Going online with WordPress.com

The journey to starting our own publication website has been a long one. I won’t bore you with the details, but after years of battling with the powers-that-be over creating a site not hosted by the school district, we finally found our compromise in WordPress.com.

When you hear WordPress with regard to web publications, chances are you hearing about WordPress.org, the open-source content management software that you can install and customize with the help of an outside web host. WordPress.com is that CMS’s free hosted option.

While I am a big fan of WordPress.com — I use it for my personal blog and have set up classroom websites there before — it is not as powerful, flexible or customizable a solution as its self-hosted cousin. This is understandable: the folks at Automattic (the organization behind WordPress) are managing more than 400,000 blogs, so they obviously need to maintain a certain level of control. But what this means for schools interested in using the site for their online publications is that they’re going to need to learn to accept these limitations and be creative in the work-arounds.

Our new site went live in August. While it is still very much a work in progress, we are pleased with what we’ve managed to do so far. Here are some ideas/suggestions for how to make the most of WordPress.com:

Choose the Right Theme
WordPress.com offers more than 100 themes, many of which are free. You can search them by subject — we found our theme by searching the tag “magazine.” But before you start searching for the perfect theme,take some time to map out what you want your site to be able to do. Find some examples — on WordPress.com and other sites — and think about what you need to emulate those looks. Once you have a clear picture of your site (or wireframe, as they say in web design), you can narrow down your search to only include themes that offer those options.

Create a Custom Header and Menu
The most popular WordPress.com themes are popular for a reason — they look nice and they work well. The problem with choosing a popular theme, of course, is that it will look like a lot of other blogs. Most themes offer users the option of creating a custom header to give the site a unique look. Do this.

Custom menus are easy to create and give users the chance to split up the site into the “sections” of the print newspaper. It’s a simple and subtle way to brand the site as your own.

Use Widgets Wisely
Unlike WordPress.org, which offers a seemingly endless array of plug-ins to add functionality to a site, WordPress.com offers a limited number of Widgets, or add-ons.

While it may seem like a good idea to load up a Sidebar or Footer with a lot of extra information, this can make a site look cluttered. Refer back to the design you mapped out for your site and choose only the widgets that add to that design.
We wanted a way to report sports scores on the sidebar without creating an entire post that would go into the post stream. We found our solution by using the Text widget, which is a static block of text that can be updated whenever we have new scores to report. To avoid having this text block get too big, we also created a “Scoreboard” page, which is a running list of all the scores for each sport. It’s not exactly seamless, but it works.

Purchase Custom Upgrades
We haven’t done this yet, but we are in the process of buying the $30 custom design upgrade, which enables users to make changes to the theme’s Custom Stylesheets (CSS) and fonts. This will provide us with greater control over our site’s aesthetic, but it’s not for everyone, as it does require knowledge of CSS. You can also purchase a custom domain for your site (either through WordPress or another web hosting provider), which I strongly recommend if you want your readers to find your site.

WordPress.com is hosted by Automattic, so you do not have free rein over your own site.

Of the many limitations, these stick out as potentially the most prohibitive for online publications:
1) HTML/CSS limitations. Without the Custom Design upgrade, users cannot make changes to a theme’s style, which can be frustrating when wanting to make small, seemingly simple changes, like to font size. Additionally, although you can view your posts in HTML view, it’s important to know that WordPress.com/Automattic will delete any code it does not approve of. It’s not uncommon to try to tweak something in the HTML of a post, only to find it disappear when previewing the post. WordPress.com’s explanation is that its trying to weed out malicious code.

2) Embedding limitations. WordPress.com will accept a number of options for embedding audio, video and image files, but Flash and other embeds are not allowed. Options increase with the purchase of such add-ons as the Space Upgrade and VideoPress. WordPress.com’s support pages offer more information about what file types it will accept.
When want to use an embeddable tool that WordPress.com doesn’t accept, we make a link out of a screen shot to the content, sending readers to the site the embedded content lives on. Not ideal, I know, but it works.

In summary, while WordPress.com was not my first choice, the move has been a positive one. It’s taken some time and a lot of hard work on behalf of my crack Tech Team, but we are making it work…until I can convince someone to let me move to WordPress.org.


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