ok-watch-homepage Oklahoma Watch Becomes First U.S. Publication on Newspack; 34 Pilot Newsrooms Announced for Second Round design tips News|Newspack
Homepage of the Oklahoma Watch website on Newspack.

Oklahoma Watch is the first U.S. publication to relaunch and the second publication to go live on Newspack, a platform created this year to bring WordPress to newsrooms. Newspack announced the relaunch today. The announcement includes the list of 34 new publications that will work with the Newspack team during its second phase.

Newspack is a project of Automattic, the parent company of WordPress.com. Its mission is to create a platform for more newsrooms to make the move to WordPress. The team has been working alongside industry leaders and small publications during the pilot program this year to tackle issues with running online newsrooms.

Chilean news site El Soberano was the first newsroom to go live on the new system, relaunching their site on October 16. Oklahoma Watch follows them as only the second publication to take the next step. The remaining participants in the pilot program are expected to launch in the coming weeks.

Oklahoma Watch is a non-partisan publication that does not publish opinion pieces. It is a nonprofit news organization that covers stories on public-policy issues within the state of Oklahoma. “Those include education, criminal justice, public and mental health, state government, poverty, and human-needs issues that disproportionately affect women, children, and the disadvantaged,” said executive editor David Fritze. “Our staples are in-depth stories, searchable data, interactives, public forums, live-tweeting and other social media, and, increasingly, video.”

The publication distributes its stories for free republication to around 100 newspapers and radio and TV news outlets throughout the state.

Oklahoma Watch’s Move to Newspack

In 2013, the Oklahoma Watch site moved to Largo, a WordPress theme framework for news publishers. It is developed and maintained by the Institute for Nonprofit News.

“Our website was clean and bright, but was rather monotonous, with a long stack of same-sized headlines, excerpts and a right sidebar with typical fixtures, such as a newsletter sign-up ask and our Twitter feed,” said Fritze. After bringing on a visual journalist to bring the site up to date with media, they still felt tools were limited and needed a site refresh.

“We went live with Newspack more than a week ago, and we’re still gradually digging around — spelunking in a way — to learn how to make the most of it,” said Fritze. “But I would say it already has and will make a world of difference.”

He sent the following update to the publication’s email subscribers.

[Newspack] gives smaller organizations more tools to deliver their content in engaging, creative ways. What you will notice: a faster mobile experience; a better showcasing of visuals, stories, and informational bits, and a more vibrant, flexible home page – with new features to come. The goal is to make oklahomawatch.org a richer experience for you and to enhance the investigative reporting that is central to our mission.

The team switched from the classic editor and has been learning the block editor (Gutenberg) along with the Newspack tools. Fritze said the team is happy about:

  • Being able to serve donation and subscription forms anywhere.
  • Having the ability to more easily manage their homepage content, media, and headlines.
  • Making changes without spending valuable time that would be better spent investigating stories.

As part of the initial pilot program, Oklahoma Watch was in a unique position to help make this an easier process for future publications on the platform. “We were fortunate to be a pilot site and have the full let’s-develop-this attention of the Newspack team — on Slack, in regular video conference calls, in emails, and by phone,” said Fritze.

“Early on, it became clear that some of the news sites’ reps were more well-versed in web tech and other programs than we were, so it took me a while to get my bearings,” said Fritze of the process. “But I requested specific features and preservation of one or two of the tools we already have and prefer.” One such tool was the TablePress plugin. The Oklahoma Watch team uses it to display interactive, tabular data from CSV files.

Fritze said he had a few requests for other features that are still pending, such as a film-strip-like homepage carousel. However, the Newspack team was clear from the outset that not all plugins or features would be adopted for the system.

“Perhaps that would give some clients pause, not being able to pull any fish you wanted out of the sea of WordPress plugins, based on some mention on the web,” said Fritze. “On the other hand, the quality control is reassuring, especially for smaller organizations like ours that have little time to go kicking those tires.”

In any controlled system, it makes sense that not every feature request will be granted. It would increase the quality control burden. However, without more control over tools or features, it could be a non-starter for some publications.

Fritze does have a big feature request for the long term. “If there is one thing that Newspack should make sure happens going forward, it’s to promote easy interaction among Newspack sites, including the ability to communicate one on one and find peer sites that have similar needs and challenges,” he said.

Second Round of Pilot Newsrooms Announced

Oklahoma Watch and the 11 other newsrooms currently in the program are being followed by a larger group of publications. The 34 new sites will have the benefit of the past seven months of work the Newspack team and pilot newsrooms put into the initial launch. Newsrooms in the second phase are expected to relaunch their sites on the platform by the end of February 2020.

Publications such as the Hong Kong Free Press, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, and The Daily Yonder are a part of the second group. Most are small or medium-sized publications that focus on local news. The full list is available via the announcement post on the Newspack blog.

Like the first group, the new newsrooms will work directly with the Newspack team to identify and address technical issues faced in online journalism. They will continue helping to design and test the platform’s features.

All pilot newsrooms will continue using Newspack for free until March 2020. After that point, the price will jump to $1,000 per month. The price includes priority access to Newspack developers, some level of premium support, quarterly benchmarking reports, and community membership with other Newspack users.

The Newspack team plans to consider additional applications in January 2020. Nearly 500 applicants have applied for the program thus far.