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Interactive Template

What is it?

This template for grunt-init contains all the setup required to start building a flat-file news application. Although it's a good starting place, providing reasonable defaults and data sources, it is not opinionated about front-end frameworks or overall application architecture. Out of the box, it provides:

  • HTML templating using EJS with Markdown rendering
  • JavaScript bundling using Browserify and Babel
  • CSS compilation from LESS
  • Live reload for all front-end tasks
  • Data pipelines for loading:
    • Text from Google Docs
    • Structured data from Google Sheets or CSV
    • Automatic ArchieML parsing from text
  • Deployment and asset synchronization with S3

Executive summary: Provides everything you need to start building a news app or interactive graphic.


Before you begin, you'll need to have the following installed:

  • NodeJS/NPM
  • The Grunt command line utility (grunt-cli, installed globally)
  • Grunt project scaffolding (grunt-init, installed globally)

Find (or create) the .grunt-init folder in your user's home folder and clone this repo into it using the following command:

git clone interactive

(We want to clone into the "interactive" folder so that we can run grunt-init interactive and not grunt-init interactive-template. grunt-init uses the name of the folder as the name of the template to init.)

If it works, you should be able to ls ~/.grunt-init/interactive and get back a list of files. That's it! Now let's start a sample project to see how it all works.

Getting Started

For our first project, we'll do something pretty simple. Open a terminal, make a new folder for your project, and run grunt-init:

cd ~
mkdir example-app
cd example-app
grunt-init interactive

The scaffolding wizard will ask you to fill in some information, such as your name, the name of the project, a description. Once that's done, it'll set up some folders and source files for you in the current directory (the one seen in the output of pwd), and install the NPM modules needed for this project. After grunt-init hands you back to the prompt, type grunt at the command line to compile the project and start a local development server at http://localhost:8000.

This is all well and good, but the page itself isn't very exciting at the start, because there's nothing in it. There are three default files that are created for you to start your project:

  • /src/index.html - The primary HTML file for the project
  • /src/js/main.js - The entry point for all JavaScript on the page
  • /src/css/seed.less - The bootstrap file for LESS compilation into CSS

If you open up src/index.html, and edit it while Grunt is running, the watch task will see your changes and re-run the relevant task. Likewise, editing seed.less (or any other LESS file in the src/css directory) will cause the LESS compiler to recompile your CSS, and editing any JavaScript files in the src/js file will cause the browserify to rebuild /build/app.js based on your dependencies from src/js/main.js. These changes are baked out into the build folder for publishing, but also served up via the local development server on port 8000.

Data and Templating

The index.html template (and any other templates you choose to add to the project) are processed using Grunt's built-in Lo-dash templating (HTML files starting with an _ will be ignored). If you have any CSV files located in your data directory, these will be parsed and made available to your templates via the csv object (likewise, JSON files in the data directory will be loaded to the json object, keyed by their filename). For example, maybe you have a CSV file located at data/ceoData.csv containing columns of data named "company", "name", "age", "gender", and "salary". We could write the following template in our index.html file to output this as an HTML table:

    <% csv.ceoData.forEach(function(ceo) { %>
      <td><%= %>
      <td><%= %>
      <td><%= t.formatMoney(ceo.salary) %>
    <% }); %>

In addition to on-disk data, you can set the template to import data from Google Sheets. This is a great option for collaborating with other newsroom staff, who may find Google Drive easier than Excel (especially when it comes to sharing files). You'll also need to run grunt google-auth to create a local OAuth token before you can talk to the API. Once authenticated, the easiest way to link a sheet to your project is to create it from the command line task:

grunt google-create --type=sheets --name="My Document Name"

This will generate the file in your Drive account and add its key to the project configuration. You can also import existing sheets by their IDs: open the project.json file and add your workbook key to the sheets array found there. Once the workbook key is set and you're authenticated, running grunt sheets will download the data from Google and cache it as JSON (one file per worksheet).

As with CSV, the data will be stored as an array unless one of your columns is named "key," in which case it'll be stored as a hash table to each row object. If there are only two columns named "key" and "value," it'll simplify that structure by putting the value column directly into the lookup (i.e., you can use sheet.key to get the value, instead of sheet.key.value). You can also append a type notation to your column name, separating it from the key with a colon (e.g., "zipcode:text", "percapita:number", or "enabled:boolean").

