In 1996, I was the associate adviser of the Carmel (Ind.) High School HiLite when a small group of journalism students came to then adviser Tony Willis and me and asked if they could start a website. They’d run everything, they said. They knew computer code. They had the necessary software they’d happily install on a couple of computers in the classroom. They’d take care of getting our domain name and hosting. Would it be OK?
This was 1996, mind you, and things like websites weren’t really on our radar. In fact, they weren’t on many people’s radar. In 1995, there were only 23,500 registered websites in the world.* That next year, the HiLite joined just a little over 250,000 other people in cyberspace. (To put that in perspective, today, there are well over a billion sites, and that number keeps growing.) We went online before Google (1998), PayPal (1998) and Wikipedia (2001).
But while Tony and I didn’t really understand the web (and, frankly, with dial-up networking, I couldn’t really get online anyway), our students did. And they did an amazing job. By 1997, they won a “Best of the Net” Award from NSPA, which today has been renamed the Online Pacemaker. By that point, our commitment to online coverage was solidified.
The website has changed quite a bit over the years. In the early 2000s, for example, we made the switch from Dreamweaver to a new content management system called “WordPress.” (WordPress launched in 2003). We’ve changed themes and hosting providers. We’ve added all kinds of plug-ins and widgets. But never once did we consider not coding and managing the site ourselves.
Until this year.
I have often said publically that if we ever had a year when we no longer had a student who was willing or able to run the back-end of our website, then we’d figure out a different option. This year was that year, and just a couple of months ago we officially made the switch to School Newspapers Online (SNO). It is a decision we have not regretted. Here’s why:
- It’s a fantastic product: Since 1996, I’ve seen my share of web themes. And the problem with most of those themes, at least as far as we’re concerned, is that most of them don’t cater to journalism. They don’t provide options for various sections like sports and news and features. They don’t have multiple users in mind. They don’t “look” very journalistic. So that means staffs that choose to use those themes have to do a lot of customization. A lot. That means changing the internal code. That means using lots of third-party plug-ins and widgets. And all of that means headaches. Lots and lots of headaches. I can’t tell you the number of times our site was down because we updated to a new version of WordPress which caused one plug-in not to play nice with it. Or the widgets that got blocked by our own firewall at school, which then marked our site as malware. Not so with SNO. The themes, which are super-customizable, are geared specifically toward journalists. The updates are maintained by SNO and they happen automatically, behind the scenes.
- It’s relatively inexpensive: In general, websites are pretty inexpensive compared to print. And running your own site can certainly be less expensive than going with SNO. But not by much. With our old site, once you took into account our hosting costs and domain renewal fees, not to mention an occasional theme purchase, our typical yearly web costs were about $200. With SNO, it’s $300. Of course, there is that additional one-time $300 fee to start your site, but it was so worth it. We signed up for SNO, handed over our domain info and within a few days the SNO folks ported over everything we had on our old site to our new SNO platform. Just like that, we were up and ready to go without missing a beat.
- It lets students do what they’re supposed to do – journalism: To this day I have a very limited knowledge of websites. I don’t know HTML code. If the site breaks, I don’t know what to do to fix it. What I do know is journalism, and that’s what I want my students to know, too. SNO allows me and my staff to worry about journalism. The back-end of a SNO site is WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get). It’s intuitive. Want to add an author’s name? There’s a box for that. Want to embed a video or a slideshow? There are quick links at the ready. Don’t know how to do something? There’s an extensive list of tutorials and FAQs right at your fingertips. We used to spend hours finding the right plug-ins to, say, add a calendar or a poll or an audio file. Now it’s all right there, and we know everything will work smoothly with the site.
- It’s customizable: To be fair, the early days of SNO had some pretty limited themes to choose from. Not so now. In fact, it’s getting difficult for me to tell anymore which sites use SNO and which sites don’t. But, honestly, who cares? I mean, I like Jeeps. I know other people own Jeeps. Some Jeeps are red and some are yellow and some have bigger wheels or more doors, but they’re all still Jeeps. And I’m OK with that. Frankly, the only people who know if you’re using a SNO site are other journalism teachers and their students, and you’re not catering your content to them; you’re catering to the needs of your readers, who don’t look at other schools’ websites. SNO’s widgets go where they’re supposed to. The site looks the way you want it to. It works the way it’s supposed to. And you can change it as much as you want as often as you want. What more do you need?
- It’s one fewer thing for me or my staff to worry about: I have spent many hours of my life on a phone talking to some random employee at GoDaddy trying to get our website to work. Hours that I haven’t been paid. Hours that I’ll never get back. It was frustrating, to say the least, not because it wasn’t important but because it was time spent away from my students doing something unrelated to our main goals: informing, educating and entertaining readers. With SNO, I have spent little to no time worrying about the back-end of our website. If we have a problem, we can send in a work ticket that usually gets answered within the same day. If we need extra help, we can sign up for a one-on-one session with a SNO expert for a nominal fee. It’s that kind of peace-of-mind that makes this aging adviser happy.
And there you have it. I know this article sounds like one super-long infomercial for SNO, and that wasn’t my intention. If there are other great web products for high school journalism students, I’d love to hear about them; just share your experiences in the comments section. The bottom line is, regardless of service provider, it’s important to consider your own mental well-being. We’ve switched to SNO and we’re happy. And while 20 years seems like a long time, it’s fun to think about how far we can still go.