The two things I focus on during redesigns (the home page isn’t one of them)

Ann Friedman has a smart piece at Columbia Journalism Review that examines the role of the home page.

Friedman’s conclusion:

It’s [the home page] gone from something like a newspaper’s A1—a glimpse of and portal to the day’s top content—and become more like a magazine cover, providing a tease and a hint at the editorial project, but not a direct path to stories themselves … For a majority of readers, who come in through the side door and then pare back the URL or click on the publication’s logo, the modern homepage conveys what this news outlet is all about, but little else. It’s still valuable. It’s just not as important to the business model or editorial project. And the sooner editors come to grips with that, the better.

This shift started with SEO. It didn’t take long for savvy Internet types to realize Google was sending traffic to specific pages, not necessarily the home page. Social tools amplified this trend. No one tweets a link to your front door.

This is why I limit my focus to two things anytime a redesign is discussed:

1. The design and utility of the article page — I assume most visitors will interact with the site at this level, so the article page better look and work well. It must be clean, fast and intuitive.

2. The formatting of the body area — People come to a site to read or see something that sits in the body segment of the page. That “something” better look good. That means p tags and subheads and line height deserve attention. Videos should be large enough to look right but not so large they get cut off. Pictures should have adequate spacing. All of these details matter because this is the stuff people are looking for and at. And if you send your content out through a full RSS feed, body copy is the only thing people see.

Related thought No. 1: This is my nightmare.

Related thought No. 2: Always use a text editor. Always.

Notable things: Google’s sneaky $1 billion; a visual story with no visuals = ridiculous; there’s a $50 limit on teacher gifts

Google is well known as an advertising company and/or a search company, but it’s also a full-fledged services company. It’s time we started thinking of it as such.

From the Wall Street Journal:

Over the past year Google generated around $1 billion from the sale of Google Apps and separate mapping software to businesses and governments, said people familiar with the matter. Google said more than five million businesses use Google Apps, though the vast majority have fewer than 10 users and thus use the free version. In total, Google has said more than 40 million people use the free and paid versions of Google Apps. [Emphasis added.]

Why would a story with the headline “The world’s deadliest road” only feature a single photo? There’s a semi-related slideshow, but that’s focused on a driving school rather than the road itself.

The highway story tries to paint a picture through colorful description — a lot of description — but that’s not good enough. Not these days when you can capture everything with high-res multimedia.

Example: This is a nice paragraph, but where’s the video that shows us how it feels to be on this road?

Passenger buses loaded with luggage overtake each other at high speed on blind corners, missing oncoming traffic by inches. The rusting skeletons of smashed-up vehicles litter the side of the road. Open-backed trucks filled with people – tonnes of thundering metal – career down the road at 90km an hour, shaking the windows of our car as they scream past. Amid this, streams of garment workers in brightly coloured saris, children walking home from school and men on wobbling bicycles share the road with these machines …

This is unacceptable on two levels:

  1. The visual opportunities in this story were apparent from the beginning. This isn’t an expose on actuarial tables. We’re talking about a deadly highway.
  2. The story is not objective. It’s an attempt to rally outrage and support. If you really want to inspire action, you must show and tell.

I didn’t know this:

[Massachusetts] State ethics law prevents public school teachers from accepting any gift, Christmas or otherwise, with a value of $50 or more. And, they must disclose the gifts they accept that are worth less than that.

Via Patch.

De-emphasizing the website (a pile of thoughts)

A number of smart posts have recently focused on a thing called “sub-compact media” or “subcompact publishing” or “artisanal media.” (That last one is ridiculous. Artisanal?)

What we call it is less important than what it is: The much-needed, long-desired, I’m-so-happy-this-is-happening metamorphosis of digital content.

For far too long publishers have crammed digital material into poor representations of newspapers, magazines, and books. These forms work fine in the physical world, but their digital counterparts leave much to be desired.

The humans that read this stuff have adapted to these half-assed mechanisms. But if this was being handled correctly — if we were truly beginning at the beginning — publishers would see that reader adaptation is failure. Readers shouldn’t have to adapt. It’s the forms that need to change.

An essay like this tells me we’re getting closer to how it’s supposed to be. This is an exciting time.

Somewhat related to all this: For a while now I’ve toyed with the idea of publishing a website without placing undue emphasis on the website itself.

So much of the focus is put on the part that falls between the www. and the .com. Yet, the audience doesn’t really gather there. Or, if they do, they don’t only gather there like they once did.

People go where they want and consume what they want. The smart publishers are the ones that diversified their offerings and embraced this shift. These publishers go where people already gather.

But what if we took it a step further? What if we considered all platforms to be equal?

Instead of this:

How it is. Website at the center

What if we did this?

