use MT::Everything, Part 1: An Online Newsletter

Friday, September 5, 2003

I’ve become so awestruck by the power of Movable Type, the CMS that pretends to just be a blogging program, that I keep finding more excuses to use it. This is my first entry in what I hope will be a long-running series of practical uses for MT.

For over a year now, we’ve been putting our local Mensa group’s newsletter, Mensokie, online. This is not meant to replace the paper version — there is no way to opt for one over the other. It’s really for people who might be away from home, maybe at work, and want to read the newsletter, or have misplaced their paper copy.

The newsletter is produced using Microsoft Publisher. When we first started doing the online version, we simply used Publisher’s “Export to HTML” function. It was a quick way to do it, but the results were horrid: The code was tag soup, any text that had an image close to it would get converted to an image, and the navigation was difficult.

A few months ago, in the interest of accessibility, I decided to take a different approach. Rather than let Publisher generate the online version, I would create it by hand. It seemed to me it wasn’t necessary for the online version to look like the original. Sure, given enough time, keyboards, and monkeys, I could recreate the original design in XHTML and CSS, but I didn’t think that necessary. If someone wants to read the newsletter on the web, they are probably more interested in the information than the presentation.

I created a simple, accessible design, and used it as a template each month. I would copy the text of the articles — plus an image or two for each — drop it into a template, then go through and clean up — make “headers” headers, and such. It might not look as good as the original, but it was better from an accessibility and usability standpoint. The real drawback was that it was a lot of work.

As I was finishing up last month’s issue, it finally dawned on me what I needed to be using — Movable Type. Its templating system, plus its ability to group things together in a variety of ways, was perfect for this job. I decided to set it up for the next month.

I installed MT and created a weblog named Mensokie. I turned off most of the Index templates. The Main Index is the page that lists the issues that are online. I linked the Stylesheet index to the stylesheet I was already using. I created a new Archive-Related Template, called Navigation, and a new template module, called banner. More on those later. Also, I created author accounts for all the authors in this issue, and for Angela and myself.

In the Weblog Configuration, I set entries to display in ascending order. I also set it to create Individual and Monthly archives. The individual archives use an Archive File Template similar to what Mark describes. I added the Navigation template I had created as a Monthly archive.

The individual entries are the articles. The monthly, date-based archive displays the cover art from that issue — it acts as a “main page” for each issue. The monthly, navigation archive contains a list of the articles for that month, plus links to othe locations on the site. That file is included in each article via a SSI. Also included in each article is the banner module, which puts the Mensokie logo at the top of each article.

We create the articles by doing a new entry for each. We put in the title, the text of the article (which includes the necessary markup to include any images we have uploaded), and a keyword (which becomes the name of the page). We then go into power-editing mode. We set the author of each article, and the date. The date is set to the first day of the month the issue is published for, with the second specifying the order for the articles. For example, if September’s issue has 12 articles, the article that should appear last will have a time stamp of 2003-09-01 00:00:12. Setting this associates that article with the September issue and places it in the correct place in the navigation. I could use the category to group the articles together, but then I would need a separate step to put them in the right order.

That’s pretty much it. The online version is now easier to generate than ever before. And, I can start adding some rather cool features: Listing articles by author or by category, full text search of articles, and allowing comments on articles. At which point we’ve taken this from being an alternate version of the newsletter to being an interactive archive.

One final point: I realize that, if I wanted the online version to look the same as the original, I could publish an Adobe Acrobat file. I may still do this, but it will be in addition to the HTML version, not in replacement of it. PDFs have usability and accessibility issues, and my goal for the next year is to have the most accessible website in Mensa.