Nerd Alert #59: Reclaiming Your Timeline


What we're reading this week

  Adam: In reading (and complaining) about Twitter’s switch to an algorithmically-sorted timeline, I learned (ht @TLBKlaus) that the seemingly impossible is, in fact, still possible. You can work around Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm and see all posts in reverse chronological order by using this link: The more you know.

  Ben: Maintaining open-source projects is a lot of work, and the folks at Taskwarrior have an excellent post of advice for developers, detailing common pitfalls and user interactions.

  Jack: In the Speaking of Social Media Department, if you don't like what Twitter did to your timeline with its new algorithm, here's an excellent post on TechCrunch explaining the change, and how you can change it back.

  Ryan: Bookmark this: a complete guide to flexbox, the future of layouts with CSS.

  Bert: You reported an error with your system. Here is the most likely cause of your problem.


Work we admire by our journalism peers

image of the citizens police data project visualizationThe Invisible Institute has collaborated with the University of Chicago Law School's Mandel Legal Aid Clinic to produce this of visualization of 56,000 misconduct complaint records for more than 8,500 Chicago police officers.

Reveal's podcast series Do not drink: The water crisis in Flint, Michigan tapped into great reporting by Michigan Radio's project Not Safe to Drink to provide deep insight into a tragic story that's still unfolding.


Good jobs with good people

The application period for the INN Product and Tech Summer Apprenticeships is still open until February 15th.  We’re committed to creating a workplace where diversity is valued. Applications from women, people of color and other underrepresented groups are particularly encouraged. If you know someone who might be interested in learning a ton about the intersections of journalism and technology, and doing good work, spread the word!


Gather ye rosebuds

LISTEN: Football season is done and baseball hasn’t begun. In the interim we’ve still got lots of Spacejam.

WATCH: Helicopters don’t fly, they beat the air into submission.

EAT: Fast-food fix - Kentucky fried, Nasvhille hot.

Keep looking for that perfect cheesy slice.

pizza rat

Announcing Largo 0.5.3 – Widget and Sharing Tool Improvements

This week we released the latest version of Largo (version 0.5.3), INN's WordPress framework for news websites, with a number of significant improvements.

Most notably, in this release we wanted to improve the styling and performance of widgets throughout Largo to make everything a little more stable, consistent and easier to modify and maintain from child themes.

In addition, we rolled out the first part of a revision to sharing tools on article pages that we hope will simultaneously increase sharing and also reduce the overall weight of pages and improve load time.

There are also a number of bug fixes and developer-facing improvements that you can read all about in the release notes on GitHub.

This update has already been applied for sites that we host, but if you're a non-INN member or hosting Largo elsewhere, you can download the latest version from the project repository on GitHub.

Note that if you're using a version earlier than 0.4 and have done any significant customization to Largo or a child theme then you'll likely want to do some extra testing because the jump from 0.3 to 0.4+ is a fairly significant change.

Next up in version 0.5.4, slated for a release late this year, is a further improvement to the sharing tools as well as some refinements to site headers and navigation. Stay tuned!

Twitter Removed Counts From Share Buttons, Here’s What You Can Do About It

We've been getting lots of questions about the disappearance of the numerical count of tweets on story pages. For sites using the tweet button provided by Twitter, here's what that looked like until November 20th:

old Tweet button with counter

On November 20th, the tweet count disappeared and it's not coming back. Why? Twitter shut down that feature.

In truth, the value of this particular feature was always rather limited. It was an overly simplistic metric that showed how many people clicked the Tweet button, but didn't include a count of retweets, likes, or replies which can be much more important in measuring reach and impact of any given story. As Twitter explained in their announcement of the changes:

The Tweet button counts the number of Tweets that have been Tweeted with the exact URL specified in the button. This count does not reflect the impact on Twitter of conversation about your content — it doesn’t count replies, quote Tweets, variants of your URLs, nor does it reflect the fact that some people Tweeting these URLs might have many more followers than others.

