Blog Boot Camp

Advanced: How to configure a new WordPress blog

December 29, 2008 • 12:33 pm
By Ted Mann

This post is only intended for advanced users — i.e. Blog Czars, Online Editors, and Developers. If that doesn’t include you, by all means, you’re still encouraged to read and learn. But keep in mind that these instructions are very specific to our installation of WordPress MU and will differ somewhat with regular and blogs (which are generally a little easier to get up and running).

Step 1: Gather all the info and graphics for your new blog


Just some of the elements you'll need to have on hand before starting

I have a simple punch list I use:

  • Blog Header Graphic — This should be a 525 x 150 px JPG image, with the resolution set to 72 dpi. It should be saved with the same name as the blog path (e.g. rutgers.jpg)
  • Blog Button Graphics – You’ll want to create two buttons, one large and one small. The large one is typically a 100 x 100 px GIF, set to 72 dpi; The small one is a 60 x 60 GIF, also set to 72 dpi
  • Mug Shots of the Authors – The images are usually done at 75 px wide, saved as JPGs, and formatted with the author’s username (e.g. tmann.jpg)
  • Blog Name
  • Blog Tagline, or description — One or two sentences summarizing what the blog will cover
  • Author email addresses — If they prefer non-Gannett emails, be sure to use whatever they like
  • Author bios – Usually a couple sentences, written to go in the “About the Author” box
  • Meta Tag information — A new piece of information we want to start collecting. This is just keyword information to help search engines better index the blogs
  • List of desired sidebar elements – Do the authors want polls? Flickr feeds? Twitter tools? Etc.

Got all that. OK, now you’re ready to get the blog set up. The full list of instructions is after the break.

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Adding an RSS feed to your blog’s sidebar

December 17, 2008 • 9:13 pm
By Ted Mann

One of the quickest and easiest ways to give your sidebar a little more fresh content is to add an RSS feed from another blog or news source. If you really like reading another colleague’s blog, you can pull in his or her five most recent entries. For example, on Bob Ingle’s “Politics Patrol” blog, the most recent posts from our sister blog in Trenton, “Capitol Quickies,” automatically come into the sidebar, like so:


In a totally different kind of treatment, on Kevin Callahan’s “Into the Outside” blog, he pulls in an RSS feed of the latest outdoor gear that’s been posted to CraigsList:


As long as you can find an RSS feed for the content you’re interested in calling in, WordPress will do all the rest. It’s up to you whether or not to pull in just headlines, or headlines and content, or headlines and content and author name and date posted. All that is fully customizable.

Once you’ve found an RSS feed (usually by either click on the orange RSS icon or the RSS icon in your browser bar), copy the URL location of that feed.

Next, go into the blog backend.


Find the RSS widget on the left-hand column. Click “Add”

That widget will get added to the list of live widgets on the right. Click on “Edit.”


Paste the feed address in the first box, the name of the feed in the second, and then check off any additional settings you’d like. Click “Change” at the bottom of the widget, and then “Save Changes” at the bottom of the widget sidebar list.

The RSS feed should now start coming into your sidebar dynamically.

Here’s a video to recap the steps:

How to embed a video

December 17, 2008 • 8:50 pm
By Ted Mann

I realized recently that I’d never posted anything to Blog Boot Camp about how to embed video. Shame on me! I realize this may be a bit remedial for some, but if you’ve not yet posted a video clip and always wondered how to do so, this tutorial is for you.

Step 1. Figure out if the clip you want to post is embeddable. If it’s something you found on YouTube or or one of the other Gannett NJ sites, you’re in luck. All you want to do is look for an embed code or button somewhere around the video.

On, the embed code is usually found to the right of the videos in a little “Embed” window. If you click on the gear icon, you can customize what your embedded player will look like. Remember to highlight the whole chunk of code.


If you’re looking at a YouTube video that’s already been embedded on another blog or website, you can quickly get to the embed code simply by clicking on the button in the lower right-hand corner.


If you’re on one of the Gannett NJ sites, there are two places where you’ll typically find the embed code: either to the left of the video player, in a little “embed” window, or by clicking on the “embed” button at the bottom of the player.


Step 2: Copy the embed code.

Step 3: Add the code to your post. Figure out where in a post you’d like to add the video. Click on the HTML tab at the top of the post. Paste the full embed code.

You can then go back to the visual editor by clicking on the “Visual” tab at the top of the post. The video will show up as an orange, block-shaped placeholder, but if you click on “View Post” or just go ahead and publish the post, the embedded video will show up. Simple as that.

For more details and a better walk-through on how this works, watch the video — no, make that the embedded video! — below.

