Learning the web: Lisa Williams’ guide for journos, Part 1
Last month at the KDMC News Entrepreneur Boot Camp, Placeblogger founder Lisa Williams explained how news entrepreneurs can gain more power over their future (and save money, and make better decisions) by learning to understand and manage some unfamiliar and perhaps scary-sounding web technology. Williams outlined a self-education plan for learning basic web technologies in manageable bites—focusing on a different topic for a just few hours each month. In part 1, you’ll learn what she recommends for your first three months of learning web technology…
Last month at the KDMC News Entrepreneur Boot Camp, Placeblogger founder Lisa Williams explained how news entrepreneurs can gain more power over their future (and save money, and make better decisions) by learning to understand and manage some unfamiliar and perhaps scary-sounding web technology.
Williams outlined a self-education plan for learning basic web technologies in manageable bites—focusing on a different topic for a just few hours each month. In part 1, you’ll learn what she recommends for your first three months of learning web technology…
Can’t I just hire someone to do all the technical stuff? That may sounds tempting to many journalists, but it leaves the door open to waste, fraud, and other avoidable pitfalls that can cripple your venture, says Williams.
“Too many people who start new ventures that are entirely web-based are far too willing to say, ‘Oh, I’ll just hire someone to handle the technology.’ If dry cleaning was your business, you’d be very interested in how dry cleaning works! When you hire a web developer, you should be literate enough to understand what you need, what you’re buying, and assess the quality of what you’ve paid for. These are basic business skills; you will fail without them.”
Williams recommends that you commit to spending about four hours per month to learn the basics of building and running a web site. This program is not all book learning and classes. “I’m a big fan of just diving in and clicking around, pushing buttons and seeing what happens,” said Williams. “This is your business, after all. You need experience actually doing these tasks.”
Month 1: DNS (Domain Name System)
Every computer connected to the internet has a unique number called an IP address (Like: 188.8.131.52). However, most humans are not good at remembering strings of numbers. We’re better at remembering names or short strings of words. That’s why we use domain names to identify web sites. A good analogy: A domain is like someone’s name; an IP address is like their phone number.
DNS is the technology that matches human-friendly domain names with the precise numerical IP address of specific internet-connected computers. DNS allows you to control where your web site is hosted. If your web venture is successful and outgrows the basic web hosting service you started with, you’ll eventually need to change which machine your domain name points to. (That’s like specifying a forwarding address when you move.) When you’re “the master of your own domain,” you can change hosts for any reason (costs, more features, etc.).
The best time to gain control over your domain is before you build your site. Although many web hosts will also register your domain name for you (and they’ll encourage you to do this with a discount), Williams strongly recommends that you should not register your domain name through your web host. “Down the road, that can make it harder or more expensive to switch to a different web host if you need to. It’s safer to keep those two roles separate,” she said.
Try this: Practice registering a domain (it’s cheap) and applying (“mapping”) it to a free web site. Although GoDaddy.com is one of the most popular domain registrars, its user interface can be confusing. Another option is SimpleURL.com.
Then create a free blog to use as a “sandbox,” and follow their instructions to map your domain to that site. Here are domain mapping instructions for three free popular blogging platforms: Wordpress.com, Tumblr, and Posterous. You may have to pay a small fee for their custom domain service.
More on DNS: Scott Meyer’s DNS tutorial
Month 2: FTP (File Transfer Protocol)
FTP is the basic tool for moving files across a network (including the internet). Williams says: “You need to know FTP because site owners should have direct ‘back-end’ access to their web servers, and know how to safely find and move things around there.”
To have a safe place to work so you don’t mess up your real site, sign up for an inexpensive web hosting account. (Note: This is different from the free blog you set up in month 1) You can get one at RackSpace, Dreamhost, or other web hosting services..
Get and install FTP software. This lets you upload, download, and move files, and create directories on a web server. Here’s a list of free FTP programs (“clients”) for Mac, Windows, and Linux. Check with your web host about the login information you’ll need to access your account.
Month 3: The Stack
“The Stack” is the combination of hardware and software that makes your web site possible.
Williams explains why it’s important to understand the stack: “Even though most of the time you will interact with your web site using a content management system like Wordpress or Drupal, problems on your site frequently happen at lower levels.”
The stack is rather like a layer cake. The most common version of the stack is based on a collection of open-source software collectively called LAMP, for reasons explained here:
- On the bottom: Operating System. The OS in your web stack means the basic software that powers your web server (the computer where your web site “lives”, which is probably owned by a web hosting service—not the laptop that sits on your desk). These days, most web servers run on the Linux operating system. (That’s the “L” in “LAMP”.)
- Web server software. This software governs how the machine hosting your site connects to and interacts with the internet. It handles HTTP requests from visitors, serves up pages to their browsers, and more. One of the most popular web server programs is APACHE. (The “A” in “LAMP”.)
- Database management system. This is the structure that contains all the information that comprises your site. MySQL is the most common web site database tool. (The “M” in “LAMP”.)
- Top level: Programming language. This mostly means the kind of computer code used to build your chosen content management system. These days that’s usually Perl, Python, or PHP. (The “P” in “LAMP”.)
All parts of the stack must be in place in order for you site’s content management system to work. This month, find and read some tutorials about each part of the stack, to get an idea for what they each do, how they work together, what can go wrong, and how to fix or prevent problems. Later in this self-education plan you’ll be focusing more specifically on working with each part of the stack.
Serverwatch’s 3-part Understanding LAMP backgrounder is a good starting point.
Good stuff—now how about self-training to use the audio, video & software tools of multimedia journalism? Knowing how to create, edit, and manage this stuff, as well as ability to design & manipulate content management systems, is something I am asked about frequently in my fruitless job search. What’s a long-form narrative text journalist to do??
By ptullis, 06/11/10 at 6:21 am
This is going to be a long process, going through all the technology and terminology. Bottom line, Blog sites now have the capability to post your articles and instantly have them available for the world to see, avoiding the effort needed to craft html and ftp this to the website. Superb results can be achieved with your own Wordpress blog and a free theme.
By asp hosting, 11/15/10 at 9:57 am
Thank you. I’m italian but your article it’s very clear! I learn the web!
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