To help you learn some of these skills and start experimenting with online journalism, we’ve assembled a list of sites and programs that will help you quickly and easily begin using multimedia and the internet to advance your reporting and your storytelling. All of these applications are low-cost. Most are free, though some ask you to pay to access advanced functionality. All are free of spyware and adware, as far as we know (though it is always good to do an Internet search on anything you download and install to be sure). And each should make the work of creating great journalism online at least a little easier.
Blog and Content Management Systems
When it comes to quickly and easily putting the results of your reporting on the web, nothing is easier and more straightforward than using hosted blog sites like Blogger.com, TypePad.com and WordPress.com. Blog software is great for easy publishing, and it is flexible enough that you can use it to create all kinds of sites, not just the web journals for which it was originally designed. Any of these sites will allow you to get your journalism on the Internet quickly and easily, but each strikes a different balance between ease-of-use and power of features.
Blogger.com is a free blog site owned by Google and targeted at beginners and people who care more about the ease of getting their content on the Internet and less about fancy features, categories or configuration options. Each Blogger site is a list of uncategorized articles for which an RSS feed is automatically generated. You can have more than one site per login. The admin interface is simple, allowing you to configure archiving and how comments are handled and to pick a template. Google’s AdSense is integrated so you can easily sign up for an AdSense account and have Google ads embedded in your blog. It is free, and setting up a site here takes about ten or fifteen minutes, tops (you want to at least take the time to pick a good name).
In fall 2006, Blogger unveiled a new beta version that lets users categorize posts and makes it easier to customize page layouts.
Near-Time Premium is a hosted, turn-key platform for online publishing that includes everything necessary to monetize content and develop an online community around that content.
For publishing companies and individual content owners, Near-Time presents a proven way to connect with readers, build community, and monetize content. For those already selling content online, Near-Time is a giant step forward that leverages Web 2.0 technologies, including: wikis, weblogs, RSS, e-mail integration, and file sharing. Advanced Roles and Permissions capabilities allow site administrators to control content, encourage interaction, and build communities.
Near-Time offers a free 60-day evaluation . Commercial plans begin at $25 per month. Publishers and authors who use Near-Time to sell content and build communities receive 80-90% of the revenue.
Typepad.com does a good job of balancing ease of use and powerful features. A Typepad account, which costs between $4.95 and $14.95 per month, gives you the configuration options and RSS feed offered by Blogger (minus automatic AdSense) plus many more features, all in a simple, straightforward administration application. With Typepad, you can categorize posts with as many custom categories as you want, though there is only one RSS feed for each blog. There are numerous templates to choose from and you can customize each using a drag-and-drop interface, then save different customized layouts so you can switch back and forth. If you want to integrate other sites, there are ready-made widgets that pull features from popular sites like Amazon.com, FeedBurner and del.icio.us. And you can not only allow others to blog on your site, you can choose whether or not their posts require approval.
WordPress.com is free and has some pretty advanced features for a hosted blog. WordPress supports hierarchical lists of categories (this means you can have sub-categories, and sub-categories of sub-categories) and creates an RSS feed for each category. It has built-in wizards for importing blog entries from other blog services (LiveJournal, Movable Type and TypePad, Blogger and Blogspot, and other instances of WordPress are supported) and exporting your data for use elsewhere. Users you allow to contribute can be assigned one of four roles, from Contributors, whose work must be approved before it goes live, to Administrators, who have all the access and power of your account. WordPress also allows you to upload attachment files and has built-in wizards for placing multimedia content in your blog. The only cost is a one-time $25 charge if you want the ability to manually update your site’s CSS. So what’s not to like? While the admin interface allows you to get a site up and running pretty easily, the software’s administration application can be downright counterintuitive sometimes when you get into advanced configuration, and with so many features, it can be tough finding what you are looking for, especially when you first get started.
phpBB is a free, popular and customizable discussion board. Simple Machines Forum is less popular but also free, powerful and customizable. Both require you to host them yourself, but almost any Web server will run PHP/MySQL applications like these.
Major open-source forum packages like these attract communities of software developers, from which you can essentially get free tech support (just post your question on … their forum, of course). The communities also typically offer a rainbow of free optional modifications to the software.
Keep in mind, though, that there are only so many people in these communities answering questions, and it is usually something they do in their spare time. Make sure to search through the other posts to see if your question has already been answered, and don’t be discouraged if no one gets back to your first attempt at seeking help. Also be smart about installing free optional modifications to software – understand what you are installing and any risks it could pose to your system before you install.
Hosted, Unstructured Web pages
Google Pages allow you to post anything you want without restricting you to a blog format. If you would like to host your blog on your own web server you can choose from a lot of different web hosts that are suitable for blogs or any other type of website hosting.
It is recommended to avoid free hosting sites. While the freebie may be attractive, many sites are infamous for unintentionally serving up inappropriate advertisements around the site owner’s content. Also, they tend to of
fer much slower load times than shared hosting, and especially dedicated hosting platforms, due to the sheer quantity of sites hosted on a single server to help the company make free hosting cost-effective, since it’s paid for by advertising. Common common web hosting options for a basic website such as a blog or family site are shared web hosting and VPS hosting, which shouldn’t cost more than one large coffee a month and a nice dinner, respectively.
Wiki.com, owned by Mindtouch, lets you set up a closed wiki for editing by you and anybody you designate. This can serve as a quick-and-dirty host for public information.