I could try to summarize all the features of WordPress 2.7 in a post, but frankly, this video does a better job than I ever could.

I’ve been running “Coltrane” (formerly “Crazyhorse”) a few weeks now on Blog Boot Camp, and I can honestly say, it’s all that and a bag of chips. A huge number of improvements over the last iteration of WordPress. We should have it up and running on the NJ blogs by the end of the year.

How to set up an event calendar for your blog

November 21, 2008 • 2:33 pm
By Ted Mann

In yesterday’s Gannett NJ “Blog Buzz” email, I mentioned how a number of blogs in the state have begun using event calendars in their sidebar. As I put it:

These are very simple to administer from the blog’s backend, and have the added benefit of allowing the blogger to add an event as both a calendar item and a regular blog post — essentially doing double-duty with each addition.

On “Veteran Voices,” Kristy Davies is letting readers know about upcoming ceremonies, holidays, and dedications for Veterans.

Lavinia DeCasto has used her events calendar on “Cinema-Scoop” to let people know about casting calls and tryouts in the Philadelphia region.

But as Mike Symons pointed out in an email to me, “I don’t see any instructions/widget about installing it.” To that end, here’s how to set up an event calendar on your blog:

  1. Inside the blog, go to PLUGINS, and then scroll down. Activate “Events Calendar.”
  2. Next, go to DESIGN –> WIDGETS, and add the Events Calendar widget to your sidebar. Remember to give the calendar a name (click “Edit” on the widget) and then click “Save Changes” at the bottom of the Current Widgets column.
  3. Finally, start populating the calendar. You should now see EVENTS CALENDAR inbetween COMMENTS and REPORTS in the blog menu. Select it, and scroll down below the calendar to add an event. Make sure to check off “Create Post for Event” if you also want the event to turn into a regular blog post on your site, too. Select “Add Event” when you’re finished inputting it.

Help! My sidebar is missing!

November 17, 2008 • 2:41 pm
By Ted Mann

It happens to every blogger sooner or later: The dreaded missing sidebar.

More often than not, the sidebar hasn’t actually disappeared entirely; it’s just at the bottom of your blog, beneath all the posts. Which, of course, is just as bad. We call this a “blown out” sidebar.

So why does this happen? It’s usually due to a handful of common problems:

  • Ultra-wide images in posts. That is, images that are wider than the width of the main content area. The main content area on our blogs (where the blog posts appear) is aprox 550px wide. However, there is usually spacing around images, as well as spacing around the edge of the post area. Which is to say, don’t ever make your images wider than 500 px. Put another way: Don’t ever let you images go wider than the right-most button in the editing screen.
  • A really, really long URL. This happens if you actually paste the full URL into the text of a post (a no-no). If you’re ever inserting a link into a post, create a hyperlink by highlighting some text, clicking on the link icon (the little button with the piece of chain-link) and then pasting the URL. Putting an actual URL into a post is bad blog form.
  • Bad HTML. Text that’s been pasted from MS Word or another site that has < div > or < span > tags. This one is a little trickier to troubleshoot, as text that’s been pasted with HTML formatting is usually riddled with such tags. The easiest method for fixing: delete all the text and follow the instructions for “Cutting and Pasting from MS Word” that I posted on this blog. This can also sometime happen when you’ve got something like a “Read More” tag within a paragraph. It’s better to add a couple of line breaks, and then put the “Read More” line inbetween them. That way the “Read More” line doesn’t run the risk of blowing out the sidebar.
  • Ultra-wide sidebar widgets. This is sort of like the mirror problem of images that are too big. The sidebar area is 300px wide, but you really don’t want to put anything in there that goes beyond 275px. For example, if you put in an external widget that’s 350px wide, that will cause your sidebar to get blown out.

So, to sum up, if you have an image that’s 600px wide, your sidebar will get blown out. If you paste a really long URL, it’ll get blown out. If you cut and paste from Word, you’re running a good risk that it may get blown out. And if you put anything in your sidebar wider than 275px, it’ll probably get blown out.

Remember, keep all embeds and images to 500px wide in your posts; 275px wide in your sidebar.

The first rule of blogging: Don’t cut and paste from Word.

The second rule of blogging: Don’t cut and paste from Word.

Why is transposing copy from Word bad? For starters, Word imposes a lot of HTML formatting onto any chunk of text. Just about everyone uses some kind of template in Word, which in turn can give your copy a nice Georgia font with 16pt type. Which is great when you’re editing on a desktop, but when you copy this into the blog, though, all of that HTML gets carried over. If Word has added div tags and span tags and the like, all the HTML can cause your blog to start looking super funky. This is especially true if you’re using an older browser, like IE6. Not to mention, writing in Word, copying it, and then cleaning up the text can take you three times as long as simply composing in WordPress.

