Editors Explore Recent Redesigns at Major Web Sites

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By: David S. Hirschman

When you’ve got one of the largest, most successful newspaper Web sites in the country (and the world), making major changes to your homepage can be a big roll of the dice. Your users have grown used to your site and branding, they rely on it to get their news there every day, and, no matter how the changes improve the site, some are going to miss things the way they were.

Still, if a newspaper site — even a major news source with upwards of 50 million hits per month — remains too static these days it risks falling way behind the competition. With readers migrating en masse to the Web for their news, making sure your paper’s site is ahead of the curve becomes ever more vital.

E&P spoke to the editors of three top newspaper sites — USATODAY.com, latimes.com, and washingtonpost.com — about how a redesign makes its way from a set of ideas and needs to an executed vision. One theme that emerged was that redesigning their site was an ongoing process that relies more and more on taking readers’ opinions into effect and making the process more of a conversation than ever before. Still, one editor admitted, half of the reader feedback was initially negative.

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When Meredith Artley took over as editor of latimes.com in March, she already knew that she wanted to make changes.

“Before I started, I’d always found [the homepage] somewhat cluttered and text-heavy,” she says. “Things didn’t seem to line up and I didn’t know where my eye was going.”

The paper was already planning to do a full redesign of the site in the near future, but, rather than wait for several months, she decided to go for some of the “low-hanging fruit” first, with a slight revamp of latimes.com — referred to in-house as a “botox treatment.”

Among the changes that were recently made as part of this “treatment” — which Artley says were designed not to affect the branding or feel of the site — a space was created for reader comments from the site’s blogs; a user-generated photo element was brought higher on the page; headlines were made cleaner; and a video player was also moved higher up.

“What we did in our cleanup had some foreshadowing for what will happen to the rest of the site,” says Artley. “Readers are coming to us for the journalism we’re producing, and we wanted to make maybe a subliminal statement that interactivity with readers is going to be a huge priority going forward.”

The move was telling, because, Artley says, it is indicative of the way redesigns are now done at major sites, with changes happening more as an “evolution” rather than all at once.

“The way that people do redesigns has totally changed,” Artley says. “The days of working behind a curtain and unveiling a big thing are over. Any change we do is not going to be just be ‘voila.’ It’s more that we’re going to put something out there and have a conversation as we go along with our readers. Then more than likely we’re going to make some changes based on their comments and reaction.”

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At the Washington Post’s site, which recently saw a full redesign of its homepage, editor Jim Brady also has found that this kind of back-and-forth with readers over changes has become part of the process.

“We see a lot of feedback about the homepage,” he says, “and based on these, and on focus groups, we’ve made some changes before, during, and after the redesign launched.”

Brady says that the genesis of his site’s redesign, which took a total of eight months to complete, started taking shape as he and his staff saw that the site couldn’t quite hold all the things they were doing. As the way they covered news evolved, he says they felt the site needed to evolve as well.

“Your homepage reflects what you are,” says Brady, “and we needed ours to be more reflective of what the site was about.”

In particular, Brady says, while the site’s coverage had expanded its video coverage (so much that it even won an Emmy award in 2006), there didn’t seem to be enough room on the homepage to feature it all and make users aware of all the multimedia elements that were available. He also thought the site needed to be “cleaned up” a little.

“There were too many elements, and you couldn’t find things easily enough,” he says. “I mean, we have 70 blogs. And we also wanted to show off a little more of the feature stuff, giving it a similar treatment to multimedia.”

To accomplish this, he and his team added a number of new elements to the homepage; cascading style sheets were created to improve navigability to the site’s different sections; a box for discussions was moved higher up on the page; and a multimedia strip was put beneath the top headlines to feature photo galleries, interactive elements, and video.

On the technical side, Brady says it was important that the new page would be optimized to load quickly, as well as to make sure the major elements on the page would be picked up by Google, which is responsible for a large portion of the site’s traffic. Additionally, the new design has to be “tested like crazy” to make sure that it will work with every Web browser and operating system.

Brady says that, in terms of what his staff is producing every day, there has been some change in the workload. His Web team is now responsible for maintaining the multimedia strip on the homepage, and for making sure that there’s a good mix between video, photo, and text elements on the page. The discussions box on the top of the page also has to be monitored, he says, and there is more responsibility for the editors of the section pages as well.

So far the results have been positive, with traffic up on the homepage, but he admits that reader comments have only been about 50% positive.

