in Blog, Featured

Newsroom: the backstory

Cast your mind back if you will to chilly February, amid the growing crescendo/death spiral of pre-election communications. Neil and his team were finishing off the new corporate website, having shunned friends and family for weekends on end. A member of the senior management team came bounding back from a cross government meeting where they had been shown this, and, in a nutshell, they wanted one too.

The brief was helpfully loose: make it easier for the media to access the information they needed via simple link in the bottom of a press notice, without generating a load of extra work for Press Officers. From the Digital team’s perspective, we wanted to increase visibility of our YouTube and Flickr content for media, ensuring that these channels get promoted in every news release. Oh, and the kicker: make something technology independent, that could survive the imminent move from WordPress to SiteCore, without incurring external costs. So we set out to develop something based largely in client-side technologies (i.e. Javascript and CSS) which usefully aggregated corporate announcements, multimedia output and press office contacts for mainstream media and bloggers in a single place – frankly, more of a technical and design challenge than a strategic one, but a fun one nonetheless.

There were half a dozen or so information sources to play with*:

  • Press Releases, ministerial speeches (RSS feed)
  • Tweets from corporate accounts (RSS feeds)
  • Videos on YouTube (RSS feed with multimedia enclosures)
  • Flickr photos (API)
  • Podcasts on SoundCloud (added by the team later, again, RSS feed)
  • Contact details for Press Officers & key facts on policies (static text)
  • Email alerts for media to sign up to via GovDelivery

*We also had a plan to add a couple of extras which were built but not yet used. Case studies published elsewhere online were to be tagged using a corporate Delicious account and imported into the newsroom using the RSS feed for the tag. Urgent statements or rebuttals put out by a Press Officer out of hours sometimes aren’t issued as Press Notices in the normal way, so we set up a private Tumblr site to which these could be emailed, which could be embedded or imported into the Newsroom, again via RSS.

The primary tool in our arsenal was the wonderous Feed2JS, which takes an RSS feed and gives you a snippet of Javascript to embed which will render it for you in HTML. It’s free and awesome (and you can even self-host it if you want). This little tool helps single-handedly render the majority of the Newsroom content, the code snippet tweaked slightly to ensure the <noscript> alternative ensures the site degrades fairly gracefully for non-Javascript enabled browsers.

I also developed a couple of code snippets to render the content of a Flickr account or set as an RSS, HTML or Javascript snippet, and likewise with YouTube – feel free to grab the code from those links if that kind of thing is of use to you.

  • Version 0.1 (click the image to enlarge) was a good proof of concept, built in an empty page template on our old WordPress site. But there was too much to take in for a notoriously lazy audience.
  • Version 0.2 was an improvement, splitting the content into more manageable chunks with a natty Apple-style navigation bar and some concertina sections done in Javascript – but it still felt hard to differentiate the content types on the page
  • Version 0.3 was almost there, introducing some nice little icons for the different content types, using CSS to help visually distinguish the lists, and losing the unnecessary mission statement with some DOM-rewriting to save valuable pixels for this audience. And then we moved to SiteCore and purdah struck, so…
  • …Version 1.0, which you can now see in all its glory transferred the code into a new CMS and migrated across a stylesheet. The team added SoundCloud podcasts using its RSS feed, in the same way as the other media types.

Early feedback on the prototype from journalists was positive, the Press Office got a nice-looking tool which required literally zero additional work beyond emailing over their contact list, and Neil got one of his much-loved quick wins – and within SiteCore too. Props for this one to Rhys and Ian in the BIS Digital Communications team.

Photo credit: Victoria Peckham

  1. Just a slight worry about the use of feed2js for such a high-profile application, especially when its owner is trying to get shot of it.

    If it has to be client-side in javascript, there is a Google ajax feeds API, which I’ve used successfully in the past; but I must admit, if I was going to do it right now, I’d probably do it in a few lines of jQuery.

    Of course, if it were still in WordPress, you’d have SimplePie built in. 😉

    • True – and the plus side of SiteCore is that it does have jQuery installed and ready to go… 😉

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