Choosing a Blogging Package for Students
by Scot Hacker
I was recently commissioned with the task of selecting an appropriate blogging tool for our upcoming Intellectual Property Weblog class. Selecting blogging software is becoming increasingly tricky, in part because there are so many packages out there, and because so many of them are so good. All have been appending each other's features as time goes on, making their advantages progressively less distinct.
Our criteria for blogging software for the class were:
- Must allow multiple authors (this is to be a team/group blog)
- Should be low cost or free, ideally open source
- We want to host it ourselves rather than using 3rd party servers
- Ideally searchable
- Should have some kind of CMS (Allow posting of drafts, which other editors approve)
- Easy posting from Macs (bookmarklets, hotkey for hyperlinks within a web form)
- RSS syndication and, ideally, aggregation
Time is limited, so I chose five blogging packages to install and test:
We're inevitably missing lots of good ones, but one can only do so much in a couple of days.
Multi-author / CMS (team blogging) turned out to be really easy in some blogging packages, almost impossible in others. While this feature is built into Movable Type and Greymatter from the start, Radio makes you rely on 3rd party tools or hack out an aggregation of multiple blogs. LiveJournal has "communities" built specifically for this purpose, but each author has to have a separate account, which would mean either paying for or finding lots of LJ invitations to spread around. Even then, only Movable Type offered the ability to make a post in draft mode, then have another author / editor approve and make it live.
Search functionality was surprisingly absent from most of these packages. Greymatter puts it right up front. Movable Type puts search into the back end, but not into the front end, which I found somewhat bizarre. I'm assuming I can add searching to MT's front end fairly easily. Blogger makes you buy the Pro version, Radio doesn't make it all obvious whether searching is possible, and LiveJournal doesn't have it at all.
Radio's web form for posting has nifty anchor, bold, etc. buttons when viewed under Windows, but not from the Mac. Bookmarklets for Radio may or may not work on the Mac. A bookmarklet system does not seem to be bundled with the product, and I didn't get around to checking out the 3rd party solutions.
I found the following discussions at Radio Free Blogistan (run by friend Christian Crumlish) largely mirrored my experiences getting Greymatter, Movable Type, and Radio up and running:
- Radio vs. Movable Type (contains links to earlier comparisons)
- Dave Winer, CEO of Userland, responds re Radio v. MT
- Followup discussion re Radio v. MT
I concur that MT's pain is all in the up-front setup, while Radio's setup is easy, but the system is fragile. I was just getting up and running with Radio and starting to like it when I made a change that prevented the entire system from running. Not even reinstalling the entire app could get me running again.
I keep my personal blog at LiveJournal, and really love the system. I'd recommend it to anyone looking to get up and running quickly, and who lacks technical knowledge. It's custom client is a joy to post with, and LJ's interconnectedness of blogs is unparalleled - truly wonderful to follow the links between friends and friends of friends, etc. But it quickly became apparent that LiveJournal was not appropriate for this class. Greymatter and Radio are both great systems in their own ways, but Movable Type moved to the front of the pack very quickly, and is the package we'll be using. If only Movable Type handled RSS aggregation as well as Radio... but one can't have it all.
I'm a technical guy but have zero knowledge of "blogging" other than being aware of the concept and format. I've been thinking of getting into it - this was a valuable overview of some of the tools available.
UserLand software, the creators of Radio, also have an application called Manila. Unlike Radio, Manila resides on the server. Out of the box, it supports multiple user sites. It also, through a feature called "gems", makes content management quite intuitive.
Simplifying MT entry composition & RSS aggregation
Well, tooting my own horn, something that might help you ease the pain of blog entry composition:
MT, as I have learned, allows you to customize its fields (although it's a bit of a pain--see http://www.metamocha.com/docs/000012.htm). Apparently this will be an explicit feature in a future release. It also has plug-in support, and one of the plug-ins allows GREPing of entry contents, so it might be possible to just paste a URL into an entry and have it transformed into a hotlink that way.
For a front end search on MovableType you mgiht want to check MT-Search
I use Manila
I make extensive use of Manila with the classes I teach at De Anza College in Cupertino, California. Perhaps of most interest would be my experience using multiple Manila sites with a web-based distance learning class I taught last year.
RSS Aggregation and MT
Scot, if you are looking for an aggregation tool that compilments Movable Type check out Brent Simmons' NetNewsWire. If the class will be running Mac OS X, choosing NetNewsWire will provide them with a great tool to slice-n-dice their stories for incorporation in their blog. I use it everyday.
Another vote for Manila
In terms of ease of setup and flexibility, I vote for Manila as well. I'm a Blogger convert who has spent the last couple of months setting up Manila sites for my students, and the ease of collaboration and management of information capabilities are really great. The price is right, installation is easy, and with some HTML and CSS knowledge, you can create any look you want.
Check out Nucleus
I tried out MT as well, but found Nucleus more to my liking. It is a PHP/MYSQL application that was very simple to install, especially compared to MT. It uses "plug-ins" which are actively developed by numerous individuals which makes it easy to customize your blog and build upon the base system. Bookmarklets do work in Linux - Iuse Galeon as my main browser. It has a search function, supports multiple users , multiple blogs, and a RSS plug-in.