On print redesigns

Brothers and sisters in the print design world, you know I love you.

You bust your collective ass day after day to dress up content that may or may not be as award-winning as your design work, and in the end, you usually just get laid off for your troubles.  Because when management looks around that newsroom and sees you drawing pretty pictures, they usually don’t quite understand the importance of your work, compared to, say, an education reporter. (Your mileage may vary, of course.)

All this is just to say, hey, redesign away.  Make beautiful pages.  I lust after your hot L and your reverse-type flags.  I wish every paper looked as cool as yours.

But try not to mistake fresh design for fresh content.

A print redesign — or an online one, for that matter — needs to be accompanied by training for the whole newsroom, especially if you’re designing using different story forms.

If you’re going chart-crazy, make sure you train reporters on how to format data for different types of charts.  If lists are your thing, give the news staff some good examples of A1 lists to follow.  Putting a set of briefs in rail?  Try training the copydesk to distill stories down to the right word count in a hurry.

This should be obvious, but is it?  You tell me.

Keep an eye on print design here:

The new Las Vegas Sun is really, really good.

Las Vegas Sun. Whoa.

I liked it a few days ago when I looked at the homepage and an article page or two, but I keep going back and it keeps growing on me.

Read Rob Curley’s rather informative take here, including the ridiculously constraining bits about the crazy JOA that makes the print edition of the Sun more or less an ad-free supplement inserted into the Review-Journal.

Seriously, it’s nuts.

If you’re interested in the changes-every-day centerpiece on the home page, read Khoi Vinh’s post about trying to hire someone to do a similar sort of work at NYTimes.com.

Or just apply for the job.

More wild pieces from the Las Vegas Sun:

If you run a major metro online operation and you’re not paying attention to what this talented crew of all-stars put together in Las Vegas, you’re in the wrong business.

This is a destination site, forced to differentiate from its print product by a weird JOA, building a newspaper site out of nothing that we would traditionally think of as the core content of a print newspaper.

Obviously, I’m impressed.

It’s clearly not their first rodeo.

Is your newspaper.com is a big ball of mud?

Is your newspaper site a clean-looking, uniform grid of semantic (and validated!) code? Or is it a ‘big ball of mud,’ with includes (scotch tape) and javascript (bubble gum) holding together a jumble of disparate hunks of content?

If you answered ‘YES’ to the first question, congratulations, you work at the New York Times, or the Guardian, or maybe a paper running on Ellington. (Yes, yes, feel free to point out your own brilliantly integrated newspaper.com in the comments. Humor me for a moment, mkay?)

But for most of us, that second answer is a reality as newspapers try to race to build and improve functionality that’s built in to more agile systems across the web.

Comments? Yeah, we’ve got a script for that around here somewhere.

Related stories? Uh, sure, I’ll just write something that queries the database for stuff from the same section with a search for a couple keywords built into it, host it on the only server we have around that runs PHP, then write a piece of javascript to call it in each article page.

And now, the buried lede:

Scott Rosenberg (let’s call him a co-founder of Salon.com to get your attention) has a fascinating post up describing a somewhat academic paper about programming that analyzes the “Big Ball of Mud” style of coding and finds some advantages to it:

Foote and Yoder draw a real-world comparison to shantytowns; they’re ubiquitous because they use abundant materials and require only the most basic skills. Similarly, the Big Ball of Mud “doesn’t require a hyperproductive virtuoso architect at every keyboard.” There may even be a “secret advantage” in its “casual, undifferentiated structure”: “forces acting between two parts of the system can be directly addressed without having to worry about undermining the system’s grander architectural aspirations.”

What do you think?

As a user of a news CMS, you might not notice all the scotch tape and bubble gum, but I’d love to hear from developers and designers about whether you think it’s better to aspire to a clean all-encompassing publishing solution or to just keep dancing dirty and refining the connections between your resources as needs arise.

$100 million for e-paper firm – maybe you should start thinking about the future

Red Herring reports a British e-paper company locked up $100 million in venture capital.

“The company plans to build the plant, with an initial capacity of a million displays a year, in the eastern Germany city of Dresden and start production in 2008. The company said demand for electronic readers is expected to climb to 41.6 million units in 2010.”

E-paper is real, and its coming. The best thing for newspapers to do is to keep moving their online presences forward.

There are three key elements to this technology you’re going to want to start developing now, if you haven’t already:

  1. RSS feeds. I’m embarrassed that the paper I work at doesn’t have news feeds yet, and I’ve been there almost three months now. At the Spartan Daily, implementing feeds was my point of entry for working on the site. I’ll work on that… RSS is going to be your delivery system.
  2. Mobile usability. Have you tried to load your paper’s site on a mobile phone browser lately? How much navigation and advertising do your readers need to scroll through before they get to a clean list of headlines? What will Web design for a flexible semiconducting-polymer screen look like?
  3. Search. Think Google News more than Google here. You’re going to want readers to see your headlines in their topic-based RSS feeds, and the only way to do that — other than by frequently updating high-quality content that draws lots of inbound links — is to develop and design in a way that plays nice with search engines. Brush up on some basic SEO, like matching title tags to h1 tags, and start making the little fixes like this on your news site now.

