Two years on from joining the VIP program, The Sun’s WordPress-powered website has grown steadily to become the UK’s biggest digital commercial news website, with over 30 million unique users each month – that’s fast approaching half the UK’s total population.
Sport, and specifically soccer, has always been a key part of The Sun’s offering; and with England headed to the summer’s World Cup in Russia, the newsroom were keen to make the most of the opportunity.
In a characteristically cheeky talk at our recent London BigWP event, The Sun’s head of newsroom systems, Joel Davies described how they were able to create a new destination section, with the ambition to cement The Sun’s brand as the ‘home of the football fan’.
The new section, built and launched in three months, incorporated a new mobile-first design, reflecting the fact that 90% of traffic was mobile, with full-screen teasers, interactive on-page components, plus new commercial slots and navigation.
Joel explained some of the design elements and special content features the team developed, making full use of the flexibility offered by the WordPress platform. They used the Shortcake plugin, a precursor to the new Gutenberg editor’s block concept, to construct complex page layouts, rendered on the front end by React components.
They produced just under 100 articles per day during the tournament, and almost 1,000 videos, viewed a total of 11.5 million times. The World Cup section alone drew 23 million unique visitors over the course of the competition, with a return rate of 45%. (Sadly, the England team returned empty handed.)
The idea of multilingual web publishing sounds straightforward enough. A publisher operating in multiple countries, or in a country where multiple languages are spoken, needs the ability to manage content – as well as site features like navigation – in multiple languages.
But having worked on many such projects in my career, I can assure you that multilingual publishing means different things in different situations. Is content always created in one particular language, then translated into the others? Or can content originate in any of the operational languages? Is every piece of content translated? If so, when, and by whom? If not, what do you do when a piece of content isn’t available in the language being viewed?
WordPress has been fully translated into dozens of languages, from Afrikaans and Albanian to Vietnamese and Welsh; but it doesn’t have a built-in solution for multilingual operation. While that might initially seem like a negative, it means there is scope for a number of different approaches, reflecting the different scenarios and workflows associated with multilingual publishing.
At last month’s Big WP event in London, Giuseppe Mazzapica from VIP agency partner Inpsyde reviewed the approaches taken by some of the best known WordPress plugins, noting their respective strengths and weaknesses.
Inpsyde are, of course, the agency behind Multilingual Press, the multilingual plugin we use most often at VIP. Its approach, based on the multi-site mode built into WordPress, stays closest to ‘normal’ WordPress operation. This means other functions, including third-party plugins, are much more likely to work without workarounds.
But the VIP platform also supports other solutions, which may be a better fit for certain clients, their requirements, and their workflows. Our engineers are always happy to talk through the workflow needs of any given project, and help our clients make the right choice.
The WordPress core development team has just announced a draft schedule for the next WordPress release, which will include the long-awaited new editing component, Gutenberg. But for many leading WordPress agencies, Gutenberg has been a fact of life for several months already.
One such agency is VIP partner Big Bite, whose technical director Jason Agnew described the experience of implementing Gutenberg on a number of enterprise-level projects at September’s BigWP gathering in London, hosted by our friends at News UK.
Big Bite have recently been working with a major global bank, to produce an internal news app for consumption primarily via iOS and Android smartphone apps, but managed in WordPress using Gutenberg blocks. And as profiled here previously, they delivered a block-based solution for Amnesty International to build and manage pages in visual form.
Jason describes how Big Bite nominated one team member to become their in-house expert, giving him the time he needed to build his own knowledge, which he could then spread across the company.
Developing with Gutenberg can feel a lot slower, Jason says: ‘you can’t really build the site until you have all the blocks.’ His rule of thumb is that it takes a week to build a block: but if a client is in it for the long run, ‘it’s definitely worth the investment now.’
Discussing Gutenberg with clients has been really easy: some even described the authoring experience as ‘fun’, which is rare indeed in the world of content management systems! Project owners expressed concern at using beta or newly-merged functionality; but Jason has explained that it’s worth a little bit of risk now, in order to save a lot of upgrade costs in the future. ‘Most people can relate to that,’ he says.
Dan Maccarone of Charming Robot has spent much of his career conducting user research with regular people about how they use various forms of news media. He and his team spend time with them inside of their homes, learning how they get their news and looking over their shoulder to retrace their steps together. Having conducted this type of research repeatedly and over a long period of time, he has developed a keen sense for spotting emerging changes in perception and action. Based on his most recent batch of conversations he identified a few emerging behavior patterns, useful to think about for media companies and brands alike.
Dan shared insights he derived from interviews shortly after the 2017 Presidential Election, at the BigWP meetup in New York in March.
Video is in a new moment
For years video was a feature that users universally scowled at across Dan’s research. The use of video in lieu of text-based articles has finally found strong support among an audience segment. He reports that there’s still a strong negative contingent, but that it is now a polarizing topic – some people seek it out, while others still specifically avoid it. He found about half of the interview subjected preferred video.
Trust has likely never been harder to secure
Viewers are judging everything that passes through their browser with heavier doses of skepticism than ever. This, combined with the feeling that there’s no way to keep up with the ongoing onslaught of new information, makes it a particularly challenging time for publications to foster engagement from their audiences.
