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Building a Mini CMS with Node, Handlebars, and Airtable

casseylottman profile image Cassey Lottman ・3 min read

I recently started a newsletter on housing & streets policies using TinyLetter.com. For my first couple editions, I used TinyLetter's WYSIWYG editor, but I found before long that the HTML & styling it generates can be very inconsistent. How embarrassing!

Fortunately, the TinyLetter WYSIWYG editor also lets you enter HTML source directly. I decided that would be the best route, but I'd prefer to write my newsletters in Markdown and generate the HTML in a structured way. I also was looking for a way to enter ideas for my newsletter on the go - the TinyLetter editor on mobile isn't the most friendly, and I don't have a go-to notes app that I use already.

I came across this blog post on using Trello as a CMS and decided to try to build something similar using Airtable, which I already use for storing structured personal data and to-do lists. I knew that there are some great Airtable starter projects to remix on Glitch.com, so building off one of those felt like a natural step. I remixed the Glitch project Airtable-Example and began hacking.

First, I built the Airtable base to hold my newsletter content. My newsletter is typically in the form of a link roundup, so I expect each newsletter to have multiple entries with a title and associated URL, and a description that tells why I think people might find this link interesting.

The Kanban view of the Airtable base where I store my newsletter content ideas

Next, I started working on the code. At first I thought maybe I'd want to write the generated HTML to a file that I could copy, but I also wanted to be able to see the rendered HTML of a given newsletter before pasting it in to the TinyLetter editor. So, I decided on a format where the HTML will be displayed side-by-side with the rendered newsletter contents.

The view I want for my newsletter: raw HTML I can easily copy on one side, with the rendered version of that HTML on the other side

At first I was using EJS, as it's a templating engine that has worked well for me on simple projects in the past. I soon found some limitations though that led to a switch to Handlebars. Primarily, there is no support for custom filters in the latest major version of EJS. I wanted a filter to render some of my data (the description field of each newsletter item) as markdown, so that I could have nicely formatted descriptions when I had a lot to say about a given link.

The case where I had a lot to say about one particular link also led to a new format for my newsletter: instead of an <ul> with many links, I wanted to send out info about just a single link, which wouldn't belong in a <ul>. So, I found some helper code for a compare filter in Handlebars that would let me render a <ul> if I have multiple links to show, and a <div> if there is just one link. I found it a bit odd that this isn't built in to Handlebars, but it was easy enough to add a custom helper for it.

I wanted my work-in-progress newsletters to be private, so I added some very basic authentication. I created a form on the index page with a password field, which has to be filled in to match the value I set in .env in order to reveal the contents of the newsletter.

I also wanted my newsletter CMS to be as generalized as possible so others who found it useful could use it. So, I stored all the info that's custom to my app (the name of my newsletter, my name, the values to configure the base to pull newsletter contents from, etc.) in the .env file. When you remix the Airtable-Newsletter-CMS project on Glitch, you'll get a version of the project with the .env ready to fill in with your own values.

You can see the running project on Glitch and remix it for your own use if this is something that feels useful to you.

And of course, if you care about housing & streets policy developments, subscribe to Cassey's Livable Communities Roundup, which was the main impetus for creating this app.

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