Was Romenesko Rebuilt In a Daze?

By: Greg Mitchell

Opinion

The news sent shock waves across the newspaper industry in the middle of this month. No, it wasn’t a fresh round of layoffs at Knight Ridder, accusations of plagiarism against a Pulitzer Prize winner, or a crushing slump in classified-ad revenue. This was important stuff, a real shocker, and it might affect the quality of life, daily routine, and journalistic integrity of thousands in the industry: Romenesko’s Web site was about to be redesigned. Two days later, when the new look made its debut, it would be likened to “another Pearl Harbor” — the 1941 attack, not the 2001 movie.

Our saga began way back in 1999 when Jim Romenesko, the former Milwaukee Journal and Saint Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press reporter, started a little hobby site called mediagossip.com. It quickly gained an enormous following in newsrooms and front offices across the land, though it was little more than a collection of links with attitude. Soon, Romenesko migrated to the Poynter Institute site, which started putting up his groundbreaking “blog”
at its popular home for journalists (http://www.poynter.org). The suddenly respectable Romenesko changed the site name to MediaNews, but I don’t recall if that created any storm of protest.

In any case, for years, all was well. The MediaNews audience grew to absurd proportions, Romenesko gained no small measure of fame (at least in our world), and a familiar cry was heard across the land: “Have you seen Romenesko today?” Here at E&P we are proud of our Web site, which last month hit new highs in unique users and page views, but getting a link on Romenesko always guarantees additional (though sometimes hysterical) feedback.

Then, out of the blue, on Nov. 13, word spread like spotted fever: Romenesko soon would get a new look, as part of a redesign of the entire Poynter site. The Poynter overhaul would introduce new navigation tools, the ability to e-mail a page to a colleague, and other 21st- century features. However, it would also … mess with Romenesko. Even before the new site went up, Bill Mitchell, editor of Poynter Online, received this urgent message from James J. Cramer, co-founder of TheStreet.com (now a hotwire TV personality): “Ain’t broke. Don’t fix.”

On Nov. 15, the refreshed MediaNews appeared, dominated by a new color (aqua, instead of tabloid red) and with new fonts and a general look that muted the old, brash, cluttered style — which actually matched the content — with a more academic tone consistent with the other Poynter areas. And, egad, the popular row of brief news links that always lined the left side of the MediaNews page (and where E&P often found a second home) were gone completely. To put it mildly, Romenesko fans acted like it was the worst makeover since New Coke, the New James Bond (George Lazenby), or the New Nixon.

Making use of the handy new “feedback” form provided by Poynter, these wordsmiths, elevating their craft to new heights, calmly observed: “Oh no.” “Yuck.” “Blech.” “This sucks.” “Make it stop.” “A sick joke.” “It bites.” Someone said the new color scheme made him “seasick.” Many obsessed on the missing left-hand column (it was like a death in the family).

A few brave souls admitted they actually liked the new look. But noted author James Fallows commented that, while the changes were “well- intentioned,” he found the new design “less usable, readable, and comprehensible than before.” Others were ready to storm the Bastille: “Free Romenesko!” “Boycott the rest of Poynter!” “Call out the National Guard.” Clara Jeffery said she’d be willing to pay premium rates to read Romenesko, “old-style,” if only Salon would “steal Jim away.”

Another fan noted: “The irony is crushing. That Romenesko, where we come to read about all the corporate muckety-mucks mucking up news sites by removing distinctive individual appeal, has now succumbed to the exact same phenomenon.” Plaintively, he begged Romenesko to make clear that this was not his “doing” and that he agreed it “sucks.”

But Romenesko, wisely, wasn’t talking for the record, as least from what I saw online. But he did send a note to me hinting that rethinking was, indeed, under way. And, just two days after the experiment began, Bill Mitchell posted a message on the site announcing that, “one way or another, the left rail items will return to the top of the page” and that he’d be responding to “other suggestions as well.”

Then, last Friday, the new New Romenesko materialized. Sure enough, the “left rail” was back in all its insouciant glory (“Energy pubs ran bum stories”), clickability was improved, font size adjusted. In a note, Bill Mitchell declared, “Let’s try this again” and promised “a lot more” changes under consideration. Only a partial retreat, so not yet on a par with the return of Classic Coke or Sean Connery as James Bond — but we’ll take it.

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