When placing data into your HTML via Lo-dash, there are some helper functions that are also made available via t, as seen above with t.formatMoney(). These are defined in tasks/build.js, but you should feel free to add your own. One that may prove useful is t.include(), which will import another file into the template for processing. For example, we might import a header and footer with the following template:

<%= t.include("partials/_head.html") %>
This space intentionally left blank.
<%= t.include("partials/_foot.html") %>

You can also pass data to an included template file using the second argument to t.include(), like so:

<%= t.include("partials/_ad.html", { type: "banner" }) %>

This will load our ad block, sized for a "banner" slot (other common slots are "square" and "tall"). We include a number of partials as useful building blocks.

If you need to pull in article text, we strongly recommend using ArchieML to load text and data chunks into your regular HTML templates. Any file with a .txt extension in the data folder will be exposed as archieml.{filename}. You can use Markdown syntax in ArchieML files by using the t.renderMarkdown() function in your templates to process content:

<main class="article">
  <%= t.renderMarkdown(archieml.story.intro) %>

The template also includes a task (docs) for downloading Google Docs, much the same way as Sheets, and the google-create task can be used to automatically create/link them if you specify --type=docs. They'll be cached as .docs.txt in the data folder, and then loaded as ArchieML.

Access to Docs requires your machine to have a Google OAuth token, which is largely the same as described in this post. You can obtain a token by running grunt google-auth.

While Sheets are specified in project.json as an array, Docs should be set as an object mapping filename to document ID:

"docs": {
  "story": "id-string-here"

This would cause your rig to download the document as, then accessible for templating at

Client-side Code

Let's install Leaflet and add it to our JavaScript bundle. From the project folder, run the following command:

npm install leaflet --save

Now we'll change src/js/main.js to load Leaflet:

var L = require("leaflet"); //load Leaflet from an NPM module

When we restart our dev server by running the grunt command, the bundle task will scan the dependencies it finds, starting in src/js/main.js, and build those into a single file at build/app.js (which is already included in the default HTML template).

The template also includes a number of smaller helper modules that we didn't think were important enough to publish to NPM. You can always load these modules with the relative path:

//this enables social widgets and ad code
//no return value is needed

//load our animated scroll and FLIP animation helpers for use
var animateScroll = require("./lib/animateScroll");
var flip = require("./lib/flip");

These micro-modules cover most of the basic DOM manipulation that you would need for a news apps, short of importing a full framework.

  • debounce.js - Equivalent of Underscore's debounce()
  • delegate.js - Equivalent of calling jQuery.on() with event delegation
  • dom.js - Build HTML in JS, similar to React.createElement()
  • dot.js - Compile client-side EJS templates with the same syntax used by the build system
  • flip.js - Animate smoothly using FLIP
  • qsa.js - Aliases for document.querySelectorAll() (as $) and querySelector() (as $.one())
  • tracking.js - Lets you fire custom events into GA for analytics

Browserify plugins for loading text files (with extensions .txt and .html) and LESS files (for creating web components) are included with the template, so you can also just require() those files the same way you would other local modules. We often use this for our client-side templating:

//load the templating library preset
var dot = require("./lib/dot");

//get the template source and compile it
var template = dot.compile( require("./_tmpl.html") );

In a similar fashion, to add more CSS to our project, we would create a new LESS file in src/css, then update our src/css/seed.less file to import it like so:

@import "variables"; //import src/css/variables.less
@import "base"; //import src/css/base.less
@import "project"; //import src/css/project.less

From this point, we can continue adding new HTML templates, new JavaScript files, and new LESS imports, just by following these conventions. Our page will be regenerated as we make changes as long as the default Grunt task is running, and the built-in live reload server will even refresh the page for us!

Note that both the LESS and JS bundle tasks are designed to be easily extensible: if you need to output multiple bundles for separate pages (such as a primary page and a secondary embedded widget), you can add new seeds to these files relatively easily, and then share code between both bundles.

