Gutenberg and Publishers: unconference notes from WordCamp for Publishers

At WordCamp for Publishers, I hosted an unconference session on "Gutenberg and Publishers". There were forty people overflowing a conference room who worked at agencies, publishers, universities, hosting companies, as freelance developers and writers, and one person who described their affiliation as "I left my backpack at the bar last night and lost my name badge, and that's representative of my professional career."

The people in the room had all largely used Gutenberg in some way before the session. Almost the entire room had at least 5 custom meta boxes on the editor screen, over two thirds had at least 10 custom meta boxes, and a few had more than 20. The vast majority used custom taxonomies, many of which had at least one using a UI other than the default taxonomy UI. 


After everyone introduced themselves, I gave a brief introduction to Gutenberg, including demonstrating some of its features. I also explained the block based approach, the desire to eliminate mystery meat, and that Gutenberg is still in very active development with things changing all the time.  After that, I kicked off the discussion.

What do you view as the biggest challenge for publishing companies in making the editor better?

  • Long form layouts. Even with something like short cake to render short codes, you still don't get the full-width experience that you do in a full post. A lot of bouncing back and forth to compare sizes.
  • Everything hooked on to save post and how that negatively impacts the actual saving experience.
  • Collaborative editing and the work around to collaborative editing, which is moving from a thirdparty tool, Google Docs, some other workflow. Bringing that integration into WordPress.
  • Allowing users to preview a prepublished preview version of the post in, the home and the category views. Platform Preview: How do posts look different on different size devices, different platforms, whatever.

What are the customization points that matter most Publishers for the editor? On your site, what's the most custom part of the editor in your eyes?

  • Probably our biggest anxiety around Gutenberg, what is the fate of that metadata management system under the new Gutenberg regime.
  • Taxonomy customization comes in multiple forms:
    • A taxonomy that's a single value, a drop down for it.
    • A taxonomy that can have zero or one with radios and a "clear" button.
    • We'll group multiple taxonomies together in a single meta box that maybe has a repeating field either an autocomplete or a drop down where you select. So there might be five taxonomies which each can have multiple terms.
    • I've had numerous times is where I want a hierarchical taxonomy, but I wanted to limit to two levels. And another is a really long list of taxonomy terms. And so I want to get an audit complete. And then when you select one, it adds to the list of ones that are selected. And have a check box next to the ones that you decide you want to do later. So there's a whole bunch of different ways to do taxonomy.
    • We end up doing a lot of custom validation around taxonomies. We check this one taxonomy, you can check three other of this other type, or X, Z, Z. And right now, I think there isn't sort of a builtin validation mechanism to do enforcement on the layout or on taxonomy.
    • So a couple that I've used as well, in addition to the ones mentioned, is where taxonomies can't be you can choose taxonomies, but you can't add new ones. I think that's probably fairly common.
    • Taxonomies where you must select one, but there's no prepopulated one. There's no default. And taxonomies where you have to select one before you can save the post as well. And it has to pass a save checklist validation thing.
  • I think just validation in the editor as a whole is a wonderful thing that can help us, as developers, make richer experiences. So I can think of other use cases beyond taxonomies. But say like someone has a rich media embed. Is it tagged correctly extremely in another place? Say someone has a citation they're using. Has it been factchecked? Has it been proven? Validation is currently very difficult. Unless you're doing something extremely custom. Which takes a lot of time and a lot of maintenance.

What other hooks for validation do people think are needed?

  • Knowing which block is above and below in some way so that you can enforce not stacking seven videos on top of each other. It's really easy to write a beautiful post in Gutenberg and it's really easy to write a horrible post too.
  • We work with a lot of news agencies. And something that they have been asking us about is how to handle packages. This article has a sub, a side bar. This article has eight photos connected to it. Plus, a graphic, plus, an opinion piece. It would be really great to be able to create that kind of content, either taxonomy or association for future output. 
  • Per context, content. Because for us WordPress is the entry point for web, mobile, and print. So right now we have a tabbed interface with multiple tiny MCE editors to prepare content for all three. Videos make no sense for print. So with Gutenberg to switch over and see the printenabled blocks, but not see the webenabled ones. Or native. Because native will only support certain things too.
  • One opportunity Gutenberg might have is less developercentric and more journalistic is, so if you decide on an atomic unit of writing called the Block, you could annotate this. And you could preserve reporter's notes as to the source of the information. This was from an interview. So a year from now, that reporter is long gone. Right now the source material is lost, scrawled into paper notebooks and stuff like that. So I like that opportunity for this. Each Block could have a source that is published or not published or whatever.
  • One point to accept further on your note about comments within block level, it would be awesome if there was a hook to create additional kinds of data. So not just comments, but also, again, I'm thinking back clarifications. I'm thinking custom meta about meta. Which is weird to say, but it's useful, because at some point when we have to look at this, if a copy editor comes in and wants to look at the posts and validate or triple check, whatever that might be, having a starting point or a place to view all that information, that doesn't sit there baked on the side under the context menu. But you can view that directly next to it.
    • That opens up possibilities around having blocker paragraph levels. Like this has been signed off by the copy editor. Like the collaborative features. The photo editor signed off on a picture. And then you can easily view what paragraphs haven't been signed off. Or if a paragraph changes, the sign off automatically turns off and it needs to get resigned off on.
    • And if there are tasks associated with that article that have to go through revisions or approval or whatever might be. Those become part of the dashboard. An article requires work? Who has to do that work? You can associate more information beyond just the article. Even though we currently do this in our own individual workflows, some of the workflows can be sussed out by having the additional information.
    • Kind of along those lines, the side effects of editing a block. One thing I want to point out. It's built with React and Redux. If you're not familiar with Redux, when things change, you can see the actions that have been changing. And you can hook into those changes and do something else in WordPress, right? So you have a block or let's say somebody is typing a paragraph and you just find that, okay, this is for a publisher, we need to factcheck every paragraph. Whatever. You can have that, as they finish the article, use Redux to send that off to validation server as they're writing the next block. And if it doesn't pass validation or fact checking, maybe the state changes and it's highlighted red.
    • And actually, I can't validate that you talked to this person. And they respond on a different system using the heart beat API or whatever. And within 15 seconds, you my light that, they're off working fact checking. I'm still working on content.

