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Case Study: YourPublicMedia.org

September 14th, 2010

Yourpublicmedia.org is a curated news and arts portal built by the Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network (CPBN) that is dedicated to promoting high quality, local/regional content that is created by non-profit organizations from around Connecticut including: Connecticut Public Broadcasting (CPTV/WNPR) and a number of community partners including the Connecticut Historical Society, the CT Mirror (an independent, Knight-funded news organization), the New Haven Independent (a hyper-local news site), and Fairfield University. We are continuously working to secure additional content partners.

The idea that this site would consist of a curated experience was a very important one to us during the concept and design phase - the two national entities that we (CPBN) are associated with are PBS and NPR; two brands that have a long history and reputation for providing such content curation. We didn't want to simply turn this into a river-of-news-type site, and we recognized that neither our internal staff's capacity, nor the capacity of the non-profit groups we would be working with, would be able to add any meaningful value on this front with the for-profit local news agencies already working hard in this area, and auto-aggregated services like news.google.com providing incredibly useful resources to people looking for up-to-the-minute (breaking news) information.

Instead, we chose to leverage the longer-form coverage and focus on more in depth analysis that we consider a core competency, rather than the sort of coverage typically achieved within the breaking-news context.

Why Drupal?

We first started researching open source CMS platforms in the summer of 2007 as we looked ahead to relaunching our main website (www.cpbn.org). At that time, things like CCK, the extensive user permission options, and quite honestly, the combination of the audio and station module(s) (we have both TV and Radio broadcast platforms) really set Drupal apart from the competition (we had reviewed Joomla!, Mambo, Typo3 and a few others). In addition, a case study put together by IBM was very valuable in lending some "credibility" to our choice within the organization.

We worked with Drupal 5 to launch cpbn.org and a number of other smaller microsites in late 2007-early 2008. We started working with Drupal 6 once things settled down with contributed modules, and got very familiar with its capabilities while building a few program microsites. Our comfort level developing with Drupal and the responsiveness of the community made Drupal the obvious choice for this project (we looking to relaunch cpbn.org on Drupal 6 in the coming months). In particular, one case study that had really impressed us was on the New York Observer's site and most definitely helped us with some of our design structure (e.g the "Edition" content type) and provided a high standard to model.

Staff "content creation" experience with Drupal
Since January of 2007, our staff (radio and TV folks) have been adding content to cpbn.org - and therefore had largely learned how to use Drupal to post articles, shows, blogs, etc. As the yourpublicmedia.org concept began to take shape, we worked very closely with our content contributors to discuss their preferences: tools they liked, things that didn't "quite" work as advertised, things they saw in other applications (e.g., WordPress, Blogger, Facebook) that they liked better, how long things took, what their workflow had evolved into based on their Drupal experience thus far. Those discussions, along with regular "check-ins" during the development were incredibly valuable for this project.

With CPBN.org, no time had been spent on improving the usability of the "backend" interface. While this is likely a common conclusion of most "in-house" development projects, it did prevent the system from gaining wider adoption. We had determined early on that if our plan was to incorporate additional (outside) partner organizations, then the interface for adding content had to be simple to learn and easy to use. The largest issue from staff was the difficulty in using something like GIMP to format images for pages (we had used the image module instead of imagecache/imagefield on cpbn.org), and the largest issue from the editor group was flexibility. They wanted to have freedom in how their pages looked and not be locked into a basic template. We were able to address these issues quite well in this design.

Modules used

We built this site with Drupal 6.x, and a number of contributed modules:
CCK, Views, Devel, Imagecache, Modal Frame API, Automodal, Modal Node References, CKEditor, Clone, Emfield, Flowplayer, Fieldgroup, Filefield (and a number of other standard CCK widget modules), Blockreference, Multiblock, Pathauto, Path Redirect, Token, Rules, Rules Scheduler, Search by Page (by Nodes), Captcha, Taxonomy, Tagging, Extractor, Taxonomy Extractor Suggestions, Cache Exclude, Feeds, Ajax/Ajax UI, Chaos Tools, and a custom helper module containing some functions and javascript.

Some of the most valuable, yet lesser known/used modules (deserving of their own list item) really leverage the power of CCK formatters and Imagecache, and they include:

  • Custom formatters: creates a contemplate-style interface for adding CCK formatter options
  • Formatter Selector: allows users to choose which CCK formatter is used for the display of each field during node creation
  • Uberimage/aef_image: an incredible imagecache + jcrop driven imagefield widget that allows you to assign multiple imagecache presets to a field instance, then adjust the cropping of each image preset instance independently (from within the node form interface). (screenshot)
  • Views CCK formatter: allows you to use the CCK formatters as a row display style in views

Site Logic/Design

The decision to structure a site's content is always a tricky one. Working out the logic behind the content types is one of the most important things in the site building process; getting that part wrong will make life miserable later on. That said, there are always options and different ways work for different folks. We had built a number of other sites over the last few years, experimenting with various content structures along the way. We tried to streamline the process with yourpublicmedia.org, and thanks to the automodal module(s), we were able to really simplify the user's content creation experience.

