Tools vs. Skills: Rethinking WordPress and the focus of modern scholastic journalism

August 27, 2013

Our students use a lot of tools in their work as journalists; they use physical tools such as computers, phones, recording devices, card readers, and cameras, but they also use software tools such as InDesign, PhotoShop, and Microsoft Word. It seems that in the last five years, there’s been a veritable explosion of new tools that my students and I use in the journalism classroom: Google Docs, WordPress, iMovie, GarageBand, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Vine,, and on and on.

As we adopt these new tools, they give new shape to our students’ experiences in journalism. No journalism adviser I know would advocate using a film camera and darkroom for the photos in their newspaper or advocate using an old pasteup board rather than desktop publishing software. But while the journalism world has fully embraced the time-saving and enhanced tools for photography and for print design, there’s still a bit of old-school thinking when it comes to how we perceive our online presence, especially in terms of the contests and critiques that so define the national high school journalism scene and culture.

Some of the first high school staffs to go online built everything themselves –– they set up their own servers, they wrote their own content management systems, they spent hundreds of hours hand-coding HTML pages and uploading them to a server.  They had to do it this way because there weren’t any viable or affordable CMS tools available at the time.  Then WordPress came along, and suddenly it was far easier than ever before to publish online, and high school news staffs without a deep technical knowledge were able to have websites.  When this expansion began in earnest six years ago, many staffs that had been publishing online for years were skeptical of this new crop of WordPress sites with ready-made themes –– they saw it as cheating, as a shortcut, because those staffs had used a new tool to bypass all the hard work that used to be required.  It’s clear to almost everyone today, though, that using WordPress and a purchased theme is by no means a cheat –– it’s the smartest, most efficient, and easiest way to publish online.  In fact, more than 90 percent of NSPA Pacemaker finalists in 2013 used WordPress with themes they purchased, according to a survey done by Aaron Manfull, the adviser of and the chair of JEA Digital Media.

Yet there persists an odd notion that a newspaper staff is more deserving of awards for its online journalism and that its online work is more authentic if they built their website or even their WordPress theme themselves. There’s a confusion in this logic –– a failure to distinguish the tool from the content; we only tend to see this confusion when working with newer tools.  No one would question the value of using a word processing tool and writing on a computer over using a typewriter.  No one would question the value of using desktop publishing software and new printing technology over hand-set type.  No one would question the value of a photo taken with a digital camera over one taken with a film camera and printed in a darkroom.  That’s because we’ve recognized that Microsoft Word, GoogleDocs, InDesign, PhotoShop, and digital SLR cameras are tools that allow our students to do better work.

We now need to make that same recognition with our understanding of WordPress and its templates. Buying a good WordPress template is the same as buying Adobe CS7 or buying a new digital SLR camera. CS7 won’t create your design for you, a camera won’t take its own pictures, and a WordPress template won’t write and publish stories, photos, and videos in a timely and relevant manner. New tools create new efficiencies and new opportunities –– they allow us to report better, write better, design better, and connect with our audiences better, and our national contest and critique standards need to evolve to reflect the new realities of the tools used for web publishing.

First and foremost, the tool needs to be taken out of the evaluation –– a critique, contest, or evaluation should never measure the functionality of the tool used to create journalism. While this may have been relevant a decade ago when staffs were actually creating websites and functionality from scratch, it makes little sense any more in the age of WordPress when the functionality of the site is baked into the tool itself.

Secondly, rather than having the content of the news website be just one of several criteria an online staff is judged on, it needs to be the primary factor with everything else being viewed as peripheral. And the evaluation of the content of the stories and videos cannot be separated from the timeliness, continuance, and context of the reporting.

Third, website contests and evaluations should only minimally be about design –– websites just don’t offer enough design possibilities for this to be a major factor in judging. And even when a staff does design a template, the design work is not an ongoing part of running the website –– the design is generally complete before the school year even begins. Design criteria should be limited to whether or not a site is clean and professional, meets current standards, and is well-maintained. The emphasis on design in online contests and critiques has led staffs to feel pressure to “theme hop” –– they choose a theme based on prettier background gradients, fancier carousel effects, or exciting javascript animations rather than a theme that delivers core functionality. Too often, staffs spend more time on website gimmickry and novelty rather than focusing on delivering quality journalism on a daily basis.

When I first started really understanding how to code for the web, I wanted to teach my students those same coding skills I was learning. I came up with all sorts of lessons to teach them HTML, CSS, Javascript, and PHP, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that I was veering quite significantly from the path that they should be on in a high school journalism course and the path that they wanted to be on as young journalists. They were writers and editors, not coders, and as cool as it would be if they could code their own website, I realized that that’s not journalism, and that I was doing them a disservice by pulling them away from their interviewing, writing, and editing, and that we could run a far better publication if we embraced the nature of the tool itself and allowed it to give new shape to the work we were doing.

The world needs coders and the world needs journalists –– it’ll be the rare student who can fully straddle both worlds. But even if journalism students don’t fully understand how to code or build websites, they still need to understand the impact digital tools are having on the profession of journalism. They need to learn to tell their stories within a digital framework and understand all the different media their readers will use to consume their stories. Storytelling is evolving, and it’s critical that students have the skills to evolve with it. There’s a world of information available to our students in a way that’s never been true before, and they’ll need help figuring out how to access and make sense of it as well as how to contribute productively to it. This is a far more relevant set of skills for our students than working on servers or coding and editing WordPress themes.

And we should never lose focus of the core skills and experiences our students will always need –– interviewing, writing, editing, creating videos –– the very skills they will be asked to do no matter what the publishing tools happen to be in the future. The New York Times and and NPR will always hire journalists who can get and tell stories, and they will always hire coders to build their websites. We should train our future journalists to be savvy enough not just to write stories well, but also to adapt their stories to the tools of the future to connect meaningfully with their audience.