Code for the latest version of the McKinley Park News defines an alternative layout for presenting news articles in the site's open source platform.

Deep in Da Code

Published February 21, 2022

One of the pillars of online news publishing is technology infrastructure: delivering a mediated interface that lets users consume and interact with news. Although hopefully invisible to visitors, platform choice remains one of the most consequential decisions for an online news outlet, touching all areas of operations, business, costs and publishing.

At the McKinley Park News, we have pursued independence of publishing and serving our readers and members with trust-based operations that prioritize your privacy, agency and dignity. Another requirement for us is affordability, as we’re unfunded and trying to bootstrap ourselves to success.

 
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Thankfully, open source software provides well-qualified, community-written tools that let most anyone publish independently and affordably … as long as you’re willing to roll up your shirtsleeves and dig in. This is especially the case both when building something new and when implementing upgrades, and the McKinley Park News has been deeply engaged with the latter to make a better micro-local news website for you.

Like an Onion

Sketches and notes describe the planned updates for member profiles on the McKinley Park News as a first step toward refactoring how this part of the website works.Sketches and notes describe the planned updates for member profiles on the McKinley Park News as a first step toward refactoring how this part of the website works.I think of computer code like an onion: layers of progressively more abstracted and leveraged code, starting from a center of ones and zeroes to a periphery of the final user interfaces with which we directly engage. As coding technology and practice advance through all layers of software, ripples spread to products on the outside that may rely on deeper code that has now changed.

That’s the impetus for our upgrade to the “content management system” that powers the McKinley Park News. Our upgrade to the next major version of this platform follows and leverages a major upgrade for the scripting language that runs on the web server and powers the platform itself: the next, deeper layer of the onion, if you will.

A Venerable Platform

The upgrade impacts elements tied to our web design, and it offers some great new publishing tools we look forward to rolling into operations. Although open source software lets you run what you already have indefinitely, staying current with the state of the art offers advantages in features, performance, security and support that cannot be ignored.

 
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Thankfully, unlike many other platforms that require a complete website rebuild, our content management system offers a well-supported and documented path for its major version upgrades. This allows us to retain the lion’s share of our existing labor — and all website features and content. Indeed, hopefully this process will be as “invisible” as possible for users like yourself.

 
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Development Roadmap

Making big changes in one area of technology is often the best time to implement other significant work, from long-delayed improvements to new features to fixing bugs and errata. In the course of building and running mckinleypark.news since 2016 (and mckinleypark.org before that from 2012), we’ve developed a laundry list of things we’d like to create, improve or re-implement on this website. Some pending initiatives include:

  • Ease of use and engagement
    Unlike nearly every other online news outlet, the McKinley Park News provides community features like member profiles, commenting and forums, as well as access to post event listings, classified ads and other premium features for Subscribers, Institutions and Sponsors.
     
    Our micro-local economy of scale — tied with smart choices about online community management and configuration — means we can offer this without spam, trolling and other common hassles. We also treat users right via responsible terms and operations, and hope this distinguishes us from social media and news sites that secretively harvest your personal information for profits that are never shared with you.
     
    Although our website confers access to many interactive features, we’d like more members, Subscribers, Institutions and Sponsors to take advantage of them. To do this, we’re refactoring some existing elements to make them easier to use, and we’re also looking to turn on on some capabilities that have been waiting in the sidelines.
     
    One of our biggest practical challenges is getting all this to work well on mobile devices, and we’ve labored to ensure our website is “responsive” to fit the screen showing our content. But there are always improvements to be made, and we’re reviewing how well our mobile interfaces work across a variety of devices in addition to making improvements to layout and performance. Part of our content management system upgrade includes an updated framework of code for mobile website layouts, which we’re applying to the upgraded McKinley Park News.
     
