By: Steve Outing
Steve Outing’s next column will be published Wednesday, May 29.
As the Web has gotten more technologically sophisticated, has it become a more bland medium — especially in online newspapers?
My answer would be yes. The blame goes at least partly to the increased use of expensive, complicated, and still-immature Web publishing systems being implemented by large media companies.
The classic example: many of the newspaper Web sites of Knight Ridder, which a few months ago took on a uniform look. The Miami Herald‘s Web site no longer looks like a news site that plays up the Herald brand. Instead, visitors see a blandly designed Miami.com home page. The emphasis is on being a city guide (part of Knight Ridder Digital’s Real Cities network) rather than a news provider. The other Knight Ridder newspaper sites look nearly identical.
This was the result of a corporate decision to build an in-house Web publishing system (with the help of consultants) designed to streamline digital content management by all of the company’s Web sites and facilitate efficient cross-network advertising. While the goal was to emphasize Real Cities and realize economic savings across the network — this is akin to creating a new radio or television network — the result so far has been to anger Web managers at many Knight Ridder newspapers (and non-owned affiliates).
In my recent travels, I’ve run into several managers of Knight Ridder Web operations, who have expressed (off the record) their dissatisfaction with what the new publishing system has done to their sites. One of their chief complaints: that their sites have lost their identity, and because they no longer control the look of their sites, they no longer reflect the local communities that they serve.
Knight Ridder Web managers may not wish to go on the record, but Real Cities affiliates that aren’t owned by the San Jose, Calif.-based company do. The manager of the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Journal Gazette, for instance, posted a public note on his site last month sharply criticizing Knight Ridder Digital. Manager of News Technologies Tom Pellegrene Jr. says the loss of design control (because his site is part of the Real Cities network and is in a joint operating agreement with the Knight Ridder-owned paper in Fort Wayne) is his biggest gripe: “It’s a great deal like being told (by another company) how our front page should look in the print edition.”
Programmers 1, Designers 0?
Knight Ridder’s decision to implement a network-wide design supported by a complex, automated publishing system is typical of the trend in Web publishing that would appear to be downplaying design and increasing the role of programmers. The designs of Knight Ridder sites such as BayArea.com and Charlotte.com, at least to my eye, look as though they were created by programmers, without a lot of input from professional designers.
Indeed, designers who specialize in the news industry report that they are doing much less online work than in recent years past. Andrew DeVigal, principal of San Francisco Bay Area-based DeVigal Design, who regularly works with the newspaper industry and is a specialist in news Web design, says that much more of his work is now print, because media companies aren’t spending as much money on new media. He partly blames the corporate content management system trend. “Even in Silicon Valley,” he says, “(Web) designers are mostly still hanging out at Starbucks.”
With news companies spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, and in some cases millions, on content management systems, there seems to be less money available to pay for designers — and less need or desire for their services. Part of the reason for this, suggests DeVigal, is that the typical digital publishing system requires that page templates be set up — which leaves little room for creativity as Web pages are produced. Programmers often balk at requests to set up multiple templates, and to make the templates flexible enough to satisfy designers’ requests.
Laura Reul, executive director of Denver University’s Estlow Center for Journalism and New Media and coordinator for the Society of News Design’s SND.ies (a monthly contest for journalism new-media design and content), says she’s hearing lots of complaints about the new publishing systems. They’re ruining opportunities for doing cutting-edge design, and designers are frustrated because all they can do is plug content into templates.
The trend appears to be resulting in a talent drain within the news Web design field. Ruel recently wrote an article for SND’s Design magazine reporting on the reluctance of print newspaper designers to learn Web design. Designers she interviewed didn’t “see much on the Web that inspires them” these days. That’s quite a change from the “old days” when Web content was hot and money was being thrown at figuring out how to present stories on the Internet in innovative ways.
