Summer rebuild: the Student Life’s move to WordPress µ

Washington University in St. Louis recently redesigned their Web site.

Earlier this summer, Student Life, the independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis, relaunched its Web site using WordPress µ. The new site is the culmination of several months of conversations within Student Life’s Web team and a summer of intense design and programming. More importantly, the July launch was the first time that Student Life’s Web site was completely student-run since joining College Publisher in 2001 (long before it became the College Media Network).

Our decision to leave CMN and College Publisher 5.0 stemmed from a desire to gain finer control over users’ experience in interacting with our Web site and to open to door for future Web development projects. We had been having discussions for several years about the possibility of building our own site, but the final decision to leave CMN was made last spring after a rocky experience with CP5 and the growth of our Web staff to a size that we thought could sustain the design and development of a new site into the future.

The Process

As we started to look for a content management system to power our new site, we evaluated three basic options: using WordPress (WordPress µ), Drupal or building our own content management system in Django. At the end of the day, we chose to go with the WP option because several members of our interactive staff had worked with it in the past and because the system offered an easy way of running our main site and all of our blogs within one installation. Although Drupal is also extremely powerful, we found that WordPress’s interface was better suited to a workflow that would begin to allow non-technical reporters and editors to work within our CMS. We haven’t dropped the long-term plan of moving to a Django-powered system, but the development cycle for creating a system that would completely suit our needs would have taken far longer than the time we allotted for our Web transition.

From the beginning of the development process, our online staff was committed to designing its own theme (rather than using one freely or commercially available from an external source) because we wanted to avoid the trap of looking exactly like a lot of other papers. Although many of the themes available on the Internet are smooth and user-friendly, we wanted to avoid fading into a sea of similarly designed Web sites (one of the biggest drawbacks with CP4) and we wanted the opportunity to highlight the talents of our staff members. Our design process started with a conversation about what kind of information we wanted to highlight on the front page and how we envisioned our online workflow. We worked from there.

The Challenges

Although there was a good sense of how the Web site would look when we launched, a lot of the most important work on the site has happened since then. Just this week, a project spearheaded by our online editor Scott Bressler went live, allowing us to easily drag and drop articles within our eight above-the-fold story slots (in the JavaScript-based carousel element and the latest news rail). We have gone through countless revisions of our style sheet based on feedback from our staff and readers. Every day, we spend time going through server resource reports to find modules that load slowly so we can reduce server demand and speed up the load time of our site. One of the biggest challenges of running our own site is that the development is never done — we always have new projects to complete. That is also the greatest upside to our new site (and why we decided to switch in the first place): our online presence is now dynamic and constantly changing. With enough time spent writing, testing and debugging code, we can accomplish whatever we want without any external limitations.

Email newsletters are delivered by Mad MimiOne of the biggest challenges that we faced was trying to find an effective method for distributing our e-mail edition. A significant percentage of our traffic (especially among parents and alumni) is driven by the e-mail edition, so one of our highest priorities for the site was finding a service that would allow us to reliably place messages in users’ inboxes. After researching a number of options including using some kind of script run off our servers and a number of paid services, we decided to go with which seemed to have the best balance of price and features. In the weeks that we’ve been using MadMimi, we have yet to encounter a problem, having been able to take advantage of their top-notch support staff (which responds to questions by e-mail at all hours). Most importantly, we can finally track readership statistics for clickthrough and open rates. It has been very helpful to map out what stories cause readers to open the e-mail edition most frequently and what types of headlines get the highest number of clicks.

The Takeaways

Looking back on the process of leaving College Publisher, the best advice I can give to other papers is think big and think early. Use as many resources as are at your disposal; your online staff and Google are great places to start, but contacting students in your local computer science department and support networks like CoPress and the Center for Innovation in College Media can really make a difference. Brainstorming is an important part of the development process, but don’t let brainstorming interfere with your ability to get stuff done. In other words, your Web site will always be a work in progress, so launch it and go from there. Finally, if you are leaving College Publisher, leave plenty of time for getting your archives from them and don’t be afraid to call every day until you get what you want. The single biggest frustration of coordinating Student Life’s web development was finalizing our departure from CMN and obtaining our content exports and, more importantly, our user exports. That data belongs to you and there is no reason you should need to wait for it.

Above all else, don’t be scared off by the sea of computer programming acronyms and matrix-like walls of code — trust the news judgment that gets the print edition out every day and the technical side of Web development will follow.

A Rundown of the New Site

Sam Guzik is currently the Director of New Media and a former Editor in Chief of Student Life Newspaper at Washington University in St. Louis. He can be reached at and is happy to answer any questions about the process of transition to a new Web site.

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  1. [...] Sam Guzik over on details the successful relaunch of Student Life, the “independent newspaper of Washington [...]

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