The site was developed with the intent of having two main classes of users: Authors and Editors. There are other roles as well, but these are the primary ones.

Web Page(s)
Authors create all of the Web Pages, which in turn have reference fields for audio, video, person profile (for author, host, contributor, etc.) and partner (content partner) content types. Using the aforementioned automodal module(s), page authors are able to create each of the referenced nodes on-the-fly in a modal pop-up launched from the Web-page-create form; these newly created references' nid is then automatically filled into the autocomplete field connecting the nodes.

Authors leverage the power of Uberimage for the Web Page's main image(field) and for any slideshow image(fields) directly within the web page content type. We considered making the Image a first-class node, but Uberimage was so incredibly easy to use that we would have simply been creating duplicative meta-data on an image type that was likely already in the Web Page; in addition, almost every web page would have at least an image and therefore it seemed appropriate to build that into the primary form.

There is also, of course, a way to categorize the pages by: a) assigning the page to a partner (that the user has permission to post for: a custom field value script searching through options that match their permissions) and b) suggesting certain "channels" for their content. I should note that the Web Page form is long, but as we leveraged the CCK Fieldgroup module to break it into smaller and easier to digest chunks, users haven't expressed any issues with the length.

Once the Web Pages are created, they need to be curated by an Editor
The logical/navigation structure of the site simply contains three types of entities: Web Pages, Partner Pages (content Partner organizations) and Channel Pages (each containing content of a similar theme). The vast majority of Channel and Partner pages are automatically populated (more like the river-of-news approach) and this is simply due to a lack of staff/editorial resources. The functionality, however, exists with all Channel and Partner pages to turn them into a manually-curated display, whereby an Editor can create an Edition (meaning, this is a toggleable option that can be turned on/off at will).

The Edition is another content type that is basically just a collection of node and block references that are assembled by the editors and assigned to a particular Channel (or Partner) and set to be published (via Rules Scheduler) on a particular day. Each nodereference is placed within a multivalued CCK field, and each multivalued instance is then treated as a region in the edition template (acting in a similar manner to the block-layout region system that comes with drupal's core block assignment interface). At the moment, the result is that on nearly a daily-basis, yourpublicmedia.org publishes 3 new editions: the main edition, a News edition, and an Arts edition.

The archived, daily-editions approach serves several purposes
First, from a workflow standpoint, it actually helps during Editorial meetings to discuss layout decisions and to determine best practices using actual examples of past editions. An additional workflow consideration was that having a daily edition has really helped drive our production schedules--and this process continues to evolve/develop. From a user perspective, the feature provides contextual value--people like to look at newspapers from the day they were born, or from the day of an historic event--that sort of context of information is something that the web, largely, lacks. We believe that preserving those real, human-curated, relationships that exist between stories has a value to the public (in addition to the related pages-type functionality we also use within Web Pages). Lastly, from a practical perspective (assuming the content and presentation are compelling enough), a daily edition should lower the web visit bounce rate and increase visitor loyalty.

To demonstrate the archive, for example, here is the News Edition from August 24th, 2010
and here is the News Edition from July 30th, 2010

Edition Layout
With respect to layout/styling, Editors have the capability (as mentioned) to choose which nodes go into which "regions" (CCK Multivalued nodereference fields--that are printed within their own regions in the edition tpl file), but they also have the ability to select which CCK Formatter (thanks to the Formatter Selector module) gets applied to the referenced node. At this point there are somewhere around 20 different templates that Editors can select when displaying content in various "regions", as such, they have flexibility in how each Edition page looks on any given day. Because of the tremendous flexibility existing within CCK Formatters, it is very easy to add new layout options--so when an editor sees a "node teaser" style that they like online somewhere, we can fairly rapidly incorporate that style into our collection of templates.

Once the editor builds the edition, the nodes that they have chosen to add to each region are now tied to a CCK Formatter (through the Formatter Selector module) and the matching theme function is used to display the node in that format, and within the assigned "region" through the edition.tpl.php file. Since the tpl file loops through the loading/displaying of all nodes in each "region" (Multivalued CCK field within the Edition content type), it can then create a very dynamic looking page--and provides the editor with tremendous flexibility when designing their layout. Essentially, we've given them design elements to "mix and match" at will, on a daily basis. Since the edition is a node, we also have therefore created a way to archive past editions--with the Channel/Partner pages (if set to manual editions) showing the latest published edition--and through an editions "drop-down" the ability to navigate forwards and backwards through the archived editions.

"Content Browser"

A recurring problem/issue expressed over the last few years (with Drupal) by our content contributors has been the nodereference autocomplete field's interface. The functionality is awesome, and appreciated, but as the site's content grows--or as they start referencing old content--the user has to try and remember words from the title of the node to find it. Admittedly, this is hardly a huge problem from our perspective, but it adds a bit of inconvenience to the contributor. Since one of the development goals of this project was to minimize the "hassle" factor, we implemented the automodal nodereference interface within the Web Page form (so they could build referenced nodes directly from that page) to help the Authors. The Editors would really be at the autocomplete field's "mercy" because they likely wouldn't know that pages exist to showcase unless searching through the content management tools; as a result, we created a "Content Browser" tool, which is accessed by clicking on a button added to the Edition form. Clicking launches a jquery dialog box that (currently) contains 3 tabs; each tab relates to a different sort of content.