The easiest way to take advantage of multimedia in your online journalism is to learn how to create multimedia while you report, so you have all the images, video and audio you need when it comes time to pull together an online article. Once you have worked through OJR’s wikis and you are comfortable shooting video and secure in the knowledge that writing for the web is not so different from writing for other mediums, you can begin to use these free BBC Training & Development Online Courses to refine your video and audio techniques.
For audio and podcasts, the article Create Podcasts Using Your PC from the O’Reilly Windows DevCenter site does a good job of demystifying podcasts (which are simply a combination of an mp3 file and an XML file) and gives a good overview of how to create one on a PC, with options for placing it on the internet. The instructions use the free open-source software packages Audacity and Lame MP3 Encoder, and since these are available for both Apple and Windows, this guide should also be usable by Mac users.
For Vodcasts, Vara Software has a tool that helps you sync your voice over (or read directly into the camera) much like a TelePrompTer.
Putting Pictures on the Web
Flickr.com lets you upload pictures, tag them (assign categories that you define), place them in groups called sets, and then serve them out to your blog or web site from Flickr. Sets can contain not only your own pictures, but also pictures of other users on the site, and once you have placed images and created sets in Flickr, you can link directly to the images or create an HTML- or Flash-based link to any of your sets, called a badge, that you can imbed in an article or web page. The Flickr software automatically creates RSS feeds for each of your sets and for pictures that have the same tag. Flickr accounts can also be configured to automatically blog photos to a whole bunch of blog types, including the three listed above.
In addition to serving out your pictures, Flickr also allows you to search by tags for other people’s pictures and include them in your web site or blog, and it includes your pictures in the site’s community, potentially creating publicity for you. Flickr, which is owned by Yahoo, is free, but the free account has limitations – you can only upload 20 MB of pictures a month, you can only have 3 photosets at a time, and flickr will store smaller resized versions of images. A pro account which removes many of these limitations costs $24.95 a year.
You can also search Flickr for royalty-free photos, if your Web site is non-commercial, to use as photo illusrations on stories or blog posts. Before republishing a photo, be sure to check the Creative Commons license of the photographer — some reserve all rights. Also be sure to provide proper attribution.
If you are looking for a tool to edit your photos, Adobe Photoshop is the leading choice, but it is quite expensive. You can do much of the simple touch-up and cropping work one can do in Photoshop using a free online tool such as Picnik.
Putting Video on the Web
YouTube lets you upload video to its servers and add tags you define yourself, then gives you HTML that you can use to embed the video in a web page or blog post. Each video you put on the YouTube site has a permanent URL and code to embed it in a web page. If you want to tie a series of videos together, you can assign videos to channels you create. YouTube creates RSS feeds for videos by a given user and for a given tag. If you are looking for more advanced features or more nuanced feeds, you can take advantage of an active user community that has built some nifty tools (though you should make sure to search on the internet for problems or exploits involving any tools you download). And if you really want to dig in, there are Developer APIs into YouTube.
Creating RSS Feeds
Del.icio.us is a site that lets you store bookmarks to web sites, assign them terms (categories, like tags in flickr or YouTube), and then creates RSS feeds of your bookmarks, either en masse or by term. This allows you to create RSS feeds of anything on the Internet. If you have a place to host your audio files, you can link to them in Flickr and assign each bookmark the same term, and the resulting RSS will automatically generate a podcast feed (Del.icio.us automatically knows how to deal specially with certain media file types, like audio and video). Or if you create bookmarks to all the online content you find in researching an article – audio, video, PDF files, web pages, or any other type of file – and assign them all the same term, you can make a feed of your reporting. You could even keep updating the feed after you publish the article, if people remain interested. And for power users, Del.icio.us has a great page of third party tools and developer resources to help you push the site’s limits.
If you’ve got an RSS feed, several companies will convert it to a lightly branded daily e-mail newsletter for free. Tell FeedBurner where your RSS feed lives, and you can sign up for one of the services it links to at its e-mail subscription page. The service will give you the code to put a “subscribe by e-mail” field on the sidebar of your blog.
HTML and CSS References
Any web journalist eventually has to become a web developer, whether it is because you want to embed some video or a picture or you need to adjust your site’s CSS to get that annoying color of green off the front page, and good references help make the developer’s life easier.
W3 Schools has good reference sites for both HTML and CSS, and has good tutorials on a range of web development technologies, as well. The HTML reference includes usage notes and provides lists of elements by name and function, attributes and events. The CSS Reference starts at the property level then lets you drill down to the values each property can contain and samples of formatting for each value.
For HTML, the iDocs site is another good reference and tutorial site. It is old, so a few things are outdated (don’t put element or attribute names in caps, for instance), but the entr
ies include clear, succinct information on how and when to use each element, and I still use it whenever I need to understand HTML.
For CSS, a chart that lists CSS properties and the browsers that support them comes in handy when you have a tricky CSS bug in only one browser that you want to fix, and this CSS generator tool lets you create CSS classes by selecting appropriate values for each property in drop-downs. It can be used to generate the start of a complete stylesheet, or to simply generate valid CSS fragments for a style attribute you want to imbed somewhere in HTML.
And speaking of validity, the W3C’s HTML Validator and CSS Validator are handy automated applications that can check your HTML pages and CSS stylesheets for common problems so you can at least see quickly if you have made a well-known error or violated standards.
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