Running a newsroom intranet on Ubuntu, MediaWiki and a discarded PC

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When the newsroom replaced aging computers used by reporters for word processing last year, I salvaged one central processing unit, a pair of RAM modules and the biggest hard disk of the lot with the intention of putting up a newsroom intranet server.

I eventually built a newsroom intranet server using various open source PHP/MySQL scripts. The intranet used as portal Mambo CMS with various other scripts serving as online news writing style guide, news sources contacts database and online classroom. The intranet was running on Windows with XAMPP, a package that simplifies the installation of Apache, PHP and MySQL. (Click on photos to view larger images)

Sun.Star Cebu newsroom intranetThe setup is a pain to maintain: you have to check individual packages for updates and one of the scripts was no longer being updated, the last time I checked. The use of different packages also means that users have to sign up for individual sections of the intranet: for the portal, style guide, contacts and the e-learning package. Users are also presented with different user interfaces. The setup was asking too much from its users.

The server never really took off as I was bogged down in trying to find ways to have a single login for the system.

A few weeks back, I decided to run MediaWiki on Ubuntu to replace the abandoned setup. (Note: screenshots will be added after Zooomr launches version 2.0 of its site)

I was surprised that it took me several months to decide on using MediaWiki. After all, I’m a heavy wiki user: ZiddlyWiki and lately TiddlySpot for my personal notes and PBWiki for collaborative wikis with my wife and people I work with in certain projects.

Why a wiki is better

Using a wiki solves several problems that shackled my previous newsroom intranet setup:

1. There is a single login for all parts of the system since the other components of the intranet will be added as sections in the wiki;

2. There is a single user interface. Users just need to learn wiki formatting for rendering headlines and section heads as well as bold and italic text and hyperlinking.

3. Using a wiki encourages contributions and the setup gives you a lot of editors that can help spot mistakes. This is crucial in building the news sources database, which will contain a short bio of news sources and their contact details. With reassignments of public officials, especially those in the police force, it will be hard for a small group of people to keep track of changes. The easiest way to keep these data updated is to allow reporters to edit the entries for their respective news sources.

4. This setup is easier to maintain technically because you only need to keep track of MediaWiki updates. You do need to keep close watch on editing changes. In our case, one reporter started adding cuss words in the entry on common PC problems while trying out wiki editing.

Installation

Installing LAMP server in UbuntuEarly on, I had wanted to use Linux for the server. With the latest Ubuntu version, the setting up of a Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP (Lamp) server environment is simplified. You can just choose Set up a Lamp server in the install options and the Ubuntu installer sets things up for you.

I’ve never tried setting up a Linux web server before although I have a bit of experience using it. When it first booted up, I was faced with the command line and for someone who’s been using graphical user interface all the time, I was Zinidene Zidane handed a lacrosse stick.

I meekly typed “startx” in the command prompt and encountered an error. After having read that you need to install a desktop environment if you want a graphical interface in your Ubuntu Lamp server, I quickly went through how-tos on setting this up. It was good that the IT staff assigned to the Sun.Star Cebu newsroom, Apolonio “Dongdong” Ygay III, found the project interesting and decided to set up MediaWiki in Ubuntu.

We decided against setting up a graphical desktop interface. You don’t really need it to run a server and with the hardware we are using: 128MB of RAM and a 4GB hard disk, a desktop environment is such an unnecessary add-on.

The first tasks were connecting the installation to our network and assigning it a static IP address. This was done by editing the data in /etc/network/interfaces to reflect the static IP assigned to the project.

Dongdong also configured the server’s proxy settings to make it use our less-restrictive proxy server so that it can download packages from the Ubuntu repository. The Ubuntu installer helps you configure your proxy settings.

After that, we just followed the steps listed in this help guide on installing MediaWiki on Ubuntu and a few minutes later we had a working install, albeit running an older MediaWiki 1.4 version. We’re planning to upgrade the installation over the weekend.

Using the wiki

I’ve already transferred our newsroom style guide into the wiki. The wiki format makes it easier to update. I’m still trying to build the news sources contacts database. What I plan to do is give news sources individual wiki pages with a short biography and a listing of contact info.

I’ve also set up a technical help page for common PC problems in the newsroom. When an editor sought help because Pagemaker kept hanging when she tried to place a photo into her page, I posted the solution in the wiki after teaching her how to fix this. (The trick is to save the .jpg file as a .tif file. The error is caused by .jpg errors.)

I already created a wiki page for our editor-in-chief’s notes. He usually compiles his comments on errors in news writing, page formatting, editing and coverage and print this as ticklers. Don’t laugh, it’s not what you think, by tickler he means “a memorandum, book, or file to aid memory.” The only entry in his “ticklers” page is “are kinky.” Reminder to self: replace this before presentation.

I’m thinking of transferring the Errors and Lapses notices to the wiki. I have to talk to the editor in charge about this possibility.

There aren’t many users of the wiki yet. I still have to present this to my editors and to the newsroom’s reporters but I am confident that this time, the newsroom intranet will be useful for everyone and will help the Sun.Star Cebu newsroom in its operations.

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4 Comments

  1. Hi im very much interested in installing an intranet in my ubuntu version 6.10 i got hooked up using linux now i would like to know how to set up intranet in fact i need your help cause we are having are thesis we would like to know how to install it and run it we have install php apache and mysql in ubuntu but intranet we still don’t have pls help thank you and god bless

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