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.

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.

What do you do with a writer’s work if they screw up?

TechCrunch terminated an intern who accepted compensation from an outside company in exchange for coverage. The announcement strikes an appropriate tone, but it also includes a passage that ties into a much bigger issue: when a writer goes rogue, what…

TechCrunch terminated an intern who accepted compensation from an outside company in exchange for coverage. The announcement strikes an appropriate tone, but it also includes a passage that ties into a much bigger issue: when a writer goes rogue, what do you do with their published work? Here’s how TechCrunch responded:

This was not one of our full time writers, and so the frequency of posts was light. Nevertheless, we’ve also deleted all content created by this person on our blogs. We are fairly certain that most of the posts weren’t tainted in any way, but to be sure we’ve removed every word written by this person on the TechCrunch network.

One big caveat: the intern in question is a minor, so that certainly takes precedence in any reaction. But the intern posted his own follow up. Privacy implications are moot at this point.

And that brings me back to the bigger issue …

In situations like these, if we assume the wayward writer is an adult, and we assume there are no broader legal issues at play, should the writer’s past work be stricken from the record? Is that the right response?

I don’t think so. An enterprising snoop could mine caches and old RSS feeds for past copies, so deletion isn’t really the Draconian measure it’s intended to be. Beyond that, the cat’s already out of the bag. The writer screwed up. The publishing outlet looks bad. And any move to wipe the slate clean will leave lasting residue. So why wipe it clean at all?

In situations where the wrongdoing is already public — whether announced by the publisher or dug up by someone else — what I’d prefer to see is a prominent editor’s note placed at the very top of every piece the writer ever posted on the publisher’s site. It could be a simple link to the termination announcement. It doesn’t have to be dramatic. The New York Times used a similar tactic with Jayson Blair’s articles.

Advertising should be stripped from these pages and comments closed. That’s appropriate — this isn’t a revenue or publicity opportunity. But it’s important to keep the original material in place. The mistake happened in the public sphere. You can’t take that back, but you can be up front about it both in the near-term and down the road.

My line between edit and sales blurred years ago. It’s not that big a deal

I was fortunate to have my ill-conceived notions about editorial/advertising segregation blown to bits early in my career. It hurt. No doubt about that. I came out of journalism school with all the requisite ethical boundaries and red flags intact….

I was fortunate to have my ill-conceived notions about editorial/advertising segregation blown to bits early in my career. It hurt. No doubt about that. I came out of journalism school with all the requisite ethical boundaries and red flags intact. So it was tough to let that go.

But it was so useful to let that go. It made me see that most journalism organizations are businesses. That’s it. All that stuff about objectivity and watchdog roles and the Fourth Estate sounds good, and it feels good, but news companies must ultimately adhere to the same criteria as every other business: does it make money or does it lose money?

That’s why it’s interesting for me to watch others go through the same gyrations now that the Dallas Morning News is moving editorial and sales closer together. I get it. This is hard to swallow. It goes against everything journalists know, everything we’re taught in the vacuum of j-school. It seems dangerous.

But having lived through my own transition, and having traversed some tricky edit/ad terrain along the way, I can tell you the danger is minimal. Perhaps even non-existent.

First off, consumers don’t care. If the content is informative and entertaining and useful, if readers can justify the time and money spent, they’re good. Second, a smart news business understands that it cannot undermine the trust it’s established with the community. This has nothing to do with public interest or greater good. It’s about money. Trustworthy content builds an audience, and audience attracts advertisers. Kill the trust and you kill the audience; advertisers will take their business elsewhere. That’s all there is to it.

Blurring the edit/ad line within a newsroom isn’t a big deal. It’s what happens after the blurring that matters. If the Dallas Morning News cranks out great stuff and serves/educates/helps people, this can work for everyone involved. If they do something stupid — like violating trust by kowtowing to clients — they’re screwed. That’s just business, and bad businesses die.