The first tab is for YPM Content browsing, and consists of a view with some exposed filters (keywords, dates, channels, etc.) and displays each returned node formatted with one of the CCK formatters (using the Views CCK Formatter module) to make it easier to look at. Next to each of these returned nodes, we added icons for whether the story contained particular features (audio, video, slideshow, or a widget element), which would help the Editor determine which CCK formatter to use for that story (when added to the Edition)... some templates display embedded audio or video players (using flowplayer), while another template actually places the slideshow directly on the Edition page (seen in the second link from above).

The second tab browses Feed nodes that have been imported into the system via the Feeds module--again, via a View with exposed filters. These feeds provide us with content from some of our content partners--though other partners do often contribute directly through the Yourpublicmedia.org interface. Feed nodes--imported from less-rich RSS feeds are often used to supplement our more developed content pages (because they tend not to have multimedia), but they still provide significant value--and can be presented with most of our CCK formatters. Note: the nodereference fields in the Edition content type are set to accept either Web Page or Feed nodes.

The third tab took a little more work, but integrates the NPR content API into the Editor's toolbox. As Connecticut's largest NPR affiliate, we help support the coverage that is produced at a national level--this content typically covers content areas that are still quite important to our more local/regional audience, and often is distributed though WNPR (our radio platform). NPR's content API is a really first-rate tool, which we've integrated into our website. Instead of pulling in a "static" RSS category feed, we have a keyword search (with optional requirements for images and/or audio that accompanies the content) in this third tab that looks for stories appearing on NPR.org that match our entries. Once a list of matching stories is returned, they are formatted to resemble the CCK formatted view result from the other tabs, with an "Add" button next to each story. Clicking on the add button triggers another ajax call to the API, returns only that story's information, and then a custom function using drupal's node_save() and a number of other parameters creates the related Web Page, including where applicable, related Audio, Video and Person Profile (if the author doesn't already exist) nodes, then the "Add" turns to "added" and the Editor is free to reference that story's yourpublicmedia.org Web page in his/her edition. Basically, we've added the ability for Channel Editors to quickly grab content from NPR.org to, again, supplement locally produced content when it might provide a value to our visitors. Rather than pulling in an "RSS Feed block," this allows our Editors to be highly selective when incorporating national stories, and by creating full-blown yourpublicmedia nodes, these pieces are therefore archived within the context of our daily editions.

One example of this can be seen here on Yourpublicmedia and here on NPR. This is all allowed through our Station's relationship with NPR, and is really what they built the tool for.

Our Editors have really found this "Content Browser" combination of exposed views and the npr API to be quite valuable.

Other Odds and Ends

  • We have a tokenized view for RSS/Podcast feeds for each Partner and Channel set up automatically to allow people to simply get the river-of-news version of our content
  • We're playing with the Apture.com toolbar (currently in all non-IE browsers) to see whether the added functionality is something that users will enjoy
  • Using the Admin module (administration menu, but on the side of the page) we added a custom "Bookmark"/menu item for Tutorials. We created 13 screencast tutorials for users of the site--whose visibility is determined by user role (so Authors don't have all of the Editor tutorials, etc) ranging from "how to create a web page" to "how to use the WYSIWYG" (a lovely 27 minutes long cast). These have been very valuable in training new staff/partners and have cut down significantly on repetitive questions.
  • WYSIWYG for this project: we settled on CKEditor, and it does a great job
  • We also installed a handy little module called Nodedump. Basically, this does a pre-print_r for a single node; it wasn't needed but was a convenient tool and works well
  • Our theme is a custom Zen subtheme, but because editions play such an important role, CCK formatters do a lot of the heavy lifting with respect to nodereferenced formatting
  • CCK Formatters are hugely powerful and are really great for this specific use-case
  • When developing our Edition content type, we considered Panels/Views, but because users would be using the node form for Web pages (and everything else) it made sense for us to create a "layout" content type--again, it provides the kind of flexibility that was initially requested without making things too complicated on the admin UI side of things.
  • We've also integrated bigTarget.js -- a script to help avoid the "where is the link" issue often seen in click-heat-maps.
  • The site uses a jQuery lazy load plugin for images below the fold (except on the ipad which has problems with it)--not sure whether this adds practical value at this point, but wanted to experiment
  • AJAX comment form and admin is a great little feature that really beats the standard version
  • The Tagging module is a really nice UI enhancement for adding taxonomy terms, and our contributors love it.

Drupal is an amazing application, and so many contributed modules are really fantastic. The vast majority of features on yourpublicmedia.org are thanks to core and contributed modules; in fact, very few specialized custom functions were needed to make this stuff work--and mostly that was for theming purposes. This community is truly remarkable and we are very grateful for your support. Many, many thanks.