  • Multilingual capabilities
    Chicago’s McKinley Park neighborhood is fantastically multi-ethnic, with large populations of residents fluent in Spanish and Chinese in addition to English. We ran a tri-lingual version of the McKinley Park News early in our history, taking advantage of the elegant and powerful multi-language capability that is a core feature of our content management system. However, we discontinued this since we could only support news content translations imperfectly on a site-wide basis, and usage numbers did not justify the effort.
     
    Now that we’re planning some language-specific features and content, we’re reimplementing multi-lingual support for the McKinley Park News. This will properly present these features in a language in addition to English, which will always remain as an option for reading content. The system will also power cool things like detecting the end user’s browser language setting and automatically switching to it, and supporting multi-language interfaces for interactive elements and publishing tools.
     
  • Cloud hosting
    We’ve had a fantastic experience working for over a decade with our web hosting company, which has provided a manged server space where they take care of all the fundamentals while still making available sometimes-needed administrative access, commands and tools. As the traffic, usage and complexity of the McKinley Park News has grown, so has our usage on the server, and we’re just starting to hit some limits in our account.
     
    Cloud hosting offers more speed and capacity, plus the ability for a website’s processing and bandwidth to automatically expand or contract depending on need. It also scales well for hosting multiple websites, such as those of the other .news domains we’ve acquired for neighborhoods across Chicago’s Southwest Side. And cloud hosting would give us capacity to host our own core utilities — such as for website analytics — that we’re looking to bring into our environment as part of our push for user privacy and independence in publishing.
     
    However, cloud hosting costs more than twice as much as what we pay now, so we’re carefully considering it and how our prospective 2022 revenues can offset this cost.
     
  • News that does not spy on you
    Although the McKinley Park News has leveraged many of Google’s free tools and website resources (and indeed is still doing so as of the time of publication of this Letter from the Editor), we recognize how Google integration both denudes our stance to protect the interests of our users as well as helps our direct competitor in the online advertising marketplace. At best these days, Google is our frenemy. At worst, they are a malignancy that dominates marketplaces through monopoly and self-dealing to the detriment of independent news media and the benefits we bring to communities.
     
    Likewise, social media offers its own sets of concerns. We have long held the position and adopted the practice that Facebook (aka Meta), Twitter and similar are places where we wipe our spam and do little else: Content resides within our publication, and we try to push all interaction here, too. We tend to ignore these platforms’ internal tickers and vanity metrics tied more to benefiting these third parties than ourselves.
     
    In the case of Facebook, it’s also becoming a moral question: I don’t know if I can continue being a news publisher and participating in a platform that makes money off promoting violence against journalists. (Granted, Facebook’s algorithm prioritizes “engagement” that incites violence against all kinds of people, not just journalists.)
     
    In addition to reconsidering our activity on these third-party platforms, we’re looking at how we use third-party scripts and services for utility and content inside the McKinley Park News. For example, we’re definitely bringing our analytics in-house, as web site statistics are a necessity, but one with built-in harm to our users when provided by a third party that bases its business off consumer surveillance.
     
    We’re also looking at our use of embedded content like maps and multimedia, as these are elements beyond what we can host (and/or stream) ourselves. Our embedded video content occurs through a private, “over the top” (or OTT) video service only streaming to mckinleypark.news. For embedded interactive maps, we are prioritizing moves to platforms like OpenStreetMap that are community-created and run, and that offer better privacy considerations for users.
     
    We will sometimes embed other media in our content: a YouTube video produced by a community group, a playlist for a DJ in an event listing, etcetera. Although script and ad blockers — which we recommend — will protect you from automatic loading of third-party resources, perhaps it would be useful to also label these third-party elements in the same way groups like The Trust Project encourage markers that indicate high-quality journalism.

Piles o’ Work

This is a lot of technical work, but it’s all the type of work we’ve done before and can do again.

Will all this work be worth it? In our experience, yes, it will. Once the heavy lift of project implementation is complete, a publishing platform built on high-quality open-source software will run in a bulletproof manner, in our experience. After all, the McKinley Park News has been relying on this since 2012 without significant problems or interruptions in service. Of course, this also requires following best practices in all the different areas of web publishing.

