Last year I tested Joomla as the content management system to set up a news portal for my Online Journalism course at the University of Iowa. I liked the fact that stories in the homepage could be manually ordered, so that journalistic criteria would prevail over chronological order. But the user experience for the students trying to post their stories was painful: the WYSIWYG editor in Joomla would strip out any embedding code (for video, graphics or slideshows we were generating), adding photos was a very slow three-steps process, and the system would log off users without notice after some idle time. Also, user comments were not supported by default, and the add-on I found was a pain, so we finally forgot about it. Here’s the clumsy result. A more extensive hand-coding of the template may have helped, but CMS should be about making your life easy.
Conclusion: It was a nice pedagogic experience for the students, that learned that CMSs are not always designed to suit their needs. But I had the feeling that there should be something else in the open-source world that would be more user friendly in the backend. That’s why I am intending to use WordPress. It was originally designed to manage weblogs, but the huge improvements of their lastest version and the precedent of some college news projects using it encouraged me to try it out.
Next step: finding a newsy template. There have already been some discussions about open-source CMS options and, specifically, WordPress templates for news portals, but first-hand experience is a must to make a decision. Here is what I have learned after installing and playing around a bit with four WP themes (I could not download Revolution News, as the purchase process gets stuck on Firefox and Safari in my Mac… will add it if I get around this problem):
The theme has not been updated recently, and that may be a problem in the long run. It is very handy that options are integrated into the WP admin panel, but they are very scarce, in the end. You can only hand-pick the three top stories. There are no instructions to customize the template and it does not support widgets (a useful WP feature that lets you drag and drop features to the sidebar). Moreover, the layout is optimized for 800px screen width, a very old-fashioned look right now.
The homepage has some customizable spots, but it is pretty rigid: It allows to highlight a story below the latest (which cannot be chosen). Also, lets you include short text announcements, not very handy for news stories. There is a nice systematic how-to page, but the theme requires extensive use of FTP to take the full advantage of the layout, and uses custom fields that you need to set up in order to insert images in the homepage. Images with captions in posts can be controlled with specific HTML code to paste, which is a bit annoying. It is widget ready. Basically, it is a theme for patient, code-loving journalists, instructions are clear enough to avoid getting lost.
The homepage layout is quite rigid (a lead story, three featured headlines with photo and three section highlights), but very customizable tweaking the category ids in the WP theme editor (that’s messing with the code, but with the last version of WP you can do it within the admin interface, without FTPing pages). Code is well commented, helping customization, and there is a nice set of instructions in the author’s blog, but it is a bit anoying if you want to change things every time you publish. Leads in the homepage can be different from the story pages, using the standard “Excerpt” WP field. Photos in the homepage can be inserted using custom fields and uploaded via FTP, and images in posts can be controlled with specific CSS. Widget management is apparently limited to adding one to the theme sidebar, unless you hand-code.
This is the only theme I tested that is not free. It costs just $75 for one site, but may not be worth it, as there is no tutorial for customization and their support forum is not usually visited by their developers to answer the user questions. Code has comments to help with customization, but you feel yourself quite lonely exploring how to get things done. Apparently, you cannot control which is the leading story, that by default is the most recent. Instead, you can decide what categories to feature at the bottom of the homepage (and it will show the newest post). Not a lot of editorial control over the homepage, that’s it. The template neither allows for custom excerpts in the homepage, but with the “more” tag you can control what shows in the homepage. Photos are managed automatically, creating thumbnails for the featured articles, no need of FTP. It has a cute AJAX sidebar for latest news, comments and most popular, but it disappears if you want to add widgets.
Veredict: I will work further with Mimbo, which seems the most promising template. Will let you know if I change my mind.