FT's bloggy new look

Is it just me, or is the new Financial Times website design, being rolled out progressively this week, heavily influenced by blogs – and remarkably reminiscent of the Downing Street site?
Whilst other sites seem keen to cram ever more into their homepages, the new FT homepage makes the site feel really quite small. Just ten ‘top stories’ in a list, sorted in order of importance; headlines and very brief excerpts, with timestamps, categories and related articles.ย There are still plenty of sections and subsections; but the primary navigation is mainly hidden behind dropdowns (Javascript-enhanced HTML blocks rather than traditional form dropdowns, incidentally). The page layout is (broadly speaking) three columns: fat, thin, thin – a configuration we’ve grown familiar with in the blogosphere.
Gawker.com shares my take, and concludes: ‘the online medium continues to assert its precedence over print; even the rich love blogs; and bloggers all deserve to be paid more money’. No argument on any front there. ๐Ÿ™‚
It’s further evidence, in my mind, that the divisions between ‘blogs’ and ‘proper websites’, ‘blogging tools’ and ‘proper CMSes’ have disappeared, if they were ever there to begin with. Let’s just ignore the labelling. Blogs and blogging systems evolved as a means for writers to get news items up on the web quickly and efficiently. Guess what – journalists want to get their news items up on the web quickly and efficiently. So do (should?) press officers.
In my own work, once the decision is made to use a blogging tool (ie WordPress), certain design decisions are basically inevitable. But it’s very interesting to see the FT choosing to make many of those same design decisions, without any (apparent) requirement to do so.

FCO blogging on blogging

It’s great to see the Foreign Office’s Stephen Hale raising his head above the parapet, and blogging about his job as ‘Head of Engagement’. (Quite a job title, by the way.) Makes sense for numerous reasons of course, not least as a means of setting a good example for colleagues. I mean, would you trust a ‘blogging expert’ who didn’t blog?
Stephen has already touched on the FCO’s choice of the rather obscure Roller blogging platform – ‘because of the ease with which we could integrate it with our web platform’. His latest post reveals something I hadn’t previously appreciated: ‘we opened up the blogs over the summer so that any member of staff with a valid business reason could start an official blog’.
That’s a remarkable move in itself, and perhaps unexpectedly, puts FCO on a par with hi-tech companies like Microsoft – but I’m still in two minds about the wisdom of people blogging in a personal capacity on an official platform (generally speaking). My instinct remains that corporate blogging is best done on a project basis, with more personal stuff (again, generally) kept separate.
In that respect, we should all be grateful to FCO for testing the water here; we’ll only find out what works – if anythying – by trying it, and they’ve certainly got the Boss most likely to give them the freedom to experiment.

DFID Bloggers: tales from the front line

The latest Puffbox project gets a soft launch today, ahead of a formal (and hopefully high-profile) announcement next week. DFID Bloggers is a satellite site off the main Department for International Development website, and follows in the FCO’s footsteps of giving front-line staff a blog on which to talk about their work and experiences.
In some respects, it was an obvious thing for DFID to do. Their work isn’t generally seen by the UK taxpayers who fund it. By definition, they operate in exotic and/or difficult locations, and have powerful stories to tell. They saw the value in putting some human faces on it all; and in opening lines of communication with anyone worldwide with something to contribute. The Foreign Office had already set a helpful precedent: my brief was effectively ‘can we have what they’ve got, please?’
Using WordPress was, of course, a given; but perhaps surprisingly, I took the decision early on to use the standard version, rather than MU (Multi User). Everyone is effectively writing to the same ‘group blog’, allowing us to aggregate and consolidate the presentation (eg on the homepage, and in the main RSS feed). But the WordPress approach to output templates allows us to give each blogger a personal homepage, with a fuller biography, a filtered RSS feed and an archive of posts. The best of both worlds, if you like – with fewer concerns about the speed of updates and the compatibility of plugins.
All the standard blog functionality is in there, plus a few things you won’t have seen. The homepage shows the latest post for each ‘active’ blogger; when they haven’t written something for a fixed number of days, they’ll automatically drop down into an ‘archive’ list. There’s some customisation of the standard WordPress user profile, adding a new ‘job title’ (ie short biography) field, and incorporating Google Map functionality, for the bloggers to pinpoint their location. This geo-data gets aggregated into a Bloggers Map page, with the popup ‘speech bubbles’ showing a summary user profile, including a link to their latest blog entry.
I can’t say how pleased I am with the results. I’ve been collaborating with a couple of new contacts – my near-neighbour Tony Parsons on the design side, and Simon Wheatley (who I met at WordCamp) on the technical stuff that was beyond me. Both have been truly brilliant. And I have to say, the DFID guys have been fabulous too – giving me all the freedom I could ask for. It’s been a perfect combination, and I think it shows in the site.
In the spirit of open source, Simon W has released the custom WordPress plugins to the world via wordpress.org. In reality, you’ll only be interested in them if you’re wanting to build a carbon-copy site; but they are now ‘out there’, and you’re welcome to them.
I’ve also been working with Shane McCracken and his Gallomanor team (including Dave Briggs and Griff Wigley), who have been tasked with training the DFID volunteers in the art of blogging. Judging by the initial posts I’ve been reading, they’ve done a great job. I’m sure they will tell their own stories in due course.
Quite honestly, I think it’s the best thing Puffbox has yet produced. Great design, great functionality on front and back end, and a client committed to doing it right. With so many great stories and pictures out there, I hope it can have a big impact.
And by the way… it’s no coincidence that the site is launching just ahead of Blog Action Day next Wednesday (15 October), when bloggers have been asked to write something about poverty and development issues.

