I launched cuttings.me last month after finding that there was no easy way to collate my cuttings together online. It offers journalists a free, easy-to-use and beautiful way to showcase their work – here’s a quick overview of how I did it.
I’d never describe myself as a coder – I’m a journalist fascinated by technology, a bit of a geek maybe, but definitely not a programmer. If you asked me to write an iterative loop (which appears to be the coder’s equivalent of saying ‘hello’ in another language), I’d look at you with a blank stare. So I’m hardly the most likely person to have created cuttings.me, a free web app which allows journalists to collect their cuttings together from around the web.
But in this brave new journalism world, needs must and all that. It’s increasingly apparent that today’s journalists need to be able to offer a broad range of skills, from effective writing to social media management, a good interview technique to (dare I say it) basic coding. Entering most newsrooms today, the chances that new journalists will get asked to tackle tasks involving maintaining a website, uploading content, or developing an emerging technology are high. Very high.
So I took a deep breath and dived in at the deep end. At the start, it was just a personal project, although now it’s evolved far further. Ruby on Rails, a modern programming language designed to make life as easy as possible for the people using it, was my language of choice. I began by taking basic tutorials to get familiar with the way Rails works – this one, this one and this one, for example – and then began to work out the way I could structure the app.
Although cuttings.me provides a very useful service, it’s actually a fairly basic programmatic construction – it’s run from a couple of database tables, which are easy to set up in Rails and quickly link together, in order to pull the information on each person and the cuttings they have submitted. The tutorials I outlined above provided all of this information, so the hardest part was to keep tweaking the user interface using CSS until it was what I wanted. For those beginning with CSS, W3Schools is a vital resource, and if it’s all not working as planned, the StackOverflow community is helpful and friendly to newbies.
Rails is hosted on your computer until you decide to deploy (upload) it to a server (I used Heroku) – this makes it incredibly fast to tweak lines of code until you get the result you want or fix an error that’s occurring. Unlike many programming languages, there’s no need to compile, and unlike a Wordpress site or other content management systems, there is no web-driven interface which takes a long time to load. From start to a basic model for my app took about eight hours, I would say – then three weeks after were spent adding features, tweaking bits, beautifying the whole thing and testing.
By the time I was confident enough that the app fulfilled my needs, I had already collect a couple of hundred email addresses for people who were interested in the service using the free Launchrock tool. I used these people as my test bed to iron out the kinks immediately after launching the site, before approaching various other outlets to build the user base.
The response so far has been great. It’s clear that journalists need a tool like this, even if they already have their own website – much of the feedback received so far has been about how easy the site is to use in comparison to modifying a personal site, for instance.
One of the best things about running your own project is that you can respond quickly to problems and build in new features which are requested on your own schedule. That’s what I’m starting to do now, so please do try out the service and leave your thoughts below or fire them at @cuttingsme on Twitter.
As I said at the start, today’s journalists will need technology skills more than ever, so even learning a bit of HTML and CSS will be helpful. But there’s another reason I think learning to master technologies like this is important. Although there are more and more great startups such as Contently, MediaCooler and Ebyline entering the online journalism space, there hasn’t been anything truly disruptive yet. Even Rupert Murdoch, with the firepower and wealth of News International, failed to shake up publishing with the launch of tablet newspaper The Daily. Broadly speaking, we’re still old-school journalists working in a digital world.
This situation won’t last long. The role of a journalist is changing already but its up to us to make sure that we don’t become less valuable, or even irrelevant, as the publishing world evolves. Media professionals reinvigorating this industry with innovation as well as great content is the best way that we can ensure its long-term prosperity and survival on our own terms. Of course, a cuttings service won’t be the killer app. But if you have an idea that could make a difference to what we do, from the basis of my experience I’d urge you to have a go at creating it. It’s easier than you think, a great learning experience and actually kind of fun – and who knows what might come of it.
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