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Test driving online publishing platform Newspack

Automattic and Google News Initiative along with a number of other news industry leaders announced the development of Newspack in January 2019. 

Newspack is promoted as a ‘website in a box’ or WordPress toolkit targeting small to medium digital publishers by providing an affordable online newsroom.

It can be used as either a SaaS all in one solution, or used as an open source toolkit, much like WordPress itself.

In reality it works as a curator of plugins, identifying those most commonly needed by news and digital publishers. 

Two of our front-end developers, Jackson Poultney and Ivan Goncalves, have now worked with Newspack and our team took the opportunity to get some feedback on the new initiative. Company Director Ben May also provided input given his insight from discussions with online media companies. 

Newspack: the basics for digital publishers

Q. The project leads say they developed Newspack because many small to medium digital publishers had similar needs but not necessarily the budget to employ developers to configure the platforms they need. Has this been our experience at The Code Company?

Ben: Building a Home Page for a news media or publishing site sounds simple, but it’s not as straightforward as you may expect. What appeals to me with Newspack is the fact developers can leverage how they have solved this and not have to code bespoke solutions on a project-by-project basis. There’s no point in reinventing the wheel.

We’ve worked with quite a few digital publishers and a lot of their pain points are similar: they require flexibility around layout and editorial content, and they usually need to monetise the site through subscribers and advertising. 

Q. Newspack is being promoted as a ‘news website in a box’. What exactly does that mean?

Jackson: Newspack is simply a theme and plugin built to work with AMP (accelerated mobile pages) and WordPress. Once the theme and plugin are both running, the setup or configuration wizard asks a series of questions, giving you a list of recommended or suggested plugins to download. 

Without coding, you could get a website up and running if you have some WordPress experience. 

Ivan: You can set up a homepage and work out how you’d like it to look with headers and footers. If you want a custom Home Page, you can do some customising. For example, whether you want a two-grid column, above a three-grid column and custom image below that. 

Q. So if Newspack is giving digital publishers an ‘out of the box’ solution, will all sites look the same?

Jackson: Without touching any code. there’s not a whole lot customising you can do. Aside from colours, fonts and a few header layouts, the bones will stay the same. 

There’s a lot of layout options when setting up content which allows you to make layouts more unique.

If you are willing to develop a child theme, you have a bit more freedom with design and layout, but for the most part you are modifying the Newspack theme layout and setup rather than creating your own from scratch.

Ivan: It’s true there’s not much customisation possible, however, the “homepage articles” block is quite impressive. It has loads of different layout options for the homepage and landing pages.

Jackson: Some of the publishers during the trials obviously didn’t change too many things—many just added a logo, changed the font and then added content—so several looked pretty similar. But there were a couple where you could tell the publishers spent some time changing little things to look different.

Ben: Out of the box, it gives you the 80 percent what you need but gives you a fairly vanilla set of tools. But if you have a bit of WordPress knowledge, Newspack gives you the ability to build something better and customise the last 20 percent.

Q. Newspack targets small to medium digital publishers. What does it offer that WordPress, its plugins and third-party tools don’t already include?

Jackson: If you have some WordPress experience, you can set it up pretty quickly and easily. It’s basically midway between a bespoke site and basic WordPress 2020 theme. You do get a theme ‘out of the box’ but can customise more than you’d normally be able to. 

The setup wizard asks a series of questions to assist in deciding what plugins to load based on your needs. It includes options like the need for subscribers, online stores, payments and advertising. The trials they’ve run have identified the most popular plugins used by similar news and media companies.

Ivan: It’s also cheaper as it’s not going to take as long to set up. If someone wants a news website up and working—with ads and some customisation—you can do that. And it’s fast. 

Ivan & Jackson

Q. What are the options for ads? Does Newspack lock us into a certain way of doing things?

Jackson: Adsense / Ad Network Manager are the main options (as well as WordPress Ads). So far Ad Network Manager seems the most straight-forward to implement and use – it’s also the most commonly used by our publishing clients. 

If you already have ads setup in Ad Network manager, you can copy the “Ad unit name” and “Ad unit code” from your Ad Network Manager into and “Individual add unit” in the Google Ad Manager section of the “Newspack Advertising” settings. You can then select an ad to use in the “Ad Unit” block in the Gutenberg editor. You can even add multiple ads and reuse them throughout the site in the block.

Q. What about subscriptions / paywalls? What are the options in Newspack, and what if our client is using an existing solution?

Jackson: Newspack comes with a “Donate” block, which we have yet to fully set up on a client site. So far while testing configuration, it does prompt you to install WooCommerce as well as the “Name your price” premium add-on ($49year) and the “WooCommerce Subscriptions” premium add-on ($199/year). So you are looking at $250year total to take donations on your site.

At this stage Newspack doesn’t support any paywall or paid membership models. So, our previous recommendations around membership and subscriptions for WordPress would still be relevant.

Update from Newspack team: This feature is now coming out and there are likely to be more options available too.

Q. Newspack is promoted as AMP first. What does this mean? Is it tied to AMP or can you turn it off?

Jackson: AMP first means any third-party scripts, Java scripts or plugins get ignored. Usually you can turn AMP off on a page, but AMP first overrides that. 

Ivan: When you use AMP first, the canonical URL becomes AMP, so you don’t have to add: /amp/. However, if you’re using the AMP plugin rather than Newspack, you can disable it as required. 

Jackson: If you are going 100% AMP, there’s going to be a threshold for complexity and a limit on scale. If you have job boards, events, classifieds, forums, etc, a more bespoke build is going to be much more flexible and expandable than a Newspack site. In saying that, you may use Newspack for homepages, single and archive pages, and disable AMP for more bespoke and custom sections of your website.

Ivan: Yes, I agree. I’ve just finished a project with a customised Home Page with Newspack and dropped in Gutenberg blocks. It would have taken probably about twice as long to build with AMP.

Update from Newspack: It is possible to run a fully non-AMP site using the Newspack functionality still.

Q. What can we (as a dev agency setting up news platforms) offer that Newspack can’t? 

Jackson: We’ve found, with small to medium sized publishers, that switching their site to Newspack has given us a few headaches. There have been some roadblocks, especially around existing plugin and custom post type setups.

Ivan: Newspack is a good solution for small or even medium-sized websites but when we need make a lot of changes to customise the site, I’d recommend against using it. 

Ben: We work with a lot of speciality publishers, and they often have a reliance on more creative ways of earning revenue. Because of that, we need to look at bespoke ad implementation. Newspack seems to be more specifically aimed at ‘news’ publishers rather than specialty publishers. 

Newspack in summary

Now that we’ve worked on a couple of different projects using Newspack and many many other online publishing and digital media platforms it’s clear that Newspack certainly has its place and a strong future.

The obvious benefit is that someone else has done all of the heavy lifting. Trials and consultations have identified plugins often required by online newsrooms and a site using Newspack is fairly inexpensive and easy to set up.

Given that Newspack is still rather new, the use cases for this framework are still more simple, straight forward or new publishers looking for a polished minimal viable product (MVP).

For the time being, Newspack will be great choice for savvy digital publishers looking to get a site up quickly, that can easily be extended and customised. For publishers looking to deploy highly customised or bespoke digital experiences, Newspack may not be right tool.

Deb Cook

Deb works across the content marketing and project support functions at The Code Company. With a background in government project management and a passion for writing, Deb brings a unique perspective and skillset to the teams she works with.

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