I’m sorry it’s been so long since our last post. We were given a new project several months ago that, for various reasons, we have not been able to disclose or discuss. Now that the veil is lifted, I can reveal the background of the TAMUtimes project.
TAMUtimes grew out of the need for updating the old TAMU News website and the Aggie Hotline email. It combines all of our marketing, communication, and PR efforts under one umbrella. It will effectively take the place of the old news vehicles and replace them with a centralized service.
The central mandate for the new service was that it should place Marketing & Communications in the role of aggregating content from around campus rather than being the source of publication. That allows communicators from within the colleges, who are closer to the actual story, to have a greater hand in getting our word out. It also adds a layer of efficiency since staff who had been tasked with duplicating effort could be reassigned to more productive duties.
The TAMUtimes project is a marriage between the traditional online website and subscription-based email. Using the Maestro platform from CIS we create and send out an HTML email twice a week with featured news stories from around campus. The features from this email are automatically added to the website as the feature block there, keeping the email and the website in synch.
In keeping with the mandate to aggregate content, most of the information on the site is pulled in through various RSS feeds. Only a small amount of content, mostly internal university news, is actually entered into the system by our staff.
The website itself is based on WordPress, though heavily customized. To be honest, if I had to start over on the project, I probably would have gone a different route, but we just didn’t have the expertise yet in our content management system to allow the level of custom programming that we needed in the time allowed. The end result is a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster behind the scenes, but hopefully with enough cosmetic surgery that the outward appearance isn’t so frightful.
As we move forward we will soon be integrating elements of TAMUtimes into the university website and other sites we maintain. This will allow us to integrate one more major university component into our ongoing concept of creating a unified web presence out of our individual previously-disconnected web silos.
The first football game day is rapidly approaching. But what time is the game? Did you forget your handy bi-fold schedule at home? Today is your lucky day although I don’t think you should go buy a lottery ticket quite yet because we just released an Athletics application on m.tamu.edu that will give you schedules, rosters, and news items for each of the Aggie Athletics teams, on your mobile device. (Rumor has it that you can also use your desktop computer to access this information quickly.)
Pop quiz: what was the score in last night’s volleyball match-up against Sam Houston? The answer, found on m.tamu.edu, is a win for the Aggies: 3-0.
I don’t know about you, but it is sometimes difficult for me to remember who wears which number, but I’ll never worry about that again. I can get a full roster including coaches names in case you weren’t aware that Dat Nguyen has returned to Aggieland on my mobile device during the game.
You can also conveniently access the news articles for each sport in the News & Information app. That’s how I learned that Alyssa Mautz was named the National Player of the Week by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America. Congratulations, Alyssa!
We have plans to add more features and in-depth information to this new Athletics app, but we found it so valuable as-is that we wanted to share it with you now.
We have had a lot of success with the new university News & Information site that was recently published. Building on that success we have just been given the green light to develop an online version of the Aggie Hotline. This will enhance the news site by finally bringing internal campus news releases to the web rather than requiring us to subscribe to a mailing list.
I’ve already got several ideas for what to do into the site, but I want to ask for additional input for what you would like. Since we’re starting pretty much from scratch we have the opportunity to build it however will work best to deliver the information that we need and how we need it.
I know much of the audience here might not be regular subscribers to the Hotline, but if any of you do read it, or if you would be interested it in in reading it once it gets moved online, we want to know what you would like.
We are happy to announce a new, if minor, improvement to the University News and Information website. In the new system, we are able to include thumbnail images associated with each story. Now these will be included in the RSS feed as well. Any story that has a thumbnail will now include a link to its thumbnail in an
<enclosure> feed tag, which can be parsed out by most standard RSS libraries.
This doesn’t have any large immediate impact, but anyone who wants to include the news on their website can now do so with images. In the long term we actually plan on using this concept on the front page of the university website to create some real “Feature Articles” and thereby add some visual spice to what is now a somewhat mundane text-list of headlines.
I think it’s important to use events like last week’s weather advisory posting as a report card for how we are doing. In this case, the incident revealed a few weaknesses in our procedure and server configurations that we need to shore up.
Within two minutes of the weather advisory being posted on www.tamu.edu we noticed the TAMU News server start to page incessantly, and within another minute it failed altogether. This was largely the result of not devoting enough RAM to the virtual machine hosting the site. We quickly changed the settings and the site did fine for the rest of the day. This did alert us that we needed to check all of our other sites, especially emergency.tamu.edu, and make sure that they all were set to withstand traffic spikes.
It also made us re-evaluate how some of our pages are stitched together. The TAMU News site, for example, generates much of its content from RSS feeds from across campus. Assembling all of this dynamically slows the page down enough without having to take into consideration high traffic volumes. I have therefore changed a lot of the code to pull the information into the page through scheduled jobs rather than on each page load. I have also started introducing caching to the site to speed the overall load time. Hopefully these will have noticeable benefits for everyday use as well as keeping the site viable while under heavy load.
Two weeks after deploying the new TAMU News website I’m experiencing something rather novel. Usually when I spend as much time developing a site as we spent on this one I’m burned out on it by the time it goes to publication — while everyone is is celebrating a fresh new site I’m already tired of looking at it. Just the opposite has happened with the news site though; I have actually come to like it more after it went live than I did before.
I think part of this was that during development I was dealing with static content and graphics. One of the best parts of the new site, though, is the equally new focus we’ve taken on using high quality photos and graphics for all elements of the site. With each element changing on a weekly, and even daily, basis this means that the site continues to seem fresh rather than quickly getting stale.
Using the power of WordPress and RSS feeds, we were also able to add the “Texas A&M in the News” and the “Around Campus” sections, as well as the “Engineering Works” podcast series, further making the site more dynamic and interesting. We pushed WordPress to its limits, many times hacking a plugin and even writing our own PHP functions to do what we needed to get done.
The end result was well worth the effort though. Getting this site out the door as the first project of the year bodes well. As I look at some of the other projects, we have really cool stuff lined up for this year. If we can avoid getting sidetracked by other out-of-the-blue demands we should be able to make some big improvements on the university web presence.
Tomorrow we will be launching a new Texas A&M News and Information site. We will be moving away from an antiqutied article manager to a site build on the latest version of WordPress. There will be many new features build into the site, many leveraging the power of RSS feeds to bring in information from outside sources.
We anticipate that there will be a little downtime with the transition but will strive to make it as minimal as possible.
One thing that webmasters around campus should be aware of – if you are currently subscribing to the “recent articles” feed from the old system you should update your links to either http://feeds.feedburner.com/tamuNewsFull or http://tamunews.tamu.edu/feed/. If you already subscribe to the full version of the feed you won’t need to change anything (but might have a lag as Feedburner updates their links.)