Advice from top 3 news websites on how to redesign them (hint hint hint PD/Cleveland.com)

I bet that both Susan Goldberg and Denise Polverine (of Cleveland.com) have already read or heard this advice. I hope so, anyway, because if I’m shaking my head saying, uhhuh, uhhuh, uhhuh because this stuff has occurred to me…

Here’s part of the intro:

…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.

Some of the advice:

From the LAtimes.com: 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.”

From the Washington Post: “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.

From USAToday:
“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.

And in conclusion: “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.”

Carry on, now.

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