How it should be. Content at the center

This requires a shift in mindset.

If you’re going to build one beautiful chair, you put everything into that single piece of furniture. But if you’re building a beautiful set of chairs, you approach the project differently.

This same shift applies to content. Crafting a single article is different than crafting a set of content. Without this shift, what you get is one good thing (the article) that’s orbited by a bunch of lazy repurposed bits (headlines as tweets, the same excerpt cross-posted on every social media platform you use, crappy metadata, and on and on).

Here’s how this revised model could work:

→ Choose three to four platforms to focus on (RSS, Twitter, Facebook, mobile app, website, Google+, newsletter, LinkedIn, whatever works best for you). Be picky. Have a firm understanding of who uses those platforms and how you can serve them. This understanding will guide the publishing program. You’ll be customizing material for each audience on each platform.

→ A single piece of content is made up of components customized for each platform (this is why you should be picky with your chosen platforms — the more platforms you serve, the work you have to do).

Example: An interview would include the main Q&A posted on the website and formatted lovingly; two or three tweets that showcase notable quotes/points so Twitter followers can get the gist of the interview without diving into the full version (really — give them everything and they’ll come to you for more); a shorter version of the interview for the email newsletter, or perhaps a few portions that only appear in the newsletter; and a special RSS version of some sort (I’m not sure what this would entail, exactly — Do your RSS readers want shorter content or longer? Do they want multimedia or not? These are the questions that need to be answered).

The important thing is that a “piece” isn’t finished until all these components are composed and published (kinda like Voltron).

→ Analytics would need to expand to include activity across platforms (this requires a lot of hand work because cross-platform analytics tools are horrendous, but the work is necessary and you can’t skip this step).

To be clear: You still need a website, and that site should be your canonical source. But your content should not be limited to, nor defined by, the website.

I need to think about this more (clearly), but I wanted to jot down a few introductory thoughts before they evaporate.

Known issues:

  1. This is rough. Very, very rough. Much work needs to be done.
  2. This will not work for sites that depend on impression-driven advertising. But here’s the thing: that model was always going to be an interim step. The sooner you get past it the better you’ll be positioned for the inevitable transition to come. (I’ve been harping on this for a long time.)

My online edit fundamentals (in handy cliche form)

I’ve been involved with online content in one form or another for 16 years. Over that time I’ve developed fundamentals that guide my thinking. I’m posting them here just for the hell of it.

In no particular order …

Give a damn about the content and the people consuming it.

And the inverse: Assume no one gives a damn about your content. You have to earn the attention.

Value first, promotions second.

Good content projects are built on consistency and longevity.

Build your foundation with regular content (daily, weekly, whatever). Construct bigger / less frequent pieces on top of this foundation. It’s like taking off from a trampoline — every jump is amplified.

You have to do the work.

Headlines matter. A lot.

Metadata matters. A lot.

Formatting matters. A lot.

Page speed matters. (You know what I’m going to say here …)

Traffic spikes are high-sugar, low-nutrition.

Go where people already already gather.

Customize content for the platform.

Track the hell out of things.

Strive for a holistic view of traffic and engagement.

Spend one hour per week examining and asking questions against the analytics.

Maybe it’s a Scottish thing

I’ve always wondered why I’m so obsessive about using every last bit of content. A post from Steve Forbes suggests heritage might be the culprit: In essence my grandfather B.C. Forbes, a penniless Scottish immigrant who founded our company, was…

I’ve always wondered why I’m so obsessive about using every last bit of content. A post from Steve Forbes suggests heritage might be the culprit:

In essence my grandfather B.C. Forbes, a penniless Scottish immigrant who founded our company, was a blogger. He hated the idea of not being able to use all of the material he gathered while reporting. That was one of the reasons that propelled him to start Forbes magazine in addition to his column — so that he could publish all of the information he compiled.

I like that. It’s a far better conclusion than pure psychosis.

And since you’re here, you might want to check out my Twitter feed, my FriendFeed account, my Tumblr, my Google Reader Shared Items page, and my LinkedIn group.

Content isn’t going away, so calm down [Quote]

Testify, Mike: Eventually, as these new business models and new institutions work themselves out, it’ll suddenly seem “obvious” what the right answers were, and people will forget the hundreds if not thousands of different experiments — both good and bad…

Testify, Mike:

Eventually, as these new business models and new institutions work themselves out, it’ll suddenly seem “obvious” what the right answers were, and people will forget the hundreds if not thousands of different experiments — both good and bad — that went into developing the new model. It’s a time of upheaval, for sure, but there’s no indication that there’s any real risk to the production of content. Just a few businesses that got big and don’t want to change with the times.Mike Masnick, TechDirt