Scottish Sec Murphy to keep 'blogging'

Well, here’s a first. Government press officers haven’t been the most enthused by new media. I’m told that’s changing, slowly but surely. But it’s quite startling to see a press office announcing a blog which hasn’t even been launched yet – and even better, syndicating the content via press release!
Clearly the Scotland Office are pretty excited. They sent out new secretary of state Jim Murphy’s first post from his new blog, without mentioning that the blog didn’t exist yet, or even the address it would occupy when it did finally launch. Ian Cuddy managed to glean that: ‘It will be going on the Scotland office website in a more conventional blog format … once we’ve got one or two technical things ironed out.’ Which came as some relief to those of us who feared this might be an attempt to blog by press release alone. What a concept.
The ‘blog’ is now live on the Scotland Office site: but ominously, it looks like a standard web page. No RSS feeds, no comments, no tags, nothing that would fit the de facto definition of a blog. But it’s a start, I suppose. To their great credit, they’ve got it into WordPress relatively quickly. Comments, feeds, the whole lot are now available, and it slots seamlessly into the existing corporate site. Makes you wonder why they didn’t just do that in the first place.
It’s been very interesting to watch how Jim Murphy has warmed to blogging. He started in September 2007, as the Foreign Office launched their ambitious multi-author approach. My understanding at the time was that he had to be persuaded to do it: with the EU Constitution/Treaty argument at its height, a blog was seen as a good thing to do. The FCO project is generally recognised as a success, with Murphy’s own blog being singled out for particular attention: an impressive following, and at least one instance where a reader comment affected subsequent policy. Shortly afterwards (I think), Murphy started blogging on his own personal website.
Had he wanted one, the move up to Cabinet level would have been an excuse to stop. Greater responsibility, no existing platform, etc. So it’s good to see his desire to continue – and you have to assume, it was high on his priority list when he arrived. He tells us (via that press release):

When I was Minister for Europe I had a regular blog. I found it a useful way of letting people know what was going on in Europe, and I got a lot of good feedback. Now Iโ€™m Secretary of State for Scotland Iโ€™m going to carry on blogging and I look forward to having a dialogue about the really important issues that face our country.

It’s very much the same challenge: emotional discussions about matters of national sovereignty. And by vowing to keep blogging, it’s probably the best signal we’ll get that it was felt to have been a valuable use of his time. There are, of course, quite a few parallels here with David Miliband who kept up his blogging through two reshuffles (ODPM to Defra to FCO), all the way to the Cabinet table.
And while we’re on the subject of people with multiple blogs… I note that James Barbour, press secretary at the British Embassy in Moscow, and an occasional visitor to these parts, now has an official blog on the Foreign Office platform, to go alongside his personal blog outside. I asked him via Twitter how he was planning to juggle the two: his honest reply comes on a post on his personal blog: ‘I’m not entirely sure myself, Simon, but I’m going to try.’ You can’t ask any more. Good luck sir.

The Ministerial blog you don't know about

I’d like to wish a happy first birthday to Margaret Hodge’s DCMS Diary. I thought I knew of every Ministerial blog out there, but a client mentioned this one to me earlier this week, and I was amazed to see it had been going so long. (Hodge only arrived at DCMS at the end of June ’07, as part of Brown’s inaugural reshuffle, so she didn’t hang around either.)
Google Reader only knows of 6 subscribers; and in my experience, Google accounts for 50% of the typical blog’s RSS subscriptions, taking us to a mammoth dozen. After a year? – now that’s what I call a soft launch. It’s basically a record of her glamorous adventures as culture minister, rather than a forum for detailed political discussion; and posts are somewhat sporadic… currently running at one every two months.
It’s running on Movable Type v3, with the IP address coming out as a Windows/IIS box at Digex UK (aka Verizon, I think). DCMS’s main site sits at Rackspace, which makes me think it’s another of the ‘sandbox’ servers which seem to be popping up (and rightly so) all round Whitehall. Comments have been disabled across the entire site, which is a shame, particularly in the light of the Digital Dialogues conclusion that moderation is never as onerous as you expect.
Somebody really ought to compile a list of Ministers’ blogs… but maybe it’s best to wait a few weeks, for what are probably obvious reasons.

