aware that Quark’s web integration was much to write home about (even if it’s better now).

Perhaps in a few years’ time we’ll be using some Google app to lay out our pages. Or whatever has taken Google’s place as the tech behemoth du jour…

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Successful Drupal import

Finally, after quite a bit of noodling around, I have managed to export my WordPress blog and import it successfully into Drupal. To those with a life, this is perhaps not so impressive. But given Drupal’s quite astonishingly unintuitive user interface I am quite pleased with myself.  

If anyone wants to do something similar, the module can be downloaded here. It was the same one that blanked out the browser first time round, but restarting seemed to solve that snafu. Then you have to make sure you map the content to a user. Yes, I know – I zoned out too. And that’s why Drupal said “import successful” but no content appeared. So – there’s a crucial “create user” button you have to activate before it works.

And now? I have to start creating a user interface. That’s the weekend gone. The real downside is that last night I actually dreamed about PHP code strings. You have no idea how disturbing that is…

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More übergeekery

I have been wondering what I might do as a first run for a basic Drupal site, basically to give me a project to help me learn the CMS.

“Could I migrate WordPress to it, using xml?” I wondered, geekily.

Yes! For there on the excellent Drupal site was a link to a Drupal module that would do this very thing.  

Thereupon, I spent a bit of time installing the module, and all the other bits that you always have to add to make anything work with a tech installation. How pleased with myself I was – for I was king of the journo geeks! 

Then of course, after clicking the update button, I refreshed the screen and found … nothing. Yes – just a blank white browser window. How my inflated sense of self esteem deflated rapidly.

After some cursing and turning the Apache server on and off, I figured I should just delete the module. Which of course instantly solved the problem. 

So now I’m back to square one. I reckon it’s all because there is some version clash between the module and the 6.x Drupal I have installed. More fun this evening maybe. Unless I get a life…

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I become an übergeek

Spent part of the weekend installing Apache and mySQL on my laptop to turn it into a “web development platform”. If you’d have spoken to me even a year ago, I would never have believed I could have written such a thing. 

It was kind of easier than you’d think, given that most of my experience with computers has been of the cuddly Mac OS variety (apart from some possibly useful exposure to MS-DOS back in the 18th century late 1980s).

That’s largely due to the impeccably well-produced documentation for the XAMPP software that does the heavy lifting of the installation. But I did have a WTF? moment during the process.

  • Step 1 – “Simply click on the link below.” Yep, that’s fine.   
  • Step 2 – “Doubleclick to start the installation.” Mmm – with you so far. 
  • Step 3 – “After installing simply type in the following commands to start XAMPP for MacOS X:

Go to a Terminal shell and login as the system administrator root:sudo su
To start XAMPP simply call this command:/Applications/XAMPP/xamppfiles/mampp start

  • Step 4 – “uh…”

Thankfully we have the internet, and as long as you are  prepared to sit by the computer cursing for 15 minutes while you sift through the sluice of the web’s variable quality advice, you are almost bound to find the solution you need. 

So – after a bit of experimentation with Apple’s Terminal application [for which even the Wikipedia entry linked to here is nigh incomprehensible], I managed to get the web server up and running and then went crazy and installed Joomla, Drupal and, for a bit of light relief, the full WordPress software. 

I’ll probably migrate this blog to fully hosted WordPress in time, mainly to get control of the template and add some plugin goodness. First I get to learn how to create a site in one of the oh-so popular modular CMS systems around.

I had thought I’d start with Joomla, as it’s supposed to be easier to learn. But then, for that reason, I thought I’d actually try to crack Drupal first. It’s the system that publishing companies would probably opt for if they go for a non-custom CMS, which makes it more useful to know from a freelance perspective. 

I’ll update with progress reports as I start to make any…

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