Tools and tech we’re using to publish a print, online newspaper

Wow, it’s been over a month since I took ownership of a print and online newspaper here in my community. There’s a lot to say about that experience and what I’ve learned so far. In this post, I’ll be focused on the tools and technology we’re using  to operate this business. Some of these were in place before I came in, some are new in the last month.

I’m sharing this because (a) I generally enjoy the topic of if/how tools can make life and business easier, and (b) I hope it could be useful to someone else publishing a newspaper or building a media organization.

Print Layout and Design

It’s Adobe Creative Cloud all the way, for better or worse. InDesign for newspaper layout, Photoshop for image editing. Given the way our staff is set up and our weekly newspaper production process works, almost everyone touches the newspaper pages at some point or another, so the monthly license costs to cover all of that is somewhat ouch. If there were a viable alternative to InDesign, we’d probably switch to it.

Issue and Story Budget Planning

We’re using an Airtable base that helps us record story ideas and plan for our upcoming issues by tracking what articles are going to go where, what state their in, and all the associated data that goes with them such as photos, source info, internal notes, etc. It’s pretty great and the real-time collaboration that it makes possible is hard to beat. I think down the road we may move toward a custom Laravel-powered solution that allows for tighter integration of all of our business operations, but that’s a ways off.

Phone System

We’re using a self-hosted FreePBX (Asterisk) installation with the Sysadmin Pro and EndPoint Manager paid add-on modules. Digital Ocean had a 1-click installer on their marketplace that made it super fast to get going. We’re using VOIP.ms for our trunk lines and they made DID porting in very easy.

Having used Asterisk in a previous business I was already familiar with its architecture and features, but FreePBX meant I could configure everything via web interface instead of editing dialplan files – amazing. We have extensions, queues, interactive voice menus, voicemail speech to text transcription (using this tool) and more, and it sets up a nice foundation for future integration with other tools like our CRM data.

We’re using Yealink T31P and T33G VOIP phones and so far Counterpath’s Bria Mobile has been the most compatible/feature complete softphone for iOS that I’ve found.

Email, Calendars, Contacts

As much as I’d rather not rely on Google for anything, the reality is that their Google Workspace product is still the best overall value and feature set for a small organization that doesn’t want to get in to self-hosting email/calendars/contacts and fighting deliverability issues. I wanted to try using Fastmail for this and they do have great team/org plans but it didn’t seem to support SAML/SSO in the way I needed (more on that below).

For servers and tools that need to send outbound email reliably, in some cases we’re using Google’s included SMTP relaying and in others we’re using SendGrid.

File Storage

We’re migrating away from a legacy on-premise server to use a self-hosted Nextcloud instance at Digital Ocean. This is also replacing our use of Adobe’s Creative Cloud file storage and syncing service, which we’ve had nothing but problems with in terms of reliability and performance.

Office Automation

We’re using Home Assistant to manage our energy usage by adjusting the thermostat and turning some appliances on and off based on when the office is in use. It also detects and alerts about power outages. I’ve used HA elsewhere and just love it for home/office automation of all sorts.

Internal Knowledgbase

We’re using the Bookstack open source application to manage a kind of internal wiki and knowledgebase. It’s self-hosted on a Digital Ocean droplet.

Internal Messaging and Calls

We’re using Slack for now. I have a RocketChat instance all ready to go after testing it out and being quite pleased, but my colleagues were going through enough change that I wanted to stick with a tool they were already somewhat familiar with. We’ll probably migrate later on. We sometimes also use Zoom.

Customer/Subscriber Conversations and Support

I really liked Helpscout for my one-person SaaS business and have had great experiences with it elsewhere, but the pricing didn’t scale sustainably for a multi-person team. I looked at a self-hosted option via Freescout and it looks really well done, but some of the modules/extensions that we would rely heavily on appeared to be abandoned or under-developed.

So for now we’re using Freshdesk to manage all of our public-facing organization interactions with our subscribers, advertisers and others by email, social media direct messages and other channels. My colleagues have gotten used to it pretty quickly and we’re beginning to use some automations, template responses and Slack integration to make it even more seamless.

Accounting

We’re using Quickbooks Online. As an accounting tool for small business, it works well. In terms of my daily user experience, I hate it because there are advertisements and upsells sprinkled throughout, ALL THE TIME. We’re talking “in between two line items in a random account register, there’s a fake line item advertisement encouraging you to sign up for their commercial checking account product” kind of intrusiveness. It’s just awful.

