Thursday, December 9, 2010...9:00 am

Four rules for online journalism student success

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As online journalism student assessment looms once again, here’s a handy guide for J-students on how not to mess up their web site assignment.

This is aimed at students who create in WordPress, but can equally apply to other platforms. Or, probably, almost any similar student assignment.

In brief:

  • Start early
  • Do it for real
  • Design is more than just appearance
  • Your problem is already solved – somewhere

Start early

Don’t leave site building and content production to the last week before hand-in

  • You need time to practise using a CMS because it can take a while for any limitations and problems to show up (especially in navigation and usability). This allows you time to solve them without the usual last-minute panic.
  • It’s only by producing content over a period of time and reviewing it that you figure out refinements and new ideas of what to produce and how to present it.
  • You will only understand what you want your site to do once it is up and running with content. Your plan for the site will change once you start working with it. The main problem with last-minute sites is they are very undeveloped.
  • Even for a student site, if it requires audience participation, you need time to market it and develop your user base. There’s no point in having forums and social networking type links if there’s no participation.
  • It takes time to set up affiliate marketing and advertising relationships. Google AdSense can take up to a week to process your application. Even when acceptance is immediate, it takes some time to figure out how systems work (eg Amazon) and all the logins and ID codes you need.
  • Finally – don’t leave “Uncategorized” as your default category. You will end up with last-minute content defined as this and it looks sloppy. Also, watch out for default WordPress posts and pages (eg, the “About” page). Please, please, remember to remove them – nothing loses marks faster…

Do it for real

  • It’s as easy technically to set up a real site as a dummy one – so plan for all features to be live and genuine (forums, advertising etc etc)

Design is more than just appearance

  • Too many students (and clients) focus on how a site looks, rather than how it works
  • Design is about the user experience – not just the logo and the background colours
  • Spend time navigating the site and think about how the user sees it. Each page is a different experience. Think about the design for each page
  • Your site will have repeated structure, but much variation is possible within that. Use sidebar areas – the most neglected part of site design.
  • If you leave all your content until the last minute, you will not have time to think about refinements to presentation.

Your problem is already solved – somewhere

  • 95% of all WordPress questions can be answered by Googling  “Wordpress [my problem] plugin”
  • Most of the rest have been asked before in the support forums – CHECK THESE.
  • Always keep two tabs open – one with the WordPress dashboard, one with your site’s front page. Any changes to code, plugins or templates, refresh the front page in the other tab. If anything goes wrong, undo what you did in the first tab.

Not that this will have any effect on the production schedule of most student web sites…


  • On design, I’d say keep it as simple as possible. If you have to make it more complicated, do it one small step at a time. And save every step along the way so you can backtrack.

  • Hi Bill
    Yes – an excellent point. You can do a lot with a very straightforward site, but thoughtfully used – another point that is difficult to convey to students starting out.
    And the backtracking is vital – as I’ve discovered to my cost!

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