Departmental blog platforms

When you think of ‘official’ blogging platforms inside government, the obvious example is the Foreign Office blogs site – headed of course by David Miliband, but featuring some truly remarkable contributions from various global ‘hotspots’ (Beijing, Kosovo, Zimbabwe). But it’s not the only one out there, and it’ll soon be joined by others.
One which rarely gets a mention is the Royal Navy’s Jack Speak – which, before you ask, is the Navy jargon term for Navy jargon – launched nearly a year ago, and based on WordPress. ๐Ÿ™‚ Like the FCO’s site, it features personal contributions from an eclectic selection of ‘ordinary staff’. The content doesn’t flow as naturally as the FCO site, but then again, maybe that’s too much to expect with such subject matter. And perhaps as a result, despite prominent promotion on the Navy’s front page, it doesn’t seem to attract much in the way of comments: just three in the whole of July, for example.
There’s been an equally quiet launch for the NHS Expert Blogs pilot. So far, there are half a dozen active blogs, based around themes rather than individual bloggers: diabetes, asthma, arthritis, and so on. The site feels very impersonal, which seems at odds with the often extremely personal accounts you might read; there’s next to no detail on who the people actually are. As you might expect, given the NHS Choices tie-up with Microsoft, it’s running on Community Server.
Meanwhile, Puffbox is working on a similar blogging platform for another central government department (which I won’t name just yet). It’ll be a similar proposition: personal stories from half a dozen front-line staff in interesting situations, to give a flavour of the organisation’s work. The schedule is pretty aggressive, measured in weeks rather than months; but I’m quite excited at the chance to see what we can do.
As you might expect, it’ll be WordPress-based; but the plan is to use the ‘single user’ version rather than MU. I don’t think we need the full power of MU, there’s always the question of plugin compatibility, HQ understandably want to keep their hands on the controls – and besides, we can do a lot with the WordPress Template Hierarchy to make it feel like each writer has a separate blog.
At the same time, I’m seeing one of my longer-term projects evolving into what looks like a proper ‘project blog’ platform. Several teams have seen the existing WordPress-powered site, and want to be able to contribute to it. Whether they’ll come across as ‘blogs’ per se, I don’t know. But it’ll certainly be a step closer to what I imagine will be the end game here: ‘project blogs’, where teams write in their official capacities, and seek feedback from their stakeholders. More details to follow.

More Ministerial blogging

A few more developments over at the Foreign Office to note. Meg Munn, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State is now blogging – making a total of 3 FCO ministers, along with Messrs Miliband and Murphy.
They’ve also been bringing in a few other Embassy staff – including the High Commissioners to Nigeria and Malta, both of whom have been running ‘blogs’ (of one form or another) on their own posts’ website until now. It’s clearly an official policy to bring these on to one central platform; one wonders what to make of comments by Our Man in Malta about ”negotiating’ (haa) their takeover’.
Speaking of which, we’re starting to see the new centralised British Embassy websites emerging. Here’s a few examples I’ve found by guessing the URLs: Malta, France, China, Belgium, Canada, Korea (S), Iran. Intriguing to note that whilst most countries are set up with password-protected ‘UKinWherever’ URLs, there’s no ‘UKinIreland’. Political sensitivity about that notion, I guess.
And while we’re in King Charles Street… I missed the recent experiment with Twitter: a dozen entries over a week, following the Projecting British Islam trip to Egypt. I wasn’t the only one to miss it, though: it only attracted a dozen ‘followers’. And I’m pretty sure one of them was not David Miliband (in-joke – sorry).