So, I’ll say it again: don’t cut and paste from Word.

Still, as much as I repeat that mantra, I know that for a lot of writers, the idea of composing in something other than MS Word is tantamount to asking that you write your e-mail in WingDings. And judging by the number of posts with wacky fonts, colors, and point sizes, it’s pretty clear that the ol’ Word cut-and-paste method of blogging is not going to die out anytime soon. So, if you must write in Word, please try to follow either of these simple methods to ensure that all that bad HTML doesn’t screw up your post.

Method 1: Click on the “kitchen sink” editor button in the “Write Post” screen. This is the little button, second from the right, that says “Show/Hide kitchen sink” when you mouse over it.

When you click on it, a second row of options shows up. Click on the button half-way across that has a little “W” MS Word icon. That’ll bring up a window for you to paste your MS Word copy. Once pasted, click “Insert” and you’ll be golden.

Method 2: You can also click on the “HTML” tab (next to the tab that says “Visual”). Paste your text from MS Word here. Then click back on “Visual” to return to the visual editor.

Still confused? Here’s a little video tutorial:

Why add a poll?

For one, it’s incredibly easy to do.

Polls are also one of the best ways to get your readers engaged with the blog and the topic you’re blogging about. Whereas posting a comment requires the reader to put some thought into what they have to say — not to mention taking the time to type it out and open themselves up to feedback from other commenters — answering a poll takes almost no time at all.

And once you’ve clicked on a poll, you’re that much more likely to give other forms of feedback, like posting comments and sending in pictures. Consider polls a gateway to more blog conversation.

Here’s a quick tutorial on how to add ‘em:

In addition to posting polls to your sidebar, you can also add them to individual posts. Simply paste this piece of code into a post: [poll id="2"]

(Get the poll ID from the POLLS menu.)

Tony Graham at the Asbury Park Press does a great job of adding polls to posts. Here are a few examples from Tony’s blogs: Down on the Farm / The Hawks Nest

You can also create a polls archive page, where you can showcase all your past polls. Just paste this code into a Page (not a “Post”): [page_polls]

Here are a couple example of poll archives: The Girly Blog / The Yankee Scrolls

As your blog begins to gather a head of steam, and more and more comments from readers begin popping up, you may be wondering how you can better showcase those comments. It’s easy.

As you may have already seen, some blogs have a slightly different comments widget in the sidebar, which displays short excerpts. Adding this is simply a matter of switching the old widget to the new one. Here’s what the old one looked like on Fred Snowflack’s “Morris Politics” blog:

Simple "Recent Comments" Widget

Simple "Recent Comments" widget

And here’s the new one:

New "Get Recent Comments" widget with excerpts

New "Get Recent Comments" widget with excerpts

To switch the widgets, go into the backend of your blog, select DESIGN –> WIDGETS, and then follow these instructions:

2-Minute Tutorial: Building Your Blogroll

October 20, 2008 • 8:01 pm
By Ted Mann

Blogroll — the word might have an incredibly geeky ring to it, but if you’re looking to build up your blogging cred, nothing can things jump-started quite like creating a blogroll. Put simply, it’s a list of links to other sites you like. They can be ones you read on a daily basis, ones you’d personally vouch for, or just friendly strangers who were kind enough to link to your blog.

But beyond simply generating good will, the link love has a more pragmatic purpose: If you’re looking to boost your visibility on Google (and other search engines), you’ll need to get linked to. Google may have a top secret search algorhythm, but it all pretty much boils down to simple arithmatic: More links to your blog = a higher search ranking. When you’re launching your new blog, link liberally.

Pete Abraham, author of the blockbuster LoHud Yankees blog, says that building up his blogroll was one of the initial keys to his blog taking off. He didn’t just link blindly, though; he asked for other sites to link back to him. In his words:

Every team has a network of fan blogs. Some are around for 5 days, some have been around 5 years and are great. You need to pick out 10 good ones, write the owners and say “I’m a beat writer, I’m trying to do a blog and I like the work you do. I’m putting up a link to you blog and I’d appreciate if you link to ours. Let me know the next time you do a post you’re proud of and I’ll link to it.”

That will get a positive responsive 85 percent of the time. Having a blog roll of fan blogs makes you part of the on-line community. Once the word-of-mouth spreads, you have an audience. If you frequent short posts, you’ll get people coming back as opposed to one long post a day.

Pete’s blog now gets about 1.5 million hits a month. There’s no guarantee you’ll reach the same level of success, but adding a couple dozen links to your sidebar will surely put your blog on the right path. Here’s how:

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