Dogwood Initiative: a great model for grassroots environmental group web

I’m very proud to post a link to the new website of Dogwood Initiative, who have firmly established themselves
as leading-edge communicators in the Northwest environmental movement by creati
ng a website that focuses on publishing original news and analysis about enviro
nmental issues in BC.

Will Horter, Michael Begg and the rest of the team at Dogwood really understand
the advocacy power of making news, and commenting in real-time on breaking new
s. And they’re putting that understanding into action. Check out what they’re
doing — I really think it’s a model for small grassroots advocacy groups.

h4. What they’re producing

# They’ve defined five issue areas (“beats”) that they’re covering: “Democracy”
:http://www.dogwoodinitiative.org/democracy, “Forests”:http://www.dogwoodinitia
tive.org/forests, “Energy”:http://www.dogwoodinitiative.org/energy, “First Nati
ons”:http://www.dogwoodinitiative.org/firstnations and “Community”:http://www.d
ogwoodinitiative.org/.
# For each issue area, they’re producing several types of content:
* “Dogwood Bulletins”:http://www.dogwoodinitiative.org/Pages/newsroom/bullet
in.php — short, original, informally-written analysis and opinion pieces. Plu
s occasional “breaking news.” (Will is one of those people who occasionally re
ceives unmarked envelopes from “inside sources.”) This is the really innovativ
e stuff — it’s a kind of writing that most enviros simply aren’t doing. It bo
rrows heavily from the ideas of blogging, and applies these ideas to an issue-a
dvocacy context.
* “News Stories”:http://www.dogwoodinitiative.org/Pages/newsroom/newsstories
.php — Short summaries of news stories from the mainstrem media.
* “In the News”:http://www.dogwoodinitiative.org/Pages/newsroom/inthenews.ph
p — news clips specifically mentioning Dogwood Initiative.
# Every month, they pull together their “greatest hits” into an email newslette
r titled “Make Waves”:http://www.dogwoodinitiative.org/Pages/features/makewaves
.php.
# They’re also doing “the usual” kind of advocacy writing: occasional reports,
action alerts, etc.

h4. How they present it

We worked long and hard with Will and Michael on figuring out how best to prese
nt their stuff. While I don’t think we nailed it perfectly, there are a few ke
y ideas that I think are worth calling out:

* They really tried to focus on the Dogwood Bulletins. That’s the original, ho
t news. We put Bulletins in the right-hand column of every page “above the fol
d.”
* They prominently feature the “Make Waves” email newsletter signup on every pa
ge — Dogwood really wants to gather email addresses in order to identify and b
uild relationships with readers.
* In addition to featuring issue-specific content on each issue page of the sit
e, they pull all of the content together into a single “Newsroom”:http://www.do
gwoodinitiative.org/Pages/newsroom/newsroom.php that provides a one-stop archiv
e of everything they publish.
* All of the news content on the site is also made available as a “syndicated R
DF feed”:http://www.dogwoodinitiative.org/index.rdf so that other websites, con
tent aggregators, and people who like to use RSS newsreaders can easily republi
s, redistribute and otherwise propagate Dogwood’s memes.

h4. Technical details

There are lots of ways to build a site like this. We chose the popular bloggin
g software MovableType, mainly because its writing interface is incredibly well
-designed. Each content type has its own blog, and each blog has the same set
of issue categories.

“Andrew Burkhalter”:http://blogs.onenw.org/andrewb, ONE/Northwest’s main Web Du
de, threw together a handful of basic MovableType templates that created “conte
nt chunks” which could then be included via PHP includes in the basic page temp
lates. One of our amazing volunteers, Jesse Lee, hacked together some quick PH
P code that drew issue-specific content from the different blogs for the Newsro
om page. We subcontracted the design work to the talented “Brad Hornick”:http:
//www.bradhornick.com. Dogwood will be using either DreamWeaver or Contribute
to maintain the non-dynamic content, which they don’t expect to change much.

The email newsletter is powered by ONE/Northwest’s “email list hosting service”
:http://www.onenw.org/bin/page.cfm/secid/6.

Other tools we could have used — and may well use on future projects — includ
e “pMachine”:http://www.pmachine.com, “Plone”:http://www.plone.org, and “Drupal
“:http://www.drupal.org, among many others.

h4. Still a work in progress…

While I think the site is a great model in many ways, like any project, there a
re definitely a few things I think we and Dogwood could do better and/or got pu
t off until “phase 2.” Among them:

* Dogwood hasn’t yet turned on MovableType’s comment features. I hope they do
soon, because an important part of the power of online grassroots journalism is
the community of feedback and commentary that you can start to create. In a f
uture version of the site, I could also see letting site users write their own
articles in separate “Diaries” ala “DailyKos”:http://www.dailykos.com. But tha
t’s a pretty major undertaking, and will require a whole new backend system.
* Some of the features that are under development, but not quite there yet, inc
lude: an image library; an online activism center (that’s “centre” if you’re Ca
nadian); site search; and issue-specific RDF feeds.

3 thoughts on “Dogwood Initiative: a great model for grassroots environmental group web”

  1. It’s great to see more env. nonprofit websites springing up with this type of f
    unctionality. Congrats to Dogwood and the ONE/NW web team, well done!

    Here is a link to a simple PHP script that utilizes a free Google API for a sit
    e search. http://www.digit
    alpoint.com/tools/search/

    You mentioned that you wanted a site search feature. MoveableType also has a s
    earch feature built in although it does not cover non-blog (static) content.

  2. I’m not so sure comments or trackback functioning are a good idea for an organi
    zation blog, particularly politically-oriented blogs; A) comment spam is a huge
    problem and time consuming for most volunteer run NGOs B) right-wing trolls an
    d malefactors frequently spambomb organisations from the left. Such attacks dis
    tract from the primary message of the post/blog. The blog does not require a co
    mments field to be an effective channel for the organisation. Michael Moore, wh
    ose website is frequently targetted with denial of service attacks from the rig
    ht just started a blog. He does not have comments functioning enabled either. T
    he main thing is that your message gets out there and is circulated online. In
    my opinion, other bloggers citing your posts is one of the best forms of “comme
    nt” and these citations function as a dialogue between websites and the larger
    community for your ideas.

    My suggestion is to have some sort of feedback forum that is moderated and requ
    ires users to set up an account.

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