In our own work, we have also been trying to reduce the number of third-party scripts that are loaded on any given page in the interest of improving load time and protecting users' privacy.

That said, we know that understanding the reach and impact of stories on social media is increasingly important to the publishers we work with, so here are some ways of digging into Twitter analytics that will give you a much better picture than a simple count of how many times a story has been tweeted.

Better Ways to Measure Impact on Twitter

Twitter search

Copy and paste the url of a story page into the search box on Twitter, and you can see who tweeted the story, when they tweeted it, and how many likes and retweets each tweet got. Twitter search now also lets you filter results to see "top" tweets or a "live" stream of all tweets for a particular search.

For each account that tweeted the story, you can then dig a bit deeper to discover how many followers the account has, how many of those followers you know and whether this is someone you might want to reach out to as you try to build a more engaged base of readers.

If you find someone consistently tweeting your stories, you might want to follow them back, add them to a Twitter list, invite them to subscribe to your newsletter or attend an event or just take a minute to say thanks.

Here's an example of such a Twitter search for a recent story on Frontline.

Topsy Social Search

Topsy provides similar functionality in several languages (again, just copy and paste the URL for your story into their search box). If you really just want a numerical count of tweets it gives you that up front, but it also lets you dive deeper to get real insight into your story's reach and impact. Here's a search for tweets and retweets about the same story from Frontline.

Google Analytics

A tweet about your story is nice, but it's even nicer when people who see the tweet click through to your story page. Google Analytics gives you this kind of data and much more.

For an easy overview of all incoming traffic to your site from Twitter, click Acquisition in the Google Analytics reporting sidebar, then on Social -> Network Referrals. You'll probably see Facebook on top, followed by Twitter, Reddit, etc. Click on Twitter and you'll see a list of shared urls from your website. You can see the number of sessions and pageviews for each URL, and importantly the average session duration which tells you something about how people actually engaged with your story and site.

You can drill down much further by tinkering with the various secondary dimension options to see the geographical location of your page visitors, how many used mobile or desktop browsers and many other dimensions too numerous to cover here.

If you want to look up social network referrals for a specific story, click on Behavior in the Google Analytics reporting sidebar, then Site Content -> All Pages. In the search box, paste in the story URL but only include the part of the URL after your site domain name.

Google Analytics data

For example, if the full URL to your story is:

Paste this into the search box:


Hit enter and you'll see the number of pageviews and other traffic data for that story. Click on secondary dimension, and in the dropdown select Social Network. You'll see how many pageviews etc. came from Facebook, Twitter, and any other social sources.

This is Work but It's Important

The above methods give you tons more useful information than the now-defunct simple numerical count. No question some of this is more work, but it can really pay off.

If you know who is reading and sharing your content, you have a chance to more deeply engage with them. And if you know what kind of traffic is coming to which stories from where, you might be able to discern how to better reach different audiences.

It takes time and good judgement to work effectively with the rich data available through these tools, and it can be difficult to fit all this into your other work.

But at the end of the day, it's a lot more useful than a Tweet button.

What are you using to measure your reach and impact on Twitter? Leave a comment and let us know what's worked well for you.

INN Member Website Review: October 2015

In the realm of nonprofit news, the websites of INN members represent the front end of our digital presence and impact. As the newest member of the Products and Technology team — aka the Nerds— I’m working to get acquainted with our members and a site review seemed a good way to start. It’s also a useful every so often to see what we’re collectively doing on the web as a benchmark for future progress.

My review this month of the 100+ INN Member websites shows a very healthy community. I found thousands of examples of insightful reporting, excellent storytelling, and engaging design. As with any sample of 100 websites there are bound to be things we might improve.

