Using WordPress to Publish an Online Magazine – Part I

As managing editor of the University of Texas McCombs School of Business alumni magazine, it’s my job to generate story ideas, interview sources, do background research, brainstorm art options, write feature articles and profiles, assign stories to our intern, edit copy and proofread layouts before printing.

But the fun doesn’t stop there. Thanks to this phenomenon called the Internet (I think it’s gonna be big), I also oversee the publication of our magazine online. Since it’s nearly all the same content and we’ve already completed the editing and proofreading, it should be no sweat to get the thing online, right?

Wrong. Not having a web team devoted solely to the magazine, it was always a scramble. But for our most recent issue, we changed gears and used the WordPress blogging platform to host and publish the magazine.

I’m happy to say we’re thrilled with the result. I know a lot of print magazine editors are struggling with how to publish online, so I decided to chronicle our process here. This isn’t meant to be an all-encompassing explanation of WordPress-hosted magazines, but simply a case study of our experience. Hopefully it’s helpful to others facing similar issues.

Where We Started

First, a look at how our magazine Web presence has evolved:

1998 – No images, single column of text
magazine 1998

1999 – Thumbnail images, departments sidebar
magazine 1999

2006 – Larger images, all content on front page
magazine 2006

These sites were perfectly fine, and could even be considered somewhat advanced, given that many university magazines aren’t online at all or only exist on the web in PDF format. But there were key factors that just weren’t working.

Old Model

Dependent on web team
I’m not a web person, so our web team had to do all the work to create static html pages. But since they weren’t familiar with each issue’s content, I had to do extra work to specify what I wanted for every aspect of every page: urls, tagging, keywords, descriptions, title tags, photo selection, etc. Also, the magazine site was not a priority for them, so the whole process lacked a certain enthusiasm on both sides.

All of that coding and creation of pages was tedious work, and it had to happen twice a year. Then, once the pages were up, I had to go in and proofread everything all over again. Going back and forth with a web designer over every typo, broken link, forgotten title tag or awkward formatting was a massive time-suck.

Little connection to print version, not very visual
The old version didn’t feel like an online magazine, and, except for a small image of our flag at the top of the page, didn’t feel like our magazine.

Lack of flexibility
Because it was such a laborious process, once the magazine was up, we just left it alone. No one bothered to think about ways to update it more regularly, because it just didn’t seem like a good use of time.

No reader engagement
Did you love or hate that article? Do you have some insight that might shed more light on the topic? Too bad, keep it to yourself. Our old model had no way for users to leave instant feedback and comments.

New Model

Using WordPress to host our magazine content radically changed both the publishing process and the final product.

2009 – Large images, modules highlighting each department, multimedia elements
magazine 2009

We’re in control
Uploading content to a WordPress blog requires very little technical know-how. Because it creates pages for me, I was able to upload all the content myself and in a more timely manner. And the web team got to be free of a project they didn’t want. 

Very visual, more magaziney
We chose the Branford template, which was designed specifically for online magazines. Big images, customizable accent colors and a sidebar to serve as the table of contents. Now it looks like a magazine and the overall impression is more closely connected to the look and feel of the print version.

Easy updates and search engine optimization
We only publish the print version twice a year, but we’d like the online magazine to include more dynamic content. With the WordPress platform acting as a CMS, it’s a snap to post new content or make adjustments to existing articles.

And the WordPress SEO tools help our articles turn up higher in search results. Search engines have accounted for more than a quarter of our site visits, and readers have found us using more than 800 different keywords. Hello, new audience!

Built-in templates, tools and and add-ons
Because there are thousands of WordPress templates–also called themes–available (many for free, including the one we used), you can create a snazzy site without starting from scratch. And if you think of a feature you want, either on the back end (like spam protection) or the front end (like a tag cloud), there’s probably a simple plug-in you can install to make it happen. Reinvention of the wheel not necessary.

The built-in commenting feature makes it easy for readers to respond to content. Ok, so we’ve only had seven comments so far, but that’s seven more than we’ve ever had before!

So that takes care of some of the strategy and explanation of why we used WordPress. Now how on earth does it work, and what if I don’t know anything about technology? Read Part II, where I answer some FAQs about skill level, time, cost and other factors. It’s also got a list of other online magazines using WordPress and some links to help find a theme for your WordPress magazine.

No Responses to “Using WordPress to Publish an Online Magazine – Part I”

  1. Austin Kleon Says:

    This is great, Tracy! Forwarding to our communications folks.

  2. tracy Says:

    Thanks, Austin!

  3. Shane M. Liebler Says:

    I’m in love with the ‘Ask An Expert’ segment. Have you been doing that long or is that a product of the new Web format?

  4. tracy Says:

    Thanks, Shane! It was a fun segment to produce.

    This was the first time we did Ask the Expert, and it was a feature in the print version. We had 3 of the segments in print, and added a fourth–the mountain climbing one–online. We encouraged print readers to visit the magazine Web site to read the fourth installment.

    We’ve got a long list of ideas for additional segments, so I think it’s going to be a regular feature.

  5. Sandie Says:

    This is soooo much better, Tracy! Well done.

  6. Colleen Rich Says:

    This is terrific. I love the way it looks.

  7. Liz McKey Says:

    Great information, Tracy, and very timely for me, as we are looking to put our magazine online via WordPress. Also, love your blog.

  8. tracy Says:

    Sandie – thanks so much! It’s fun to see the progression of the site since y’all started it!

    Colleen – The Mason site looks wonderful. Do y’all use WordPress?

    Liz – Thanks very much. I’m glad you found this useful (and thanks for checking out the rest of my blog!) If y’all do go with WordPress, please let me know, and I’ll add your site to my list!

  9. Using WordPress To Publish A Magazine Says:

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I write what I know (and love). Mostly higher education, writing and public relations.