Unrealized ideas from my time at the J-School

What follows is a laundry list of all of the things I planned out but never got around to doing at the J-School. Some are crazily creative while others are to be expected. I’m writing them out because I want to retain a record of them for the future (and now they mostly live in a Basecamp account I’ll no longer have access to).

WordPress networks

At the time of this writing, the J-School has two WordPress multisite instances. One, at journalism.cuny.edu, subdomains of the primary domain, and various custom domains, offers managed websites for students, faculty, staff, and alumni. The other, CUNY Campus Wire, is managed hosting for CUNY student publications.

  • Post by email – Create new posts, let them be blog posts, galleries, links, etc., via email. Also, offer the ability to respond to a comment thread by email.
  • Search across all sites in the network – Have a dedicated URL like http://search.journalism.cuny.edu/ to run a query across all sites in the network, and offer faceted filtering to limit result types to specific content, authors, topics, etc.
  • Dynamic homepage for logged-in users – For J-School community members, the homepage becomes their dashboard for the school, including assignment information, upcoming events, discussion notifications, etc.
  • Ingest users’ social media content – Pull in and make available tweets, Flickr photos, video, and other social media from WordPress users. Offer BuddyPress profile fields for users to enter their identity information or, better yet, allow them to authenticate against the website using their third-party accounts. Use this data to build features like a realtime map of where community members are based on geo-tagged tweets or Foursquare checkins.
  • Community tagging – Any user of the network can suggest tags for a content object, including people, topics, and places.
  • Contextual documentation based on Tech website content – In the WordPress admin, replace the generic help tab documentation with custom documentation from the Tech website. Optionally allow users to create a new support ticket from the WordPress admin.
  • Soundslides WordPress plugin – Make it easier for students to publish Soundslides projects by allowing them to upload publish_to_web projects through the admin and embed with a shortcode.
  • Take a screenshot of each website homepage once a month – Offer a visual archive of how sites are evolving over time.
  • Network usage stats plugin – Track usage across the network. Data points like:
    • Total number of sites and users
    • Posts published, media content uploaded
    • Links used per post, by site and globally
    • Total embedded rich media
    • Users active within the last week
    • Number of sites using a given plugin or theme; see which is using what from the network admin
    • Distribution of custom CSS modifications by site, possibly correlated to theme
    • Most popular CSS property for custom CSS modifications

Tech website

For the last few months, we’ve spent a significant amount of time revamping our tech website. The focus now is producing documentation on every subject the team deals with, but eventually the vision is to have the website be the primary way for clients to access resources and interface with the tech team.

  • “Was this helpful?” – At the end of every piece of documentation, allow the reader to indicate whether it was helpful or not. If they mark “No”, display a small box for them to submit a comment. Optionally, enable the document author to define what the question is.
  • Content notifications – Alert authors by email if their documentation hasn’t been updated in a while.
  • Public plugin and theme directories – Make it much easier for users to see which plugins and themes they have available to use by building a directory for each into the tech website. Both single views would have details about the object, related documentation and blog posts, usage stats, and links to examples.
  • Support ticketing – Move support ticketing from the ever-awful Web Help Desk into WordPress. Users could create new tickets directed towards staff, or towards other users in the system (when creating a ticket, users would be suggested based on relevance). Tickets can be private or public, and sortable by tags so we can pull out metrics and see history easily (i.e. 163 students didn’t know how to log into WP in the last two months). A ticketing system should empower you to be proactive about support.
  • Issues as a custom post type – Create “issues” as a custom post type (network downtime, failure, classroom equipment outages) and build a view for open, pending, and past issues.
  • Equipment availability – See what equipment is available for checkout when.
  • Live refresh on search results – A la the 37signals documentation site and Google Instant.

CUNY J-Camp website

CUNY J-Camp is the brand for the J-School’s continuing education workshops. We launched a redesign in June 2011 that is well-positioned for additional improvement.