I’d like to suggest three priorities we could work on together over the next year:

  1. Responding to the Mobile Challenge
  2. Going Social
  3. What is good design?

Responding to the Mobile Challenge

In State of the News Media 2015, Pew Research Center reports that “39 of the top 50 digital news websites have more traffic...coming from mobile devices than from desktop computers.” Yet a significant number of nonprofit news sites that excel in every other way are not optimized for mobile.

Converting a non-responsive website to cross-device friendliness can be very challenging. The solution used to be providing a “mobile” version along with the “desktop” version of the site. But now with so many different types and sizes of devices and displays, the better practice is to publish a single site for all devices using the techniques of Responsive Web Design.

The speed with which mobile devices have become part of our daily lives is unprecedented in the history of technology. In 1995 there were 80 million mobile phones users worldwide. By 2014 the number of mobile phones reached 5.2 billion, including 2 billion smart phones. The number of smart phone users worldwide is projected to reach 4 billion by 2020.

The smart phone is changing the way people engage with media and each other. In a recent Zogby Analytics survey of millennials, 87 percent said “my smart phone never leaves my side.” 78 percent spend more than two hours a day using their smart phone and 68 percent prefer using their phone over a laptop or desktop computer.

But it’s not just younger demographics who are increasingly going mobile. Since 2008 time spent per day with digital media has more than doubled for all U.S. age groups. As highlighted by Mary Meeker in her Internet Trends 2015 report, almost all of this increase is from media consumption on smart phones.

The integration of smart phones with everyday life is rapidly changing the way people discover, consume, and share news. The urgency of addressing any mobile gap can’t be minimized.

Going Social

Social media have become increasingly important for discovery and sharing of content, with nearly half of digital news-consuming adults saying they use Facebook every week to get news about government and politics. But in some cases social media integration on news sites remains problematic, with bloated tracking scripts or missing Open Graph metadata needed for effective engagement.

I suspect many of us are concerned about the intrusiveness of the big social media players. It’s in their interest to make it easy to share our content on their platforms. This helps us reach new audiences and expand our news impact. But we also understand that their business model is predicated on harvesting as much personal information as possible about the people who visit our websites.

Many of the free widgets we embed on our sites make it easy for people to share our content, at the cost of exposing data about their interests and behavior. Social widgets can also slow website performance. The leading social media players and technologies keep changing. In this environment, developing best practices around social media is very challenging.

What is Good Design?

I’ve been a news professional for 28 years, and a web designer for the past 15. I think design without good content is wasted space. Good reporting on a flawed website can have great impact. But good design applied to great content can make a huge difference.

Ideas about what constitutes “good web design” have changed dramatically over the past decade, and will continue to evolve over the next. Fashions aside, we have learned fundamental lessons about what works for website users. We know people don’t like feeling lost or confused. They don’t enjoy struggling past obstacles to simply read a story.

Website designs can inflict many distractions on visitors in an effort to control their attention. Sometimes it’s important to get across (e.g.) the idea that our organization needs their support. But if we do this in a way that frustrates our users, we’re designing at cross purposes.

Each of us understands this from our own experience. We decide every moment whether to stay on a web page or direct our attention somewhere else. Something is always competing for our attention. As storytellers and designers, our job is to win that competition.

We can help our audiences by providing a distraction-free space to engage with our content. I like the phrase “radical clarity” as an aspiration for our websites, especially story pages. Mobile has forced us to rethink designs that present too much information for a small screen, and we need to carry that thinking over to larger displays as well.

Solving everything now

Building anything of enduring value almost always takes more time than you want it to. The corpus of INN Member websites represents a tremendous amount of work by their creators, and great value to their audiences. As a website builder I know that work is never done.

My hope is that a year from now we can repeat this review and see clear signs of progress, especially in the areas of mobile friendliness, social media optimization, and clarity of design. The INN Nerds will do what we can to help. And I'll be writing with more details and actions we can take to address these priorities in the coming weeks.