Sneak preview of new Number10 site

Fresh from stealing the online show at the recent G8 summit, the 10 Downing Street digital comms team have given the Prime Minister’s new website its first public outing, with a few sneaky screengrabs popping up on their Flickr account. It’s quite a significant departure from the existing site, although if you’ve been following the travel-blog work I’ve been doing with them recently, you’ll instantly recognise its evolution.
The most striking element is the prominent use of video, with a large playback window – not YouTube, FYI – occupying pride of place on the homepage. (It’ll be hard to avoid comparisons with Obama’s website in that respect – but with initiatives like TelegraphTV, we’re all heading towards the same thing.) The team’s activity on third-party sites, like Flickr and Twitter, is also brought to the fore – driven by RSS feeds from the originating sites, as I’ve done on the travel-blogs.
You’ll note a much more streamlined navigation on the new designs – primarily because the new site has been stripped right back to its core functions, allowing the team to concentrate on the day-to-day work. The historic information remains popular, and keeps its place; but otherwise, it’s a sharp focus on news and communication.
If it feels a bit bloggy, there are a couple of good reasons for that. In part, it’s a recognition of the role now played by blogs in national political life. The political anoraks who are likely to visit a Downing Street site are probably spending the rest of their time on the political blogs, so it makes sense to adopt the same presentation methods. And yes, as you’ve probably guessed, the underlying technology is WordPress.
The new site has been designed and produced by New Media Maze, with occasional contributions from Puffbox. And of course, being WordPress-based, there’s plenty of scope to take the site forward in the coming months. We’re already floating ideas for new features.
The team haven’t quoted a ‘go live’ date, but my understanding is that it’s in its very final stages of development, and they aren’t afraid of a ‘public beta’ approach. Watch that space.

MOD's news blog duplication

It’s just over a year since the MOD launched ‘Defence News: official news blog’, not to be confused with ‘Defence News‘ on its main corporate site.
The main ‘Defence News’ site is a full-on news service, publishing 3 or 4 substantial articles each day. There’s a proper (editorially arranged) ‘front page’, with articles tagged by topic and service… and each of those has a proper ‘section front page’ too. And an RSS feed. (Two in fact, although I think one’s just got more items in it than the other. Shouldn’t be necessary.)
The code doesn’t reveal the technology they’re using, but there’s more than a hint of ‘blog platform’ about it. I’m really, really impressed.
So it’s a little curious to have the ‘official news blog’ alongside. Hosted at Typepad, the same three elements appear every day: ‘Defence in the Media’, ‘Image of the Day’, and ‘Defence Diary’. Other categories – such as ‘For the record’ and ‘Pick of the web’ – seem to have been effectively abandoned.
‘Defence in the Media’ is a press summary: sometimes there’s a link to the originating article, or the source material mentioned in the report(s); more often, it’s a link straight over to the main Defence News site. There’s also a curious ‘Defence News Feed’ pointing to stories on external news sites: again, I can’t quite tell how it’s working, but there are signs of both automation and editorial selection.
A PQ yesterday from Tory defence spokesman Liam Fox seems to be hinting at duplication of effort… and I’m inclined to agree. I don’t see much in the ‘news blog’ which couldn’t form part of the main Defence News site – to mutual benefit. And whilst the separate blog site should allow for greater experimentation, there’s no sign of it. (No use of comments, for example.)
Meanwhile, also on the same Typepad account: two excellent ‘on location’ sites – one in Afghanistan, launched late last year; the other in Basra, launched in March. Again, it’s good use of cheap technology… and although the content can sometimes be a bit dry and ‘factsheet’-esque, I bet ‘the folks back home’ value the ability to see a glimpse of what’s happening whilst loved ones are away.

Political engagement with June Sarpong

June SarpongI never ‘got’ June Sarpong MBE as a TV presenter – she always seemed (at least) half-asleep to me. Her elevation to the status of Question Time panellist wasn’t met with universal acclaim. But to her immense credit, she does seem genuinely passionate about bringing young people, specifically young women, into politics – as the piece she wrote for Channel 4’s 25th birthday demonstrates.
Now she’s launching a website called Politics & The City. A quick glance at the homepage reveals a site that’s a lot more Sarah Jessica Parker than Sarah Teather. I’m not personally over-keen on the design: too much Flash, not enough clear visual direction. And although it’s not immediately obvious amid the supermodel namedropping, I’m assured there’s political content in there, somewhere.
An interview in today’s Independent tells the whole story. Content is being written by ‘two political journalists and two glossy magazine journalists’. There will be regular contributions from June’s celeb chums. You get the picture.
Apparently the site’s had ‘rave reviews from test audiences’. Maybe I’m too old, or too deep into politics already, or too masculine… but I don’t get it. Then again, as I said, I never ‘got’ June. However, since it’s been built using WordPress (by the Liverpool-based Interconnect IT), I’m obliged to love it. ๐Ÿ™‚
Frankly, we’re at the point where any attempt to engage people in politics is to be welcomed. A poll quoted in this morning’s Times (and referenced on the Spectator’s Coffee House blog) showed – unsurprisingly – that people generally ‘like’ David Cameron at the moment, and ‘dislike’ Gordon Brown. But when they were asked if either man ‘means what he says’ or ‘says what you want to hear’, both party leaders scored equally badly – almost identically so. Depressing stuff.