 
Business Grows Here - Space - Resources - Community

 
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Should we continue to run our own platform? For our micro-local, neighborhood-level, independent publication, we could not do this any other way. All of the packaged, software-as-a-service platforms catering to news organizations charge orders of magnitude more than our current out-of-pocket costs. The more basic, website-in-a-box services offer extremely generalized and thus limited publishing options. Neither would let us achieve many things we want, including those outlined in the above roadmap.

No Website Downtime

As a solopreneur-driven enterprise, our need to focus on these technical tasks means that attention gets pulled away from other areas, including news coverage and business development. (We unfortunately did not receive a grant last year that would have funded a bunch of help for our technical upgrades.)

We’ve been aggressively and exhaustively working on our upgrades, and making great progress. However, there’s still quite a bit that needs to be done, including advance testing and staging to make sure all goes well through the upgrade process. Depending on our progress, we hope to have this entirely completed in the first half of 2022.

Throughout, you will continue to be able to enjoy the McKinley Park News and all of our features and published content, which we will keep updating as much as we’re able while also juggling these technical upgrades and website enhancements.

How You Can Help

First, we deeply appreciate your patience through our dearth of new neighborhood news articles. We have a lot of great stories lined up to publish and will be getting them online as quickly as we can. If you have an issue or news you’d like to get out quickly, you’re always welcome to do so in our neighborhood forums, which are open to posting for all members, Subscribers, Institutions and Sponsors.

We of course also appreciate any attention you can bring to the McKinley Park News through sharing links to our content, as well as getting your feedback and engagement on the website. The most concrete way to help is to become a Subscriber or Sponsor and enjoy access to exclusive content, features and messaging opportunities starting from just a couple dollars a month. Buy one of our unique neighborhood T-shirts and help us out while looking great!

Finally, we’ve really appreciated the feedback we’ve received about the McKinley Park News from our members and neighbors, and if you have any ideas about our upgrades and direction, we’d love to hear them: post a comment below or contact us directly.

Thank you for your attention and patronage of the McKinley Park News. We look forward to providing you with neighborhood news and information now and coming up in our upgraded website.

All the best to you and yours!

Justin Kerr
Publisher, McKinley Park News

Jim Reho
I'm sure your already good publication will soon be even better. You provide a great service to the area. Thanks for all the hard work!
Justin Kerr
Thanks so much! I've continued to work hard on the technology since this Letter from the Editor was posted. Much work has gone into the custom template I use for the website's design, and I've been hammering both this element and the newest version of the software on another site I'm using to test all this out before implementing on the McKinley Park News.

Another big element I'm testing is the upgrade process: I've run this through the other test site, roughly paralleling what I need to do with the McKinley Park News. This has been very valuable practice and useful for learning about a couple gotchas I encountered.

Fortunately, overall, the upgrade looks like it's going to work great, and we'll retain the bulk of the work that's gone into the McKinley Park News for the new version, and all content, features, member accounts, etc. (You'd be surprised how many websites get completely torn down and rebuilt during a process like this.)

Also, the new software is sweet! It really enhances a lot of things related to producing media, including the next levels of full administrative and content support from mobile devices. I'm looking forward to leveraging some of its new tools to support our staff and on-the-ground news reporting.

One thing came up that impacts the schedule: A piece of third-party open source software. Our core content management system software relies on additional, compatible software that plugs in and extends core capabilities. There's still one package in final development, but this will hopefully be released soon. Based on this and some other scheduling considerations, the upgrade is going to take place this spring.

Of course, I can't wait until this is all done, as it's going to offer some great benefits (and we're going to have to do an upgrade at some point anyway). In the meantime, we'll continue to run and update the site. Thanks again for your encouragement and feedback!

Jim Reho
Sounds like you'll be state of the art. Impressive!

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