June 30, 2014

Transitioning a newspaper to the web

I mentioned previously that I have been working for The Brunswickan. The Brunswickan is the student newspaper for the University of New Brunswick. It is Canada's oldest official student publication. My job as the Web Developer was to create a blog-style website for the paper.

Redesigning the school paper website

The staff at The Brunswickan was not satisfied with their website when they hired me. I was asked to design and build a new site. Fortunately, the website they had ran on the WordPress blogging platform. This meant that I could build a new theme on the existing WordPress installation and not have to worry about migrating content.

I worked with Alex Walsh, The Brunswickan's art director, to design the theme. Alex is many things including a freelance graphic designer, photographer, videographer, and DJ. You can check out his portfolio at awalstudios.com and his music on Soundcloud.

We got a lot of good feedback when we launched the new site. It was nice to see that people found it easy to use and that they liked the new look. The Brunswickan is still predominately a printed paper but it was nice to see its online presence gain traction.

Teaching strike at the university

The teaching staff at the University of New Brunswick were not happy with their working conditions and wages (Read more here). They began their strike on January 13th and lasted until February 3rd. This was bad news for students but an awesome opportunity for the Brunsickan newspaper.

The staff at the Brunswickan saw that this was a tremendous opportunity for their reporters. This was the first time something like this had happened at UNB and they were not going to miss out. They worked hard to be the go-to place for information.

Despite encouragement for the university, many students held back their tuition money until the strike had ended. This posed an interesting problem for the Brunswickan. Without the tuition money, there were not enough funds to print the paper or to pay the employees. The paper would have died and the opportunity missed if it had not have been for the website.

Website strains under the load

The Brunswickan was predominately a physical paper. It has had a website for a number of years but it was undervalued. That all changed when the printed paper had to be suspended. Pageviews quadrupled as people flooded to the website. It became very obvious that it had an important role to play. It could do what the printed paper could not do: provide off-campus students with breaking news.

The dramatic traffic increase to the website was exciting but we were not prepared for it. The hosting package used by the Brunswickan was sufficient for its normal traffic but it was no match for the huge spike. As the web developer, I had to look for ways to keep the website online even though we were far beyond our monthly data limits. We adjusted our workflow and optimized our content but it was not enough to keep the website from crashing. We had reports of people sitting at their computer repeatedly hitting refresh so they could get the news as soon as there was a break in the traffic.

Reflecting in the aftermath

Thankfully the strike ended, the students were allowed back to school, and the traffic levels returned to normal. The printed paper made its comeback and we got our paychecks. These things were much anticipated and much appreciated.

The strike demonstrated the advantages of online publishing. It is little wonder that there is a definite trend in that direction. One thing that surprised me was how unwilling advertisers were to put their ads online. It is something to think about.

Were you affected by the strike? If so, how?