Why should you bother with all this now? Because the future doesn’t happen overnight, it’s a slow process. You’re not going to get surprised by a new technology — your old technology is just going to slowly become obsolete.

The local follies: Finding the horizontal bonds in geographic communities

[Ed. note: Yeah, so that post title sounds like a clever research paper title, which it could certainly be, if I had the time and the inclination.]

The Knight Foundation is giving away $25 million over five years to people like you with hyperlocal community news site ideas.

Now that I have your attention…

Online newspaper execs might throw around “local search” like it’s the Holy Grail of turning a profit on the Web, but how many people intentionally use Citysearch or something of its ilk?

I always think the best approach to this would be to tie it into a local community site, whether we’re talking about something as pre-fabricated as YourHub or as do-it-yourself as SavannahNow.

So what works?

Should newspapers try to re-invent the social networking wheel?

Probably not a good idea.

The Knight Foundation is looking for projects with a more specific focus, I gather.

“If a digital community helps people get together in real life, that qualifies. We’re just saying, for example, a community of model railroaders around the world is not one that we’ve designed this news challenge for. But something that might bring together Detroit teachers, that would work.”

Find a niche and then localize it.

It’s not about creating topical connections, it’s about creating a virtual community space, a water cooler for your town, and if you can, a place for individuals with both common interests and a common location to get together.

Sounds like a plan. Got any bright ideas? Hmm, I wonder if they would include a project based at a University…

Bryan Murley at Reinventing College Media might have been wondering the same thing a couple hours ago:

“If I were sitting down right now to plan a campus news site, one of the things I’d do is make a list of “directories” we could create for the campus community.”

Whether it’s on a campus or off, your goal, online newspaper executive, is to create a branded site, which may or may not be attached to your online newspaper brand, where users come to search for what they want in your community.

That can’t be the only draw, or they’ll just go to Google Maps. That’s what I do.

Want to know where to get a slice of pizza in Santa Cruz? Google Maps. Vegetarian Asian restaurant in Oakland? Google Maps. The boys in Mountain View even went so far as to change the name to Google Local awhile back, didn’t they? Bright idea.

So why isn’t your newspaper site the place your readers go to search high and low?

Interesting question. It’s certainly not my first instinct. I think alt-weeklies have cornered some of this market.

In this part of California, if I want to know what’s going on at local bars and clubs this weekend, I head straight for Metroactive, the online version of Dan Pulcrano’s Metro Newspapers.

Why? Because their search and calendar stuff is easy and simple to use. The Django-based stuff Adrian Holovaty et al did out in Kansas is even better, with a local drink special index. I cannot begin to explain how much use that would get here in Santa Cruz.

The off-brand branded site idea has been around a long time, but Citysearch/Realcities/Boulevard, etc. look outdated and feel pushy about advertising to me.

So what’s the key? Build a site where users want to hang out, where the news is strictly local, and maybe even a bit lighter than usual.

Make me want to hang out with my neighbors on your site. Then maybe I’ll use that big ol’ local search box to find out where I can get my brakes fixed in town, and – oh, lookie here – reviews from people who actually live in my town will pop up with my search results.

Yeah, the off-brand search sites already include reviews, but I sure would be happier about taking that advice if I knew a little more about those folks, if I could click on their avatar and see all their community posts, their comments on news stories, their own little page with pictures from their kids’ soccer game… Wait a minute, their kid is on my kid’s team!

Funny how that works out.

The fundamentals of structured data

Still wondering how to cram all these cool new Web-based tools and toys into your newspaper’s content management system? What, you mean it didn’t come with a database to manage all those user-submitted photos you’re getting through your MySpace page?

Even if you’re not quite that friendly with the social-networking set yet, chances are you’ve got some data sitting around in your stories, just waiting to be structured.

Adrian Holovaty lays out the basics for you, running down all the information you might want to build into something other than a “big blob of text,” as he calls it.

“For example, say a newspaper has written a story about a local fire. Being able to read that story on a cell phone is fine and dandy. Hooray, technology! But what I really want to be able to do is explore the raw facts of that story, one by one, with layers of attribution, and an infrastructure for comparing the details of the fire — date, time, place, victims, fire station number, distance from fire department, names and years experience of firemen on the scene, time it took for firemen to arrive — with the details of previous fires. And subsequent fires, whenever they happen.”

The problem, of course, is that you need to hire a journalistically-minded database geek or a wonky journalist skilled at coding PHP-type languages in order to pull this off.

What if there were a content management system that builds this into its DNA?