20+ Free And Discounted Tech Tools And Services For Nonprofits

INN has recently compiled a list of tech tools and services that offer special deals to nonprofit organizations. Here are a few of the tools and services from the list that our team uses:

Balsamiq is a tool for creating mockups and wireframes for websites that has some really nice collaborative features to allow you to share your designs and get feedback from your team. They offer free desktop licenses for their software to nonprofit organizations and open source projects or you can get a free year of their cloud-based wireframing tool. Learn more.

Buffer is a tool for scheduling social media posts that is very handy if you want to load up a bunch of posts all at once but have them trickle out over the course of the day. They have a free basic plan but offer nonprofit organizations 50% off of their paid plans which have a number of more advanced features. Learn more.

GitHub is a popular place to share and collaborate on code that is widely used in the open source and journalism community. The service is free to use unless you need to keep repositories private but they also provide free bronze plans (up to 10 private repositories, normally $25/month) for use by non‑profit organizations and charities. To take advantage of this program you must provide proof of 501(c)(3) status. Learn more.

Google offers nonprofits free Google Apps for Business accounts (email, calendar and cloud storage) through their nonprofit program. They also offer a free monthly allowance of search ads (called AdWords) through their Google Grants program and special functionality tailored to nonprofits on YouTube. Learn more.

Hipchat is a simple, but very powerful group chat application that allows you to create private or public chatrooms and also video chat, audio chat and screen share with your team members. It also has a bunch of add-ons that allow you to connect other services to your chat and receive notifications (we like to use it to keep tabs on our github repos. They offer free licenses to charitable organizations. Learn more.

MailChimp is a popular email list management tool that INN and many of our members use for email newsletters. They have a pretty generous free tier (12,000 emails to 2,000 subscribers monthly) but once you outgrow that they also offer nonprofits a 15% discount. Learn more.

Those are a few of our favorites, but be sure to check out the complete list and if you know of any others we should add, get in touch and let us know or drop a comment below with the details.

Largo Project Sites Tweet Like The NY Times With New WordPress Plugin

Last week the New York Times rolled out a new feature to make it easier for readers to share notable quotes to Twitter from their story about auditioning for Saturday Night Live. This generated a fair amount of interest in news design circles.

A new WordPress plugin makes it easy to tweet selected excepts from stories.
A new WordPress plugin makes it easy to tweet selected excepts from stories.

Joshua Benton of Nieman Lab liked what he saw and uncovered a WordPress plugin that does something very similar. After modifying it a bit for use on the Nieman Lab site, Yuri Victor of the Washington Post contributed some additional features and this afternoon I thought I would customize it just a bit further and make it available to all of INN's Largo Project sites.

A quick sidenote: If you're not familiar with Project Largo, it's INN's responsive WordPress framework we've developed to help our members quickly get up and running with top-notch websites powered by WordPress that look great on any device. It's fully open source so even if you're not a member of INN you can grab the code here or get in touch if you would like to learn more.

For the Largo sites that INN hosts, this new tweetable text feature is already active on your site. If you use Largo but host elsewhere you can grab our custom version of the plugin here.

The basic usage is as follows:

Schardt says that [tweetable]finding creative journalists with an awareness of what technologies are available to them is half the battle.[/tweetable] The advancements themselves outpace the average newsroom's awareness and ability, but funding continues to be overwhelmingly aimed at furthering these platforms — while journalists struggle to keep up.

Optionally, you can include an alt tag in the shortcode if you want the text of the tweet to be different than the exact text you're highlighting:

Schardt says that [tweetable alt="This is actually the text that will show up in the tweet."]finding creative journalists with an awareness of what technologies are available to them is half the battle.[/tweetable] The advancements themselves outpace the average newsroom's awareness and ability, but funding continues to be overwhelmingly aimed at furthering these platforms — while journalists struggle to keep up.