I wanted to use Zoho Books because I’ve had good experiences with it in my SaaS business, but some early pre-sales support questions to them went unanswered, which I’ve experienced before. I knew wouldn’t have time for with this new venture, despite feeling disinclined to support Intuit’s dominance, and most of the other options I looked at did not have the integrations I knew we would need.

Credit Card Processing

We’re using Square, as that’s the setup that’s been in place for a long time and migrating would make my head explode. While there are some other payment processors I tend to prefer, I have to acknowledge how seamless their tools are across online commerce, in-person point of sales hardware, a virtual web-based terminal and other tools. Their API is solid and their customer support has been responsive, so I’m happy for now.

Website, Paywall, Online Commerce

WordPress and WooCommerce are a pretty magical combination here. We’re using a modified version of the Largo theme for news sites (soon to be replaced) and the WooCommerce Subscriptions and Memberships plugins to create a simple kind of paywall for our PDF e-edition access. We use AutomateWoo to handle some commerce business logic, UsersInsights for a basic set of CRM tools within WP (soon to be replaced), Real3d Flipbook plugin for e-edition viewing, and a bunch of other plugins for various other bits of functionality. We use Plausible for analytics and are phasing out our previous use of Google Analytics.

We host at WP Engine and their pricing, support, functionality and reliability has been outstanding.

We use Buffer to post to our social media accounts.

Down the road we’ll be looking at using Leaky Paywall’s platform.

Monitoring and Outage Alerting

We’re using UptimeRobot along with email, Slack and Pushover integrations to alert us about problems with our own sites/tools as well as services we depend on.

Single Sign On

I really wanted to give my colleagues the experience of having one login/password that gave them access to as many of our tools and services as possible, so I set out to educate myself on this space. I was close to deciding on Auth0 and think it’s probably the best option for a non-technical small business infrastructure person to use for this need, but my interest in self-hosting and using a custom domain for portability while saving money led me to pursue other options.

After looking at Authelia and Authentik I was getting a little worried, and then I thought I’d found the holy grail in SimpleSAMLphp. A SAML SSO tool written in PHP, awesome! Then I started setting it up (along with OpenLDAP for user directory purposes and PrivacyIdea for MFA) and let’s just say that while I’m glad it exists as a project, it turned out to be a bit of a nightmare to work with.

I had passed over Keycloak in my initial research after reading some reviews and documentation that made it seem hard to work with, but after my SimpleSAMLphp experience, it looked like it would be a breeze. Using this guide from Till Sanders and other more recent info I found online, I was able to get a Keycloak instance up on Digital Ocean’s app platform pretty quickly. It’s a very nice tool and has made setting up SSO with both SAML and OpenID very smooth across many of our tools and services.

Password Management

Even with SSO, there’s still a lot of accounts/passwords to manage that don’t connect to our SSO setup. So, 1Password is amazing as always and 1Password for Teams is a great offering at a great price point.

CRM

This is an area that’s still evolving for us. We need to bring together a legacy database of print subscribers, our online WooCommerce customer database and order history, our transaction history with our credit card processor, and some future needs that are to be determined. I was ready to go all in on Zoho CRM because of previous good experiences, but then as with the accounting category above, I had a couple of really discouraging interactions with their support / pre-sales team, and had to put the brakes on.

After exploring MANY other CRM tools and services and very much wishing I could just throw money at one of them to take care of this for us, we’re going with a custom Laravel application instead. The first version is probably launching next week.

Email Marketing Automation

The business has been using Mailchimp so we’ll keep using that for the moment, but because of pricing and interface bloat concerns, I think when we ramp up our use of email we’ll be switching over to MailerLite. I’ve had great experiences with both in past business ventures, but MailerLite’s a bit more fun and easy to use from a developer perspective.

Code Hosting and Version Control

We’re using Git with an organization GitHub account. GitHub is awesome.

Other

We have a couple of custom built Laravel and Laravel Zero applications that perform various automation/integration tasks, such as processing webhooks from various tools noted above, interacting with Airtable or Slack, fetching and processing data we include in the newspaper, and more. These are typically just self-hosted on a Digital Ocean droplet.

Most of our other office equipment is pretty standard but our Vibe S1 Smart Whiteboard has made collaboration and remote communication pretty fun, and I really like my Fujitsu ScanSnap iX1600 document scanner for quickly getting paper things turned in to digital things.

Well, that’s the list for now. If you have any questions or want more detail on any of these, just ask. And if you run a small print + online newspaper / media company, I’d love to learn about what tools you’re using in the categories above.

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Chris Hardie

I'm a deep generalist, currently focused on software engineering + writing + the open web.

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