  • Support WordPress galleries – Allow for the instructor to upload images after the event and, optionally, for participants to upload their content as well. Add theme support for galleries, with a nice interface for going through all of them
  • Calendar view – By default, events are presented on the homepage in a nice grid view. A secondary view could be a month-by-month calendar so visitors can see what workshops were held in the past and what’s coming up in the future.
  • Registration through WordPress – J-Camp workshop registration is handled through Eventbrite. This is functional, but we could do so much more, like track user participation over time, if it was handled within the theme.

Digital media management odds and ends

Officially, my title at the J-School was “Digital Media Manager.” I always introduced myself as “the internet guy at the J-School”, and the job included everything from server admin to designing print ads to managing digital media…

  • Web interface for accessing Aperture – Build on the Aperture’s database of media metadata, and make those assets available through a web interface so stakeholders can view and download content without having Aperture installed on their local machine. The syncing offered in Aperture 3 really isn’t functional.
  • Digital signage WordPress theme – Design and build a WordPress theme to power the digital signage in the newsroom, on the first floor, and other places to be determined. Inspiration is Macaulay College’s implementation. Ours should rotate through events, photos, student work, “Did you know?” facts, news items, and J-School branding. Could also incorporate other network content like posts and updates.

Two designs: Changing NYC and CUNY J-Camp

This is a quick visual overview of Changing NYC and CUNY J-Camp, two sites I designed, helped to produce, and launched at the CUNY J-School in the last couple of months.

Changing NYC

Published in May, Changing NYC showcases Census stories from Interactive II and Craft II J-School students. It was a joint project and includes audio, photo, video and live coverage.

One of the significant challenges with this site was that, despite the Census being the overall theme, there were few threads between the stories. Furthermore, all stories needed to receive generally the same weight; no stories could be more “important” than others. The solution was to create three broad buckets to place the content in, Between the Numbers, Moving In/Moving Out, and Neighborhood Anchors, and then randomize the display order of the stories. Fortunately, with the grid view for theme landing pages, I think it worked out alright.

From a design perspective, I wanted to make the site easy to navigate laterally and allow the reader to quickly focus on the content. I have three favorite features:

  • On the single article view, the active theme and place terms are highlighted to give you a peripheral sense of what you’re looking at.
  • On any view with a single piece of content, the site branding drops out of the header to the left column to allow the reader to make that content first and foremost on the page.
  • The single photo view has a ribbon of all photos associated with a post, so you can see where you’re at in the series and quickly jump to another image.


CUNY J-Camp is the J-School’s continuing education program. With the redesign of the site, the primary goal was to make it much easier to access and register for the variety of workshops offered. Secondary goals included educating new visitors on CUNY J-Camp, and making it much easier to stay in the loop about upcoming opportunities.

The WordPress themes for both Changing NYC and CUNY J-Camp are available on Github.

Improvements in Tech website v0.4: Search query highlighting, suggested topics, and improved topical landing pages

Improvements in Tech website v0.4: Search query highlighting, suggested topics, and improved topical landing pages. The latest round of changes to our Documentation Redux theme. My favorite improvement is the search query highlighting with suggested topics at the top. Try out “final cut” or “wordpress“.

Tracking data on everything: Web team projects

Data makes the world more visible.

At the end of March, I embarked on a personal initiative at the J-School to quantify as many of our processes as possible. My working thesis: if we can generate enough data about a system, and have a framework to understand it, we can be far more effective in what we do. Quite possibly way over 5-6%. Continue reading “Tracking data on everything: Web team projects”

Tracking data on everything: ’10-’11 web services stats for the J-School

Judy Watson, associate dean at the J-School, asked me last week to pull together relevant usage and performance metrics for work we’re doing on the web. They’ll be a part of an annual report back to CUNY central. I thought it’d be fun to share them here too. Continue reading “Tracking data on everything: ’10-’11 web services stats for the J-School”