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How self-hosted WordPress can and should power journalism

I’ve had my hands inside lots of content management systems, and to this day WordPress remains my favorite.

And yes, WordPress is a content management system. It’s also a CMS that works well for journalism large and small and whose use for journalism by both professionals and citizens will only continue to grow.

In fact, the idea to start WP Journo came after reading a story from The New York Times about  WordPress’ growth as a CMS. (Funny The Times didn’t mention its own use of WordPress MU for its blogs.)

We wouldn’t want our newspaper pages to be ugly or hard to navigate, so why are so many news websites exactly that?

Reality check: There are very few great content management systems being used as platforms for journalism. Plenty of newspapers—and broadcast television sites especially—use clumsy systems with feature sets still in the stone ages of the internet. Even worse, these systems are skinned by ugly stylesheets and confusing user interfaces. We wouldn’t want our newspaper pages to be ugly or hard to navigate, so why are so many news websites exactly that?

Hyperlocal news sites and community papers stand to have the most success using WordPress as a CMS, and of course, WordPress wouldn’t work as a CMS for every news organization.  But here are six reasons why it’s worth thinking about for many of them:

Budget friendly

Money by AMagill on FlickrMost news orgs are struggling to make ends meet. Plenty are paying for solutions that just aren’t good enough; they’re not monetized, they’re not flexible, they’re hard for staff to use, they’re not search engine optimized, they’re poorly supported and the list goes on…

WordPress is free to start with, and there are plenty of WordPress savvy designers and developers out there as well as some firms that specialize in WP work. It’s inexpensive to hire them for some custom development, or in-house talent can quickly learn the ins and outs of the system.

Case in point: Tierra Innovation and WNET (PBS Channel Thirteen in New York) partnered to build 50 WordPress-powered sites in 10 months, cutting costs per site down to $5,000 to $10,000 per site.

Open source and community-driven

One way WNET.org kept costs down was by making use of the WP community and its creation of thousands of plugins.  WordPress users are blessed by a huge community that shares how to fix or create things. Instead of calling up someone for support, often a Google search or trip to the WordPress Codex is all that is necessary. And don’t forget that WordPress is standards compliant.

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel each time a new feature is wanted, either. News orgs can find a plugin, test it, make any necessary adjustments and then implement it, significantly reducing or even eliminating development time and cost.

Smaller media orgs especially can benefit from WP’s robust theme selection by implementing premium magazine-style themes (with edits, hopefully) or working within great theme frameworks like Justin Tadlock’s Hybrid.

Growth and scalability

Contrary to a lot of criticism, WordPress is scalable to large sites and able to serve considerable traffic. Don’t believe it? Mashable uses WordPress and drives more than 25 million monthly pageviews. Several caching plugins are a good first step toward reducing server load on high-traffic sites.

Automattic continually improves WordPress’ core functionality, and the company’s release of new versions is coming faster. Other CMS companies often work slowly and behind the curve—WP, for not being initially intended as a CMS, is quickly surpassing other open source and paid enterprise solutions.

With version 3.0, developers have merged the MU with WordPress’ standard install, meaning it will now be in the WP core to control multiple domains and subdomains through one installation. Custom post types and taxonomies will add even greater control.

Ease of use

WordPress easy to postMy grandma could post in WordPress. It’s that easy. In my experience, a staff of reporters at a college newspaper was able to publish on a WordPress-driven blog with little to no training.

But WP’s usability goes beyond easy posting. It’s also easy to edit multiple sidebars or navigation menus with a built-in drag and drop interface. Making changes to most things in WP is less click and page-refresh intensive than other systems I’ve used, and several plugins can make the administration user interface more like an advanced CMS.

Not to be overlooked: WordPress’ core comment moderation system is among the easiest and quickest I’ve used.

Thumbnails

WordPress has thumbnailing built in to its core. This feature may seem insignificant but is extremely important to news orgs’ websites. Too many currently neglect to break up long lists of headlines and guide readers visually with thumbnails, and for many of them, the failure to do so is because of an inept CMS.

It’s not new territory

Using WordPress as a content management system for media organizations is nothing new. Most of Technorati’s top 100 blogs use WP, according to a list compiled by CMSWire.  A visit to many of those blogs reveals better interfaces and functionality than lots of traditional news orgs’ sites and databases just as large or larger than many, even daily, publications.

Not convinced?

Here’s a great write-up by Sennza that further demonstrates what makes WordPress a powerful CMS, not just a blogging platform. And along similar lines, PixelCrayons explains what makes WordPress good even for big corporations.

Got more evidence for how WordPress can power journalism? Let me know below.