Allpar’s featured stories

There are two main types of stories that show up on allpar.com: news and features. The news comes up on news.allpar.com, and while it stays pretty much permanently, most people never see a story after its first day or two.

The features show up on the home page and in the various index/contents pages at www.allpar.com, and after they are on the home page, they eventually make it into the random story system, which changes every 20 minutes or so.

The features used to be set up manually, once a week; I’d just type them in and there they were. Then I started using icons to illustrate the features, but it was all still manual. Meanwhile, I set up a “random story” feature, but it just pulled from everything, and some of the stories weren’t really ready to be shown again — Allpar quality has not been consistent over the years.

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The current system combines the two. I wrote an interface to a database, which sits behind a password protected folder (and also requires a password on its own). Now, I can schedule a story by assigning it a number, which represents how many weeks out it is. I can also assign it an “order number,” so I can change the order of articles you see on the home page. Once a week I manually tell the system to move forward one week, and then to change the little cache file which the home page brings up. The same software changes the teasers at the bottom or side of the page.

I find it somewhat amusing that my ham-handed, incompetent coding still brings much tighter code than I normally see in tutorials. Writing code is like writing English: you can write stiffly and incomprehensibly (or as though you are doing a Fiat press release), or you can take out the unnecessary cruft and have something simple and elegant.

Anyway, every time I shift forward a week, this week’s stories go into last week’s stories, and then a week later, they become eligible to be picked as the random features by a little batch program that generates ’em every 20 minutes. That’s done rather inefficiently but my attempt to do it more effectively by hiring a real programmer resulted in code that didn’t work, so … ever 20 minutes, the server does something inefficient. It’s still better than having queries run every time you see a page!

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As to how features are picked, there are a few ways. One is that a contributing writer suggests something, or an event makes it necessary, e.g. a new car is released or there’s a huge auto show or we can do an interview with someone important. Another is that I finally get enough time to go through my massive stock of material and things we haven’t covered yet. Finally, and this is how most “new” features are done now in my state of drug-induced short-attention-span theater/general fatigue, I am slowly going through all the old, old material on the site, expanding it, bringing it up to date and “code,” adding new images, and re-featuring it. That both gets the site to a more consistent level of quality, and makes sure the random feature program has enough articles to draw on.

There’s one more way features are picked: readers ask for something and sometimes I’m able to deliver it. Not always, but sometimes…