There are college news operations all over the map when it comes to online news. Some have been online a long time, others are just now trying to figure out how to get there. #
For those in the second group, or those in the first who might be looking for a change, here’s some helpful information about the ways you can go about hosting your campus news site. #
There are basically four options for hosting an online college news site. I’m going to list them from difficult to easy in terms of impact on the student and advising staff. (DISCLAIMER: This is what might be called a “layman’s guide” discussion. I have experience using College Publisher and a paid off-site hosting service and I’ve worked with IT departments on two campuses, but very little personal experience with running a physical server.) #
Of course, every situation is different, so a solution that would work on one campus won’t necessarily work on another. As they say on the internet – YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary). #
A note about CMS – There are several open-source CMS’s (Content Management Systems) that are quite capable of handling a college news site. Among the most advanced are Joomla and Drupal. There are others, and you can see them at opensourcecms.com. “Open Source” means that you don’t have to pay a license fee. The alternative is a “proprietary” system. The most flexible of those are Movable Type and Expression Engine. If you have a lot of money to burn ($15,000), you can purchase Ellington, the CMS that runs lawrence.com. #
I’m not going to even discuss the option of hosting your own hand-coded HTML or Flash web site, as doing so would be counterproductive – you’re going to waste a lot of time on outmoded means of presenting information if you go that route. #
The possibilities #
1. On-site Server/CMS – This is the ultimate in control. You pay for your own server and host the entire site on that server. You have control over every aspect of the site, and the actual machines that hold all the information. The downsides to this solution are several: #
- * High start-up costs: You will need a server. While it would be possible to host such a site on a dedicated CPU, a machine that is built for hosting is preferred. These can be quite expensive.
- * High technical skill requirements: While it might seem like computers run themselves, servers aren’t quite so simple. You’ll need someone who knows how to troubleshoot problems, install updates to software, and make sure your data is backed up in case the server ever goes down. And then there’s the software side. Once you have the server set up, you’ll need someone who can install the software needed to run the site – frequently PHP and MySQL, at least, and get the CMS up and running. And even when a CMS is up and running, it requires regular maintenance as well. For instance, consider these requirements for Ellington: _Ellington runs on a standard open-source web platform (sometimes called LAMP). You’ll need your favorite flavor of Linux, Apache 2.0+, PostgreSQL 8.0+, and Python 2.3+. Ellington’s hardware use is designed to scale with your traffic. For small sites, a single midrange server will suit you just fine. For larger sites, Ellington supports multiple redundant web application and database server tiers._ Got that?
- Loss of control: Because of the content of student news sites, there are legitimate concerns about handing over control of the server to an outside department on campus. What if the IT department doesn’t like a story you did about the amount of illegal file sharing happening on campus? What if the president demands that the IT department turn off the server because of a controversial story? These hypotheticals are not outside the realm of possibility.
- Lack of knowledge: Many of us have had experience with IT departments that have little or no technical knowledge of the Macintosh operating system. Transfer that to open source software. It’s possible that your IT department doesn’t have anyone who knows about PHP/MySQL, in which case, if something happens with the software, you’re on the hot seat for a solution.
- Manpower/Budgeting: I can’t think of a campus IT department that isn’t overloaded with work orders and tech help requests. It’s possible your IT department won’t *want* to help you out with this solution. They will probably want to know how you’re going to pay for the work hours it will take to maintain your server. In this case, your decision is made for you.
There are literally scores of independent hosting companies around the nation. Their prices for hosting vary greatly. This article is too short to provide any sort of comparison of these plans. #
But what off-site hosts do and do well is provide server space with a minimum of headache. #
The advantages: #
- Maintain Control: Unlike the campus IT department, there’s almost no possibility that an off-site hosting company would shut down the servers at the request of the president of your university. They have a contract with you – the media organization. The only way they would do so is if you didn’t pay your bill.
- Technical Support: The hosting company makes their money off keeping the servers running. Therefore, they are going to be doing everything possible to maintain your data and server to reduce downtime. This is a good thing. They also are more likely to be up-to-date on maintenance and upgrades to the servers and security. And, if you get into a problem with PHP/MySQL, they are likely to have someone knowledgeable on staff to respond to a help request. I have maintained space on a server for the last four years, and have been very happy with the technical support in that time.
- CMS technical skills: As long as you are running your own CMS, this is going to be a high hurdle to clear. While most open source CMS software attempts to make the system as foolproof as possible, there are going to be issues with security updates, software upgrades and modules that don’t work well together, and potential corruption of your databases. You will need someone (on staff or in a contract relationship) who will be able to maintain your CMS. Also, if you want to include something different in your CMS, like podcasts or vidcasts, you’ll have to be able to figure out how to work those into the mix in a way that doesn’t mess up the system.
- Cost: Hosting services are not free. Depending on your bandwidth usage and storage needs, you can spend a good chunk of change each month. You might think of this as a production cost akin to paying your printer every time the press runs. The good news is that these costs are not extremely high, and a couple of good online ad sales will likely pay your fees each month.
The advantages: #
- Cost: CP is paid for by national advertising, which means that you spend nothing in up-front money.
- Technical upkeep: CP maintains their own servers and frequently foots the bill for your domain name renewal. It is really a turnkey solution. And I have personally always found the staff at CP to be helpful with technical issues.
- Staff interface: This can be an advantage or disadvantage, depending on whom you speak to, but CP’s user interface for story input is relatively easy to learn and use for someone with no computer background.
- Editorial control: As of this writing, CP maintains that they never interfere with the editorial content that appears on an individual campus site. This is a good thing.
- Ad integration: CP’s system has a means for you to integrate your own online ad content and track visitor statistics easily.
- Limitations of the system: CP has made tremendous upgrades to their service over the years, but there are limits to what you can do with a CP-powered site. They still use an issue-based system for publishing your content to the web, which can be confusing. The weblog system is built from WordPress, and doesn’t allow for multiple weblogs. And I’ve heard complaints about their slideshow feature and the user interface.
- Ad placements: Make no mistake, CP makes money from something, and it’s mainly advertising that appears on the pages of your online news site. Some may find the placement and types of such ads to be too much to stomach. Also, as people sometimes point out, when CP is selling an ad, it’s an ad you’re not selling.
- “Working for the Man”: I don’t really know what to call this “disadvantage” except to say that I’ve come across a number of people who find it especially discomfiting to have their campus online presence hosted by another company. The most recent example of this was the hand-wringing that occurred when it was announced that MTVu had purchased CP as part of the y2m marketing firm.