Publishing your work

By default, this template can publish to S3. Two publication targets are set in project.json: stage and live. Running grunt publish will push contents of the build folder to the staging bucket and path. To push to the live bucket, you must first set production: true in your project.json file, then run grunt publish:live. This is to protect against accidental publication.

When you run grunt publish, it will read your AWS credentials from the standard AWS environment variables (AWS_ACCESS_KEY_ID and AWS_SECRET_ACCESS_KEY). You must have these variables set before publication. You should also make sure your files have been rebuilt first, either by running the default task or by running the static task (grunt static publish will do both).

Thinking about tasks

All of the above processes--templating, compiling styles and JavaScript, and running the development server--are included in the default build task. This process is composed out of smaller tasks, some of which in turn are themselves composites of smaller units of work. We organize them in the Gruntfile.js file, but all code should be written and loaded from the tasks folder.

Conceptually, applications built on this template are organized around the idea that we take inputs from various locations (src, data, or a remote API) and produce a static set of files in build. Whenever possible, these tasks are largely stateless: they do not retain or re-use information between runs.

The default tasks currently defined by the rig are:

  • archieml - Load text files onto
  • build - Process HTML templates
  • bundle - Compile JS into the app.js file
  • clean - Delete the build folder to start again from scratch
  • connect - Start the dev server
  • copy - Copy all assets over to the build folder
  • cron - Run a series of build tasks at regular intervals (for automated publishing, like election results)
  • csv - Load CSV files onto
  • docs - Download Google Docs and save as .txt
  • google-auth - Authorize against the Drive API for downloading private files from Google, such as Docs and Sheets files.
  • google-create - Create a Google Drive file and link it into the project config
  • issues - Create a default set of GitHub issues in a project repo, as defined in issues.csv
  • json - Load JSON files onto
  • less - Compile LESS files into CSS
  • publish - Push files to S3 or other endpoints
  • sheets - Download data from Google Sheets and save as JSON files
  • static - Run all generation tasks, but do not start the watches or dev server
  • sync - Synchronize gitignored assets in src/assets/synced with the S3 bucket
  • systemd - Generate a SystemD service file for running the build process automatically
  • template - Load data files and process HTML templates
  • watch - Watch various directories and perform partial builds when they change

Knowing that these tasks are composable, we can use it to perform selective operations, not just full builds.

For example, a common problem is to quickly hotfix the JavaScript bundle for a project. To do this, we want to clear out the contents of the build folder, assemble just the JS scripts, and then publish it. So we might run grunt clean bundle publish:live.

Similarly, let's say we just want to update the HTML for a project with fresh edits from Google, but not take the time to build or upload scripts, assets, and styles. We'll want to use the "template" meta-task, defined in the Gruntfile, which loads all our data and runs the build task to generate HTML against it. So for this, we might run grunt docs sheets clean template publish:live.

Finally, on some projects, it may make sense to define a validation step that checks data for integrity before continuing the build process (example: our liveblog rig). By creating this task and then adding it to the "content" meta-task, it will run every time the template loads. Then we can run grunt docs sheets content to load and validate fresh data, without needing to start the entire rig or run all of the other things it can do.

Where does everything go?

├── auth.json - authentication information for S3 and other endpoints
├── build - generated, not checked in or included before the first build
│   ├── assets
│   ├── app.js
│   ├── index.html
│   └── style.css
├── data - folder for all JSON/CSV/ArchieML data files
├── Gruntfile.js
├── package.json - Node dependencies and metadata
├── project.json - various project configuration
├── src
│   ├── assets - files will be automatically copied to /build/assets
│   ├── css - LESS files
│   ├── index.html
│   ├── partials - directory containing boilerplate template sections
│   └── js
│       ├── main.js
│       └── lib - directory for useful micro-modules
└── tasks - All Grunt tasks


This template is licensed under the MIT License, so you are free to do whatever you want with it. If you update or improve the Grunt tasks contained inside, we'd love to hear from you.

By default, the projects generated by this template are licensed under the GPLv3, and we whole-heartedly recommend its usage. However, given that the template itself is MIT-licensed, you are free to replace root/license.txt with the legal text of your choice, or remove it entirely.


A Node-based template for starting news apps and interactive pages







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