Data Storage

  • Would it be a good idea to maybe have an ability to save this in a JSON format and keep that all together with its own components being stacked? So I think that might help a lot of us. Especially if you're doing things that are WP API based. And headless. 
  • The HTML comments as structured data is Shortcodes reloaded. It's too easy to break. 
  • It's certainly possible to store data elsewhere and then hydrate it for the editor. 

Other Observations and thoughts

  • We do have prototype support for WPGraphQL for Gutenberg. It uses the blocks parser to transform the content. 
  • Gutenberg opens up the possibility for front end editing in the customizer since it's also essentially a sidebar and main content area like Gutenberg. 
  • We had an idea we played with in shortcake for a little bit which was contextual rendering of the short code so, for instance, to say it's a YouTube embed that's being rendered under the RSS view. Maybe you don't want us in the iFrame. You want the YouTube API and get an image instead to replace it. I feel there's a lot of adaptive content ideas you could play with around that.
  • For us, posts end up being three different pieces of content. So if they need to fix a typo in one, it's three spots currently. With something like that, if you had context for a block, it would be the same source of truth. If they change here, the context is just a visual thing.
  • I don't know if this is being thought about but right now you go to get a new post and you basically, have a blank screen, a blank canvas. And if you have task workers you want to, give them a bunch of different things to fill out. I don't know if that's part of the vision to be able to create those task worker forms as well.
  • And another is kind of adaptive posts where you start entering things in and depending on what you select, I'll use the term "Post type" here. But I don't mean specific post type. You select certain fields and get different subfields that you would be able to fill in.
  • There were two ideas that came from a workshop yesterday. I wanted to share these with you. One of them was, building in the blocks themselves rules and best practices. So, you know, that could include things like a link catcher sort of validation process. Another one was to integrate context into distribution. This block will work better at this time. Or in these conditions. 
  • I think a lot of what we're talking about with the blocks with, deciding AMP versus mobile, what it all kind of boils down to is setting specific custom meta for the blocks individually and then saving them as a whole. That would allow you to do your different views because you would be filtering out based on just, I want to see just the AMP version of this. So anything that is either not flagged general or AMP, I'll just not put in. But I have no idea how that would work elegantly in the comments. The current system.

Closing Thoughts

After the session, a few of us chatted further.  One of the ideas discussed was a "Block Council", essentially a group to collaborate on blocks so that there aren't 15 different Facebook blocks floating around (i.e., issues we all see with widgets and plugins). Overall, there is a lot of anxiety around the unknowns of Gutenberg, but most of the people are excited for what Gutenberg offers. There is a lot of work remaining, but the more people that can be involved, the more likely Gutenberg is to be successful.

This post would not have been possible without the transcription by Amanda Lundberg from White Coat Captioning who live captioned the session. Most words are direct from the speaker's mouth. Some have been lightly edited for easier reading. 

A Few Use Cases I Would Like To See Solved In Gutenberg

While I've used WordPress in many ways over the last nearly ten years, I primarily spend my time working on two publications: Scary Mommy and Cafe. "Big Media" publications have challenges and use cases that are different than standard WordPress sites. As Gutenberg continues to evolve, there are a number of use cases that I see as needing to be accommodated. Most of these are things that don't need to be solved "out of the box", but that the extensibility of Gutenberg should accommodate.

It's possible that some of these use cases are already accounted for, but that that the documentation on them is lacking. 

Publication Requirements

Before "Publish" can be pressed, a number of steps need to happen. This could be selecting a featured image, making sure some taxonomies are properly filled out, or that there is 2nd sign off. This takes the form from the super basic such as what make.wordpress.org sites use ( an "Are You Sure" checkbox that must be checked before the publish button is enabled) to the complex custom plugins that are prevalent.

The important part is that there needs to be a documented and extensible way of only allowing posts to be published when other criteria have been met. 

Block Removal

Out of the box, Gutenberg has alot of blocks.  Not every site needs a "Verse" block, and there needs to be a way to remove it. As the classic saying goes, "Design is done not when there is nothing left to add, but instead when there is nothing left to take away".  The ability to remove blocks is necessary for the success of Gutenberg.

Block Modification

Currently, the headings block in Gutenberg allows for selecting H2, H3, and H4. What about sites that also support H5? What about sites that only use H2?  There is a need to make minor modifications to many of the default blocks. While some sites and some users benefit from allowing the content producer to select the alignment of blocks, other sites have strict rules and want to lock it down.

Block Rules

There is a need for blocks such as subheads that only exist after the title. Similarly, there may be editorial rules such as never using more than 3 twitter embeds, or always having at least two paragraphs between headings. These should be a way to enforce these rules.

As Gutenberg continues to evolve, more modification requirements are sure to come up. It's going to take years before all sites can use Gutenberg due to the millions of dollars invested in custom editorial processes, but these are my initial modification use cases.  What are yours?