sNews – an easy and simple web publishing tool for non profit organisations

sNews Logo
I’ve been keeping an eye on sNews for a while now, and have given it a good road test for use as a simple CMS (content management system) that will meet the needs of many voluntary and community organisations.

The choice of CMS to use for any nonprofit organisation should be always considered carefully. Will it meet your needs now, but also in the future as your organisation grows?

I use a wide range of open source CMS, depending on the needs of the group or client that I’m designing for. MODx is and always will be one of my favourites for all sites from simple right through to complex needs as it is very web developer friendly and works well for web standards and accessibility. Drupal and Joomla I still use, although more occasionally now.
The CMS listed above I generally work with for medium to larger sites with more complex needs or for database integration.
What about the tools I use for smaller and simpler websites that need easy content managing and updating features?
WordPress is another ‘CMS’ which essentially is a blogging tool, although very able and adaptable to become a good viable CMS for an organisation and I am increasingly developing more sites with WordPress as a base at the request of clients and increased usage and recent promotion in the non profit technology area here in the UK. WordPress is a good tool, although to me, isn’t the only one that should be considered as a ‘smaller’ CMS for organisations.
(CMSMadeSimple is another great easy to use CMS which I aim to review at some point in the future).

So why sNews?

WordPress as I mentioned above is at it’s heart a blogging tool. Often organisations, especially small ones such as clubs and associations and other small service providers stretched to capacity with lack of time, are seeking a way to have an effective website that they can manage and update content easily. When I create a site, and give training on WordPress for example, I often find that for a simple website I’m saying “you don’t need that functionality, that’s if you are using it to blog” or “remember to tick that box in that corner if you don’t want comments” and so on. To the average occassional content updater, WordPress has lots of information to wade through in the administration panel.

To those who are ‘scared of technology’ I want to be able to give them a site that they can intuitively be able to create their content easily and quickly without the need to navigate through lots of different menus and become confused if they click on the wrong area. It makes sense to use a tool which they can easily use 100 percent rather than having a tool which they will only use a small amount of it’s capabilities. Hopefully, also they will keep the site updated on a regular basis by adding new features and content. This is where the beauty and simplicity of sNews can really help the person who is designated to update the content on a website.

What is sNews?

On the sNews website it describes itself as:

“sNews is a completely free, standards compliant, PHP and MySQL driven content management system. Consisting of only one small core file, sNews is extremely lightweight, easy to install, and easy to use via a simple web interface.

sNews is for everyone

With sNews you can create a website that consists of dynamic pages and have a blog at the same time. sNews has a front page option and categories for you to categorize your articles. Corporate CMS or a personal blog – your choice.”

What does ‘lightweight’ mean? It means is that it will take up very little disk space so you will have no trouble using it on a small website hosting account. The zipped up download is under 40KB . Unzipped it takes up a few hundred KB. Given the features available, it’s very impressive considering such a small file. It will require a mySQL database though, so when looking for website hosting you will need to have PHP and SQL as part of your package.

Functionality wise – you have all the essential features neccessary for a dependable CMS:

  • sNews allows you to add, remove and publish articles. You can file articles into different categories and you can change the order in which they appear (like a blog or for regular news stories)
  • You can upload images and other files to insert into your articles
  • Users can add comments to your articles if you wish
  • You can also create static pages as well as articles
  • The site’s content can be syndicated using built in RSS feed generation
  • It automatically create Search Engine Friendly URLs or you can specify your own
  • There is a contact form
  • Users can search your site using a built in search form
  • It uses a password protected administration panel to manage the site
  • Provides easy templating and a wide range of quality website templates are available
  • There is a well used community and support forum which helps with queries you may have.

On the minus side, the ‘simple install’ isn’t for those that have never looked into a page of code. If you are confident in understanding code and are able to create an SQL database the task isn’t arduous.
The text editor is fairly basic but very adequate for most publishing needs. What is good about having such a simple administration interface is that it is easy to get on with want any content editor would wish to do – create or update content.
Follow this link to see a picture of the Administration view for creating a new page. When applying a new template this view will have the same style as the main website.

If comparing to WordPress, it doesn’t yet have the features of being able to instantly import a theme quite as easily. Again, if you are unsure of what to do and how to do it, you may want to use the support forums for help, hire a website developer or use an ICT Volunteer to get things in place for you.

What about web standards and accessibility?

Because sNews isn’t template dependent, accessible websites can be achieved easily (see my article Let your readers be in control which has some useful links for discovering more about web accessibility). If you use valid HTML for your base template (which you convert very simply into a php file – there’s good documentation on how to do this on the site) and valid CSS there should be no problems with compliance to web standards.

For my ‘road test’ on my local Mamp server (good tip when designing websites – set up a local server on your machine rather than going ‘live’ before you are ready!), I created 2 different sites, one with a free template that I sourced from using a Google search to find ‘templates for sNews’, and another by altering a template for a site which I had as a spare. Both came out fine for validation with web standards and the accessibility features I had already added to my main template worked fine also.

My personal view

From a web developer view, very like with using MODx, sNews is the ease of adaptability when using templates. This means that templates can be easily adapted to work easily within sNews. Web developers only need to study the simple guides available for a minimum amount of time to be able to work HTML templates into an sNews template. (unlike WordPress which requires substantially more work to be able to make it into a fully fledged ‘theme’.)
There are also many sites offering good free templates too, which is always a bonus for the cash strapped voluntary organisation that wants to create it’s own website as easily and cheaply as possible.

Don’t get me wrong, I do like WordPress and will still use it for many sites, but it is refreshing to find a simple and effective CMS that can be easily worked with either the ‘free’ templates available or to be able to create new templates and integrate them in a simple manner.

For those organisations seeking to use a free template, again unlike many WordPress themes which essentially are designed for blogs rather than a more traditional website, you are more likely to find a design that doesn’t look like an average ‘blog’ site. If you are confident at coding a website or CSS (cascading style sheets) you would be able to easily adapt an existing template to reflect the vision and style of your organisation, very like MODx. Or you could enable a circuit rider or website designer/developer to create one more easily (and cheaply) for your site, rather than using Joomla, Drupal or WordPress as your tool for website publishing which often require more work to create.

sNews isn’t just for small websites either. Just searching for ‘websites powered by sNews’ on Google brought up an impressive list of sites small and large, from simple to complex running with sNews which was really encouraging. There’s a vibrant community of developers creating additional functionality and add-ons for using with sNews to extend it further.

I’ll be adding sNews to my ‘toolbox’ of open source CMS that I use when designing future sites.

In Spring to Summer 2008, in addition to the free WordPress themes I’m planning to make available for specially designed for the needs of nonprofit organisations (that don’t look like a traditional blog!) I hope also to offer some templates for sNews too.

Filed under Foss, Nptech, Web design.