Related link: http://journalism.berkeley.edu/projects/election2002/
I’ve fallen in love with Movable Type over the past few months, using it both for my personal weblog and for the J-School’s not-yet-public Intellectual Property Weblog. The deeper I dig into the software, the more I realize how flexible it is, and ways it can be coaxed and cajoled into resembling a Content Management System. When the charge came for me to build a site on which journalism students could publish their 2002 election stories, I decided to see just how far I could push it. We’ve got 25 pre-election stories up on the site already - many more will roll in over the next few days.
But MT is not a full CMS, and we had to work around a few significant limitations.
News sites and weblogs have enough similarities that the project was possible, but enough differences that problems still arose. I was able to use MT’s “Categories” feature to create regional election returns departments. I was able to disable comments and TrackBack, and modify MT tags so that headlines were linked to story bodies rather than the usual timestamp/permalink. I removed the calendar object that’s present by default, and enabled the new search engine in MT 2.5.
As soon as you try to automate something like this, you impose a system on an organic process that may or may not be compatible with the technology. The biggest problem is in how a news site like CNN features stories differently than a “blog”-style site like slashdot. “Real” news sites place the most important story at the top of the page. Blog-style sites put the most recent story at the top of the page. That’s a critical difference, but MovableType does not let you “weight” stories to live higher on the page than others. The only way I could think of handle this was to output the homepage to a hidden URL, then have the actual homepage be manually updated based on output to the automatically generated index. So in the end, we have a mostly-automatic publishing system, rather than fully automatic. That’s okay - technology never has taken the place of the human editor.
Another issue that bit us was the fact that Movable Type assumes that the person posting the story is also the author of the story. In our case, we had about 40 student authors and two people posting stories to the Movable Type back end. Thus, in order to get the bylines right, our posters had to create an author for each student, post the story as themselves in draft mode, then change the story author from within Power Editing mode. A big hack. For our needs, we wanted separate fields for author name and email address, distinct from the poster.
Then a professor threw me a curveball by announcing that some stories would have double bylines. Since the system was set up to link one author to one email address, this raised the question of how to generate email links from bylines. We decided to create authors that consisted of two names but with one email address. Obviously this wouldn’t fly in the “the real world,” but was good enough in a pinch.
Short story: We were able to get a database-backed publishing system up and running in record time, and the posting students loved working with it - light years easier than it’s been in previous election years, and we’ve got a quasi-dynamic site that can be updated on a moment’s notice without any HTML skills. And we came to learn that Movable Type is not a full-blown CMS, though it shares enough traits with CMSs to act like one in many ways. Movable Type’s homepage says:
What is Movable Type? It is a decentralized, web-based personal publishing system designed to ease maintenance of regularly updated news or journal sites, like weblogs.
Would love to hear your tips on making MT behave like a CMS…