“People had really gotten so used to the site, and some weren’t thrilled at things not being where they were before,” says Brady. “That’s the inherent risk of redesigns, or of moving anything anywhere. Even moving stuff up on the page is not necessarily going to make people happy. When you move things you take risks. People get very wedded to how they use Web sites, and at first blush people aren’t always happy with something new.”

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At USAToday.com, the homepage’s redesign was a project that went as far back as 2004/2005, when the site first achieved profitability, says editor Kinsey Wilson. Having passed that hurdle, his team began looking at things that came under the rubric of “Web 2.0.”

“Among other things, it was becoming clear that the web was moving to a more open, more distributed architecture — blogs and RSS being the initial drivers,” he says, “and that our continued relevance and continued growth would depend on how we responded to those changes.”

So a small development team was gathered together in the Fall of 2005 to experiment with some of the new “Web 2.0” technologies that the site aimed to incorporate. The following January, the site launched its first blogs and began trying to figure out the best way to integrate reader comments. But these were just a preamble to what would be a broader challenge.

“In the summer of 2006 the publisher challenged us to present a vision that would move us beyond experimentation to a full blown transformation of the site,” says Wilson. “In early July we held a two-day planning retreat; by the end of the month we had a vision and an estimate of the manpower and dollars required to realize that vision. By September we had a partnership in place with Pluck (whose technology would power the social media features) and by October the team was in place and project was underway. We established a goal of an early March launch.”

Wilson says the team divided the work to be done into “zones” with small teams of designers and developers responsible for each zone. At its peak workload, there were about 50 people working on the redesign, all put together in a “war room” where they would be able to easily exchange ideas and work as a team.

“There were clear risks,” Wilson notes. “We would be the first major client to deploy the social media tools Pluck was providing and we would not have an opportunity to fully test them until well into the project; five separate development efforts (ranging from web page design to partner integration to a rebuilding of our publishing system) were being undertaken simultaneously and had to be integrated prior to the launch; we had set an aggressive timetable; and (because of the complexity of the various efforts we were undertaking) we would have to ‘throw the switch’ at launch rather than introduce the redesign in beta.”

Despite those risks, he said, the redesigned USATODAY.com site launched on time and came in under budget. And, with the new homepage in place, the site’s traffic spiked by 21% in March.

The main challenges during the project, according to Wilson, had to do with making sure the various people involved were communicating smoothly, including the 50 people working on it as well as the editorial and business staffers who would also be affected.

Wilson says the impact of the redesign has been felt throughout our merged print/online newsroom in the form of the improved automation and efficiency of our publishing tools and most notably in the way in which we interact with readers.

“Registered users have increased over fourfold,” he notes. “Comments are posted at a rate of about 6,000 a day now; and we are actively using the social media tools to reach out to readers — soliciting everything from weather photos to personal testimonials to investigative tips.”

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All three editors say they thought of their recent redesigns as just another step in an ongoing process.

“It’s a moving target,” says Brady. “We look at it now and it’s fresh, but there will always be the next thing.”

Brady also said the site was going to keep working on pushing the envelope in terms of reaching mobile devices with more sophisticated presentation, as well as expanding the site’s commenting and social networking platform. Still, the main thrust for everyone these days is a focus on online video.

“Video is going to continue to become a bigger and bigger deal,” Brady says, “and so we’re trying to generate more video to put up. Some is shooting our own stuff or using stuff from partners. We’ve done some in jobs and real estate, as well as feature stuff around local music.”

Artley also emphasizes video as a major focus for latimes.com as it moves toward its bigger relaunch, noting that the site is training the photo staff and some of the print staff to use video cameras. She also said that the site will try to “blow out” local coverage, and engage readers more by providing forums for user-generated content.

“It’s a medium — as we saw with the Hillary 1984 video — in which anyone can author, publish, distribute and in some cases even amass audience around their content,” Wilson says. “And while original reporting remains at the core of a successful news operation, it is just as important to aggregate content from other sources, engage directly with readers, and steer readers to the most useful sources on the web.”

He says that the main challenge for news organizations isn’t to find the latest Web fad to mimic, but “to figure out how those tools can improve the presentation and delivery of the news.”

“Anyone can let readers comment on news articles. The harder question is how can you use those comments to improve readers’ understanding of the news,” he says. “As ambitious as our redesign was, we’re still in the very early phases of that effort. We must continue to innovate. It’s essential that we experiment with these tools and move closer to a place where we are not only experts at reporting and telling the story; but experts at identifying other useful resources on the web and engaging in a direct dialog with readers.”

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