Don Wittekind, graphics director of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale) and a specialist in Web interactive and animated Flash info-graphics, says he shares designers’ frustration with the current state of Web news. The typical content management system offers “layout tools, not design tools.” He says that template page creation offered by content management systems will seldom suffice from the designer’s perspective; they can’t offer anywhere near the page-design capabilities of software tools like DreamWeaver (for Web pages) or Quark Xpress (for print).
Creating content management systems that streamline multi-site publishing and satisfy the need for design flexibility is difficult at the current state of the technology. Bill Skeet, formerly the chief Web site designer for Knight Ridder and now senior manager of Web technology and interface at Juniper Networks, says that today’s systems probably need to mature — to the point where a balance between programming efficiencies and creative site design exists.
“This is a difficult business. The issues (in getting it right) are not trivial,” he says. Creativity was much easier to execute in the days of static HTML content. Indeed, cautious publishers might be tempted to stick to static Web pages until publishing systems solve the restricted-design problem. Skeet says that’s not a great idea; better to work to perfect the publishing systems and make them less restrictive — keeping at it till the systems better serve news Web publishing.
But while technology is easy to point a finger of blame at — and in the case of Knight Ridder Digital, that’s what many people are blaming — sometimes it’s an execution problem, say the experts in content management systems. What happened at Knight Ridder Digital? Was it not ready for prime-time technology, or was it a case of less-than-perfect execution? (When the switch was made at Knight Ridder/Real Cities sites to the new publishing system earlier this year, many links to old content at newspaper sites no longer worked.)
Knight Ridder Digital Vice President and General Manager of Site Operations Bob Ryan (whose job it is to deal with all of Knight Ridder’s newspaper Web sites) acknowledges that the transition to the new publishing system was “not without its challenges.” But the technology used is sound, he claims, and is capable of doing what its masters ask of it. Knight Ridder Digital set an aggressive timetable for the switch: the system was implemented in only five weeks in January and February, and the Web operations of 28 companies went from operating mostly independently to operating under a single umbrella system.
Ryan defends the uniform multi-site design, saying that the old way of maintaining unique Web sites at each newspaper was simply not financially viable any longer if the company expected to make its Internet operations profitable long term. Ryan says that the technology was less than perfect at first, and performance issues (slow-loading pages) plagued it early on. Those issues are being addressed, he says, and performance has improved — though there’s still much work to be done.
From the corporate perspective, the efficiencies of a central publishing system outweigh the desire of individual sites to maintain individual control over their sites. Those efficiencies include easy sharing of content throughout the chain’s sites and an hours-long (as opposed to weeks, previously) process to insert targeted advertising across the Real Cities network. Ryan says he’s well aware of the criticism from site managers, and is working on addressing their concerns.
Is the advent of corporate-wide publishing systems killing design on the Web? Ryan rejects that notion, and says that designers remain an important — perhaps more important than before — part of the process of site development. He insists that the opportunity to do local design still exists, but it must be constrained by managing the overall business in a cost-effective manner at the national level. Likewise, he wants to maintain a professional atmosphere where Web staff members have challenging and creative opportunities — but again, within the constraints of the business’ overall needs for efficiency and profit.
Ryan says that so far, traffic to Real Cities sites has not dropped — and he’s seen no evidence of a user backlash against the new uniform design used across the network.
Another major chain that converted to a central publishing system didn’t face the same criticism. The Tribune Co.’s Oxygen publishing system, in use across that company’s 11 daily newspaper Web sites as well as 25 broadcast sites, has been getting decent reviews — because it better accommodates those sites’ individual designs.
As more of the industry moves to sophisticated online publishing systems, more attention should be paid to design flexibility. These publishing systems and network-wide efficiencies should not be allowed to wag the dog.
Other recent columns
Have u 4gotten IM?, Wednesday, April 24
News Sites Repeat Mistakes Of the Past, Wednesday, April 10
USC J-School To Teach Convergence To All, Wednesday, March 27
Interactive News Is Newspaper-Wide Effort In Spokane, Wednesday, March 13
News Sites Need To Get Flash-y, Wednesday, Feb. 27
Newspapers: Don’t Blow It Again, Wednesday, Feb. 13
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