You can also add hashtags to the tweet:

Schardt says that [tweetable hashtag="#journalism #publicmedia"]finding creative journalists with an awareness of what technologies are available to them is half the battle.[/tweetable] The advancements themselves outpace the average newsroom's awareness and ability, but funding continues to be overwhelmingly aimed at furthering these platforms — while journalists struggle to keep up.

Or add an @username to use as the "via" source of the tweet:

Schardt says that [tweetable via="INN"]finding creative journalists with an awareness of what technologies are available to them is half the battle.[/tweetable] The advancements themselves outpace the average newsroom's awareness and ability, but funding continues to be overwhelmingly aimed at furthering these platforms — while journalists struggle to keep up.

(For sites using Largo this will automatically populate with your organization's Twitter @username if you have added it on the Appearance > Theme Options page.)

And the result looks like this .

Give it a try and let us know what you think!

7 Emerging Digital Trends For 2013

INN's Technology Director Adam Schweigert presented at the Kiplinger Program's Social Media Summit in November. This is a summary of his presentation.

Everyone wants to know what the next big thing will be. The temptation is to hand this crown to the latest, shiniest object, but for organizations with limited resources (which is to say, nearly any organization), it’s important to avoid jumping on every bandwagon. Being able to quickly evaluate and decide which new tools, sites or apps are a good fit for you and which are better ignored.

Contrary to what some tech blogs may lead you to believe, you don’t need to be on every new social network, to download every new app or to spend every last waking moment in front of a screen.

Identifying Trends

Last week I gave a talk about emerging social media at the Kiplinger Program’s Social Media Summit at Ohio State University. In my talk, I identified a few larger trends in technology and social media:

  1. The Pinterestification of Everything - The rapid growth of Pinterest and the outsized impact a relatively small site in absolute terms has had on the design of today’s web.
  2. Visual Publishing Comes Into Its Own - How the wide adoption of mobile technology and tools like Pinterest, Instagram and Tumblr have democratized the publishing of visual content in the same way blogging democratized the publishing of textual content.
  3. Conversations as Content - The rising popularity of forum and discussion sites and experiments seeking to elevate the quality of discussion on the web.
  4. Open Alternatives - A number of experiments with open source, community-driven alternatives to incumbent social media behemoths (particularly Facebook and Twitter).
  5. The Power of Small Numbers - The move from mass to niche as reflected in the proliferation of apps and tools that seek to do one thing particularly well (instead of trying to do everything) and the development of niche communities around increasingly narrower interests.
  6. Context is King - It’s no longer enough to just create great content. Increasingly it’s important to think about how, where, when and on what device content will be consumed so that you can tailor the content appropriately to fit the context.
  7. Wearable and Embedded Computing - Powerful computers are moving off of our desktops and out of our pockets and into our homes, cars and even our eyeglasses.

You can see more examples of each of these trends in the slide deck from the presentation:

With how quickly these trends are moving (and sometimes in different directions) it’s easy to become overwhelmed. So I spent the second part of my talk outlining some ways to choose how best to spend your limited time, attention and resources.

How To Decide

When evaluating any new tool you can start by asking a few simple questions to start to understand whether or not it might be a good fit for your organization:

  • Who do I want to reach?
  • Where do they spend their time?
  • What do they do there?
  • When are they online?
  • How can I contribute in a meaningful way?
  • Why does this make sense from a business perspective?

Answering some of these questions is a bit harder (and more time consuming) than others. You might have to do some surveys, research the demographics of various social media sites or even spend some time using the sites yourself but rest assured that the time spent in advance of launching yet another social media channel that you will then have to maintain is well spent and will likely save you time and money in the long run if you learn early that a new site or tool may simply just not be a great fit for your organization.

Once you feel like you can answer these questions, one other test you can use that works particularly well as you try to answer the last question about business purpose is called “The 5 Whys."

The idea is simple: Ask “Why?” five times. You'll better understand the motivations, underlying beliefs or the root cause of a problem.