There isn’t one yet, I think, but Adrian recommends Ellington, which, to be fair, he developed. I haven’t tried it myself, and I believe it actually costs quite a bit of money for a commercial license, but like I said, using a CMS that allows you to implement new ideas can give you a respectable head start at becoming the sort of online news outlet you talk about becoming when you give speeches at industry conventions.

Search drives serendipity, a continuing conversation

[Ed. note: This is the text of an e-mail I sent in reply to a comment a J-School professor from the University of Florida left on a post from a couple months ago regarding Serendipity on the Web. Part of his reply is posted at the end of this post.]

Hi Prof. McKeen –

Thanks for your comment.

Sorry if my post re: serendipity on the web came out as a let’s-all-slam-the-mossbacks routine directed at you. I’ve dealt with quite a few J-School profs (and heard from some newspaper editors) who endlessly wring their hands and shake their fingers when the topic of the dying print edition comes about.

“What about serendipity?” they say. “How will readers ever get to see anything other than what they were searching for?” they ask.

The idea they have always seems to be that the readership sits in silos, reading only news about underwater basketweaving, rather than reading all the top news stories, plus feeds on their specific interests, like underwater basketweaving.

But we were talking about serendipity, not the ongoing earthquakes in the relationship between the news organization and the “audience.”

When I do cross paths with a classroom full of undergrads, I certainly get your point about getting off their asses. It can be a bit depressing to sit in the back of a room while a guest speaker toils, talking to the back of 20 laptops. Some are surfing MySpace, and some are shopping, and some are chatting, and a few are taking notes. It’s not pretty, but when the speaker mentions something they’re interested in – bing – up pops a Wikipedia page or a blog on the topic – bing – up pops a Google search leading to more resources. Ubiquitous net access makes the world a serendipity engine. You’re on a bus, see a sign for a movie – bing – your cell phone is playing the trailer. You’re in New York at the MOMA – bing – your PDA is pulling down analysis of Starry Night and a detailed explanation of Van Gogh’s technique.

As opposed to, say, searching in the library shelves for these things later….. And I don’t blame the Dewey Decimal system, although it’s fun to do so. (200-289 for Christianity and 290-300 for everything else is always good for a laugh.) No, I blame the *later* part of the equation.

The Web, and user-directed search, offers instant information, and perhaps it’s this spontaneity and speed that encourages the user to click click click around at whatever interests them. Still not convinced? Try YouTube. Still not convinced? Try Digg. Still not convinced? Try PopURLS, which aggregates a dozen or so little serendipity engines — in the case of the ones powered by social networks, like Digg or Newsvine or Delicious, I have the benefit of everyone else’s surfing and clicking and distractions to provide me with places to start my own.

Don’t get me wrong — I love books, and print newspapers, and my collection of LPs, but it sure is hard to find what I’m looking for…. hmm… was that your point?

On rereading your essay, I still find your takes on online news and music puzzling. Like I wrote in my response, online news front pages are simply out of control as far as the number of stories goes. There’s scores of links, and headlines are everywhere. The sectionalization of the print edition is moot when all the articles are in one place. I never read the business section of a newspaper until I started reading news online, and even now, when I pick up a print edition, I often feel like I’ve read the actual news already, online the night before, or sometimes, in blogs weeks earlier before the story filtered up to the mainstream.

So what do I look at when I pick up a print edition? A good narrative story to read, to entertain me, to study the writing of it. And on a good day, I can find one.

On the music front, you lose me when you talk about radio…. Commercial radio is way, way dead. It is the most homogenized medium there is in our society at this point, with megacorporations buying up scads of stations and running the same short playlist over and over again, simultaneously, across a broad swath of the country. And you address this, but you should know that downloading music (legally or not) is just the geeky stepchild of that great serendipity engine of yore, the mixtape.

How great was it to discover a new band when a friend from three states away mailed you a cassette tape (usually about 3 stamps, depending on how much paper one wrapped it in) burned with their own idea of what you might like.

Nowadays I read about new music on a blog, download an mp3, and maybe I think about buying an album or downloading the whole album (legally or not), but the exposure is there, and when I want more information or another song, there’s no waiting to find it.
So, let’s call Search the catalyst of the Web.

Without Search, nothing pushes me past the point of Interest to Action.

With it, I can find reviews, information, samples, clips, pages — anything that will let me know an object, product, idea, person, or place a little better. Interest becomes Action.

[What follows is Prof. McKeen’s reply:]

I agree commercial radio is dead, but it was a vital force in changing the country’s racial attitudes, for one thing. Too soon to tell if satellite radio can fill the void. It does seemed to have most past its elitist stage.
When I said I was talking about technology-plus, it’s my way of trying to say that if we rely only on technology, we will lose a lot of opportunities to learn. And I do see a lot of students relying exclusively on the Internet. It does seem like many net-culture writers speak in absolutes. As Rodney King used to say, “Can’t we all just get along?”

What do you think? Does Search with a capital “S” make it hard to stumble upon things you weren’t looking for online?