How to keep a student news site updated with RebelMouse

Preparing students for journalism careers in the 21st century requires that they learn to use systems that are new to many journalism faculty — a conclusion underscored by a 2012 report from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, which concluded that the typical newsroom process is “almost entirely anachronistic” and “must be rethought.”

However, many small programs are held back by a lack of funds or knowledge about digital systems and how to create them. And even if a platform is built, faculty advisers still struggle with the lulls of student publishing. If you’re a faculty adviser to a student news site, you’re probably now preparing for three months of hibernation when students leave for the summer, content dries up and sites go dormant.

This annual lull has become a big problem: With the news cycle having shrunk to the speed of a tweet, nothing looks more dated than a site that hasn’t been updated in days, let alone months.

We’ve faced that issue for the past six semesters at Long Island Report, our “scrappy student start-up” published at Hofstra University on Long Island. Our publication has been around since the fall of 2010, but the site more or less closes down as students depart for graduation, internships, or even just summer vacation.

We’ve fought the lull by trying to stagger content or recycle it, but our success has been limited — in past years, Long Island Report’s front page has stayed pretty much the same from May until September. But this year is different: With student volunteers on social media, we’re using RebelMouse to power our front page, using social-media content to avoid the hiatus effect.

Most of us know RebelMouse, which was recently named as one of Time’s top 100 websites, as a platform for curating and aggregating social-media content. It pulls from the user’s Twitter and Facebook feeds (among others) and creates a page that showcases social content or organizes content around a single topic or user. The pages can be hosted at RebelMouse (this is mine) or integrated in a site built with WordPress (like this one).

RebelMouse also offers a paid service for $9.99 a month called Powered Sites — but if you already have a WordPress account you can simply integrate RebelMouse into your existing site.

We’ve added it to the back-end of our WordPress site, which gives us huge flexibility when updating Long Island Report’s front page. With RebelMouse installed, we can choose between our regular front page and our RebelMouse front page, as shown below:

Our site’s home page.

 

Our site’s RebelMouse page.

As you can see, the RebelMouse version retains much of the look and feel of the original website while allowing Long Island Report to use social-media content in place of regular content when students are away.

We have a menu button for RebelMouse under “Social Stream” to maintain our social-media presence and we can toggle between using WordPress or RebelMouse content for the front page by changing settings on the back end, as I’ll explain in more detail below.

How do we get content? We have set up filters in our RebelMouse account to publish tweets with the hashtag #lireport and @lireport. We update our Twitter and Facebook accounts daily with comments and links to stories making the news on Long Island, including those hashtags so they can be posted into the “social stream” front page.

We have also changed the front page to accommodate big stories. For instance, we used RebelMouse to help update our front pages during the presidential debate at Hofstra and the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy; we linked to our own content as well as external material to ensure the front page was as up-to-date as we could manage. We also used RebelMouse extensively after Sandy because widespread power outages left many students only able to send content via Twitter or Facebook.

We used the #sandy hashtag to gather news.

Social-media publishing still has its challenges. Students need to remember to think before they tweet, and we’re constantly exasperated by the lack of a post-publication “edit” button in Facebook (though you can edit comments). We work around that by making every post a “picture” post, as images on Facebook pages can be edited after publication.

However, there’s an upside to this: Using social media in this way forces students to use social media the way professional journalists do, or at least the way they should — such as by seeking out sources, promoting content and engaging with readers.

We use the cloud-based versions of Hootsuite and TweetDeck to manage the social-media flow from Long Island Report’s Twitter and Facebook accounts. Tweets and Facebook posts can then be saved as drafts in the dashboard so the faculty advisor can log in to check the posts before they go live.

There are no major differences between the two services, but there is one useful distinction for educators: Hootsuite offers educators free, semester-long professional access for faculty and students, as well as the chance for students to become “certified” on Hootsuite, which is a good addition to a resume.

As journalism educators, we’re all familiar with how long it takes students to finalize content for publication during the semester. RebelMouse offers faculty advisers a new way to think about college news sites, as well as a creative way to extend the shelf life of the front page when school isn’t in session.

Here are step-by-step instructions if you’d like to follow our lead. Before you get started, make sure you have the following:

  • Admin user name and password for your WordPress news site
  • Username and password for your news site’s Twitter account
  • A good sense of humor, in case something goes wrong

Step 1

Make sure you use the Twitter account that you will associate with the page. For my Kelly Fincham account I use my personal Twitter; for Long Island Report I use the site’s Twitter account.

Step 2

Once you’ve signed up with a social-media account, RebelMouse will prompt you to give your new site a name. Ours is Rebelmouse.com/LongIslandReport so our site name is LongIslandReport. This is the area where you claim your RebelMouse site name!

Step 3

Once logged in, you will see a screen similar to this. The navigation tabs at the top are self-explanatory but we are only looking at “Embed here” to connect RebelMouse and WordPress.

Step 4

The Embed tab is where you get the code to integrate with your WordPress site. As you can see, it offers the option to either generate the HTML or use the WordPress plugin. For this example we are using the plugin and will click the hyperlink. Which will bring us…

Step 5

…to this page. Click Download and it will install a ZIP file to your preferred download destination.

Step 6

Once the ZIP file is downloaded, log in to your WordPress site and go to the plugins section. Select “Add New,” upload and then navigate to the place where you downloaded your ZIP file.

Step 7

Once the ZIP file has been uploaded, you will see a new item for RebelMouse in your Settings panel.

There are two options here to be concerned about: home setting and page setting. Home setting will integrate RebelMouse into your home page, while page setting creates a permanent page on your website which is available when you aren’t using RebelMouse as the front page. We call our RebelMouse page “social stream,” as you can see highlighted in the menu above.

To set up the home setting you must use the same site name that you used to create your site at the very start. So, in this instance, that’s longislandreport.

Step 8

When you’ve added the home setting, move over to page setting to create a permanent page for your website separate from the home page. That’s why this page needs a name — it will live in the pages section of WordPress. Give your page a name and save the changes.

Step 9

The default WordPress settings allow you to choose if you want to put your blog posts on a static page on the home page or landing page. In this example, I will change the setting to static page and then I can choose either the home page “longislandreport” or “Social stream.”

Step 10

Save the changes and you can see your new front page.

 

 

Once the RebelMouse plugin is installed you can toggle back and forth between social-media content and student content, which keeps the site looking fresh and updated when school isn’t in session.

We’d like to hear how you’re using RebelMouse in your newsroom. Tell us in the comments section.

Related: 5 ways to use the social media curator RebelMouse | How news organizations used RebelMouse to cover blizzard, Fashion Week | How journalists can use RebelMouse to craft Web content from social media curation

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