Negative news has exhausted viewers
With what feels like a constant barrage of hard news, scandal-chasing, cliffhangers, and fear mongering, viewers feel like they are overwhelmed, and need a break. This seems to be more of an issue with national news, and less so with the local news mix.
Content has to travel to succeed
It’s been the case for many years that most people are visiting sites through side doors rather than home pages. Likewise, Facebook has long since earned a spot next to Google as the starting point for most content journeys. What Dan observes about the current moment is that people are often not noticing where they end up at the end of that journey, and when they do they are holding on to that overarching skepticism. In the video below, Dan shares a conversation he had with an interview subject about what you’d expect to be a benign and non-controversial article.
The ongoing critical interest in the relationships between news publications and their reader communities has only escalated throughout the 2016 US election cycle and beyond. The practice of journalism as a craft and a business is in the national spotlight, and broad cultural issues relating to credibility, truth, and trust are also under exploration. As a part of this, there’s a renewed focus in the industry on ways to improve how media companies build and sustain meaningful relationships with their audiences.
The Coral Project is a non-profit initiative focused on these challenges. It’s a collaboration between Mozilla, The New York Times, and the Washington Post, and is funded by a Knight Foundation grant. In addition to ongoing research projects, they’re developing open source tools that help journalists and community managers with the thankless tasks of working with community-sourced material and improving the quality of the discussions in online comments.
Forms purpose-built for community sourcing
Andrew Losowsky, Project Lead of the project at Mozilla, stopped by the March BigWP meetup to tell us about the tool set and the thinking behind it. Ask, a tool designed for journalists working on data collection through forms, is purpose-built for the kind of sorting, archiving, and display tasks newsrooms go through any time they put together these kinds of stories.
In the clip below, Andrew explains that use case and how Ask works better than the other tools commonly used today:
Another element of Ask, the Gallery Manager, allows an editor to embed a curated entry into a story using a WordPress shortcode, while allowing edits and omissions as needed, in such a way that preserves the original full set of collected data.
Univision recently used Ask to take in, sort, and use responses from their audience during a special live town hall edition of the weekly news magazine show Aquí y ahora.
Filling in the empty box
When it comes to comment tools, the team at Coral is seeking to improve quality by addressing both cultural and technical challenges. Many online communities suffer from a lack of direction and human tending from the outset, which dooms them to negative interactions and unmet expectations from the start. Using a metaphor popularized by our own Derek Powazek(@fraying), Andrew explains why one of the critical features of Talk, the Coral comment system, is the ability to place a question at the top of the empty comment box:
Andrew concluded with a plea for site owners and operators to carefully consider with which companies they entrust their comment data and systems. Taking the open source approach puts you in control of your community for the long haul. This creates the most direct relationship between you and your readers and participants, who you may be looking to as paying subscribers and sustainers at one point or another if you don’t already.
The Ask tool has been released and is available for use, and the Talk tool is in beta testing and will become a WordPress plugin. The Coral Project is also working on guides to best practices in journalism and community management, which will be released later this quarter. Their blog offers a wealth of information, research findings, and calls for participation.
When newly acquired publications and sites come in to a large publishing group, they often come with baggage: their own approach to UX and underlying technologies. These unique themes and feature sets can add up to significant technical and operational debt. It’s a whole lot of tools and processes that only exist for one project’s benefit. And in most cases, those unique systems bring with them a distinction without a difference – there’s little benefit to the end user that’s gained from that diversity of approach. It’s just history.
This is a set of issues that we’ve seen again and again. Bringing groups of publications together under a common theme and architecture can reap tremendous rewards, across speed, productivity, and cost savings.
Earlier this month at the BigWP meetup in NYC, David Parsons of USA Today offered a peek into the evolution of the company’s Sports Media Group and its underlying systems. His team worked with WordPress.com VIP to migrate a number of sites, each with its own unique theme hosted on Amazon, over to VIP. All of the sites are now under their shared Lawrence theme, with a system called Wasabi that can turn on and off features from site to site.
Here’s David explaining the history of the project and the ways working with WordPress.com VIP frees his team up to focus on what’s most important:
“When we first started off, we wanted to be as lightweight as possible and we were picking up these extremely heavy CMS’s that aren’t necessarily WordPress. So what we initially did is move everything to WordPress as fast as possible, and we hosted this ourselves on the Amazon platform. And we had site-specific themes, so every codebase for every site was completely unique.
We soon realized that there were a lot of issues with this, especially when a site goes down, or we have an issue overnight. Obviously there’s the potential of losing thousands of dollars. As soon as possible we moved to WordPress.com VIP, and we moved to a platform called Lawrence, which is essentially a shared theme. By moving to WordPress.com VIP, we were able to not worry about downtime, and whenever we push our code up for deployment, they run an additional code check to make sure we’re not pushing anything up to production that could potentially be catastrophic. Things like security we no longer have to think about. So this allows our team to focus on building awesome stuff.”
The ability to create and launch new sites quickly, and centrally control the feature set for each one or a group of them, enabled the Sports Media Group team to quickly test a concept for a new set of NFL team sites, and then roll it out across all 32 teams:
In this next clip, David explains how the WordPress Customizer manages various look and feel elements for each site.
He also describes the plugin interface, depicted above, that allows the team to easily control features site by site, and apply functionality created for one to any or all of them:
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