So if someone at your organization says, "We need to be on Pinterest!" You'd ask:

Because we know our potential customers (e.g., readers, consumers) spends a lot of time there.
They find it useful as a way to discover new products they might like to buy, or content they would like to consume and share.
They follow people who have common interests and share cool stuff.
They want to be viewed as tastemakers.
It’s cool to be a trendsetter.

By drilling down, you gain insight to help you tailor your approach.

If you had asked why only once (or not at all) you might have decided that since your prospective customers are on Pinterest, you should use it as a broadcast channel to push your content out and get it in front of people who may want to consume it.

But drilling down a bit deeper your approach might evolve and become instead to reward your most loyal fans by allowing them to participate, to help curate and share content on your behalf and to be recognized as trendsetters so that they feel more connected to your organization.In this way you have accomplished not only your primary objective (get content in front of prospective consumers) but also gotten more bang for your buck (or maybe even saved time and money) by rewarding your most loyal current fans by helping them feel more connected to your organization and to each other.

Social Media is NOT a Strategy

As you make decisions about where to spend your time and money, make sure you understand the difference between strategy and tactics. You should be engaging in strategic thinking, and not just reacting to a changing environment. Employing tactics without a clear guiding strategy behind them is like trying to kill a rhino with a butter knife. Your strategy should be a grand plan, in line with your mission, that doesn’t really change all that much. It should outline a problem and how you intend to solve it. Tactics are the specific measures you use to push this plan forward. These tend to change frequently and are particularly shaken up these days by changes in technology. So nothing about your strategy should be technology specific. “Launching a Facebook page” is a tactic you might use in service of a broader strategy to become more connected with your customers but it is not a strategy.

Establishing Goals, Metrics and Targets

Once you understand your audience, have a strategy and have selected the tactics you’ll use to bring that strategy to life, you're ready to establish goals. Select the metrics you’ll use to track your progress towards those goals, and then set targets for each metric that will determine whether your efforts are a success.

Goals: What do we want to accomplish?
Be as specific as possible and make sure defined in terms that allow you to measure your progress.
Example: Increase the depth and frequency of conversations around our political content.

Metrics: How will we measure our progress?
Some common web metrics might be pageviews, unique visitors, new vs. returning visitors, time on site, conversions, etc. and your choice of the metrics you use will depend on the goals you set. There are a number of excellent books about using web metrics, but one word of caution: Make sure the metrics you choose measure what you think they measure. Every website visitor didn't read your article in its entirety, and all of your Facebook fans and Twitter followers probably didn't see your most recent update.
Example: Number of comments on an article per thousand non-bounce visitors.

Targets: What does success look like?
It is really, really, really important to have clearly defined targets. It's easy to get excited and say, “We have more followers today than we did yesterday so our efforts must be working!” But unless you use meaningful metrics, set clear targets, and evaluate trends over time, you will have no idea whether the amount of effort you’re putting in is really paying off or if the trend you’re seeing should actually trigger a change in your approach.

Be as specific as possible and make sure each target has not only a direction (e.g., increase, maintain or decrease a quantifiable measure you hope to achieve) and a date when you hope to reach this target.
Example: Increase the average number of comments per post per thousand visitors in the politics section of our website by 10 percent by Nov. 31, 2012.


Here are a few key points I hope you’ll take away from this post:

  • Try lots of little experiments, with an eye towards how new tools and approaches might fit into your bigger picture strategy.
  • Ask a lot of questions. It’s the best way to dig deeper and understand your audience — and your own motivations.
  • Set clear, specific goals and targets and regularly evaluate your progress.
  • Remain flexible, Iterate frequently, but know when to say no. It’s perfectly alright if some of your experiments fail, but you need to recognize what failure looks like (and also when to double down on a promising effort).
  • Celebrate successes. Another great reason to set clear targets is you get to reward yourself when you blow them out of the water.
  • Spend more time outside because there’s more to life than the Internet and inspiration can be found everywhere.