Dogwood Initiative: a great model for grassroots environmental group websites

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 creating a website that focuses on publishing original news and analysis about environmental 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 news. 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.dogwoodinitiative.org/forests, “Energy”:http://www.dogwoodinitiative.org/energy, “First Nations”:http://www.dogwoodinitiative.org/firstnations and “Community”:http://www.dogwoodinitiative.org/.
# For each issue area, they’re producing several types of content:
* “Dogwood Bulletins”:http://www.dogwoodinitiative.org/Pages/newsroom/bulletin.php — short, original, informally-written analysis and opinion pieces. Plus occasional “breaking news.” (Will is one of those people who occasionally receives unmarked envelopes from “inside sources.”) This is the really innovative stuff — it’s a kind of writing that most enviros simply aren’t doing. It borrows heavily from the ideas of blogging, and applies these ideas to an issue-advocacy 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.php — news clips specifically mentioning Dogwood Initiative.
# Every month, they pull together their “greatest hits” into an email newsletter 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 present their stuff. While I don’t think we nailed it perfectly, there are a few key ideas that I think are worth calling out:

* They really tried to focus on the Dogwood Bulletins. That’s the original, hot news. We put Bulletins in the right-hand column of every page “above the fold.”
* They prominently feature the “Make Waves” email newsletter signup on every page — Dogwood really wants to gather email addresses in order to identify and build relationships with readers.
* In addition to featuring issue-specific content on each issue page of the site, they pull all of the content together into a single “Newsroom”:http://www.dogwoodinitiative.org/Pages/newsroom/newsroom.php that provides a one-stop archive of everything they publish.
* All of the news content on the site is also made available as a “syndicated RDF feed”:http://www.dogwoodinitiative.org/index.rdf so that other websites, content aggregators, and people who like to use RSS newsreaders can easily republis, 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 blogging 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 Dude, threw together a handful of basic MovableType templates that created “content chunks” which could then be included via PHP includes in the basic page templates. One of our amazing volunteers, Jesse Lee, hacked together some quick PHP code that drew issue-specific content from the different blogs for the Newsroom 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 — include “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 are definitely a few things I think we and Dogwood could do better and/or got put 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 future 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 that’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, include: an image library; an online activism center (that’s “centre” if you’re Canadian); site search; and issue-specific RDF feeds.

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

  1. It’s great to see more env. nonprofit websites springing up with this type of functionality. 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 site search. http://www.digitalpoint.com/tools/search/

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

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