Building the future of news on WordPress

I attended the Raleigh WordPress Meetup last night at the First Flight Venture Center in RTP. Tony Zeoli, lead developer for the Reese Felts Digital News Project at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He demonstrated the website reesenews.org, which was launched this past week.

The home page of reesenews.org

The home page of reesenews.org,
on November 4, 2010

The local news site is built entirely on WordPress 3.1, with an amalgam of third-party plug-ins. They did some custom programming to “widgetize” some of the plug-ins (in other words, adapt the functionality as a module that could be easily dropped onto a WordPress page or post by a non-programmer). They are in the process of building a custom, open source theme, which they hope to release in the spring.

The dropdown navigation interface for reesenews.org

The dropdown navigation interface for reesenews.org

The interactive design of the website is influenced by the iPad, most notably in the navigation. Instead of a traditional navigation bar or sidebar list, the navigation is that tiny orange button below the logo, which says “nav”. Touching that button—a typical iPad gesture—drops down the navigation, some of which leads to other site categories, some to offsite links. My guess is that some modification to this will evolve in time, even if it remains a dropdown element. To have the core navigation in a small button that is the visual equivalent of the 5-day weather forecast (the corresponding button on the right), devalues the main window into the website architecture.

I would expect a list of local cities on a local news website to link to news about what’s going on in those cities. I would also expect to see the second largest city in the coverage area to be in that list, but apparently the folks at UNC consider Bynum and Saxapahaw to be more newsworthy than Durham. As it turns out, the city names do not link to local news, but to the output of the Local Market Explorer plug-in, which automatically serves up data on real estate prices, school districts, walk score, a Yelp feed of restaurants, a TeachStreet feed of local classes. Very cool information, even if the link was misleading. Too bad there’s nothing there about Durham.

Want to see what drives the Reese News website? Take a look at some of the third party plug-ins that they have integrated into their website:

Outbrain is a content recommendation system that provides ways of serving readers similar content, increasing engagement and page views. Tweetmeme provides for easy tweeting of articles.

IntenseDebate is a commenting system that provides comment threading, commenter profiles, integration with twitter and facebook, email and RSS notifications, voting and rating, and moderation tools. Let’s hope that they attract more intelligent commenters than the News and Observer.

Umapper is used for creating interactive maps, such as election results. Nextgen Gallery is used for photo galleries (NextGen is the same fine gallery plug-in that drives the portfolio here on redberetdesign.com). Brightcove is their video server, with embedding from Vipers Video Quicktags.

There are approximately 100 students at UNC involved in Reese News, from every discipline within UNC’s School of Journalism and mass Communications. Like any news organization, that requires an editorial process and workflow management. Reese News uses EditFlow for coordination and collaboration.

Despite some questions I have about the interface, I am impressed at the Reese News team’s rethinking of how to gather and present news in a 21st century context. And as fan of WordPress and of the open source community, it is inspiring to see what they have been able to build by leveraging tools that are available to all of us.

Have something you’d like to tell the Reese News team? Click on the Feedback button to the right, which is provided by the Get Satisfaction plug-in, or just go to their feedback page. It’s not just a contact form. You can give ideas, ask questions, report problems, or just tell them you think this is a pretty cool idea. You can also read, respond and rate what others have said.

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