Must be redesign season in newsland

I often say a key goal of any Web site redesign should be to make the next redesign easier. Given the rapid pace of redesign launches among newspaper.com sites in recent weeks, it appears some last-generation design work was aimed toward that goal.

The latest projects launched on the heels of Scripps' (my day job) own redesigns, reported here, here, here and here. We have four more Scripps newspaper.com sites on deck, and will launch all the rest before the end of the year. (Our user experience gurus call this “Project Asphalt” — the sites have a black top, get it? Huhuhuhuhuhhh.)

Meanwhile, we saw launches from:

  • Newsday.com: Speaking of black … well, OK, really dark blue.
  • ChicagoTribune.com: Larger nameplate in the newspaper's style, not a distinct Web logo. Thinking like a marketer, I'm not sure that last part is a good idea. But thinking like a typical newspaper marketer, meaning I would have a budget so small it's only a rumor, maybe a little leverage from the century-old brand can't hurt.
  • LATimes.com: What's black, white and … uhh, just black and white all over? To me, the ink splotches in the header and footer (sure hope that's what they are; otherwise, better get my laptop display checked) are rather “meta.” They say, “We know our reputation as ink-stained wretches in a well-soiled industry, but we on the Web staff are so cool, so far from all that, we're going to turn it into a deconstructionist, ironic design element.”

Below the headers, those last two redesigns, both Tribune Co. properties, share similar structures, much as our own Asphalt designs do. You could argue that such similarities represent a return to the hated old days of cookie-cutter Web sites from newspaper chains, a la the Knight-Ridder designs of several years back, in which even the site logos were cut from the same font.

I'd even cop to that, to an extent, in the Scripps project. Some design elements (body text, ad positions, links, image display, video controls) should just look and work mostly the same across content sites. Choices of theme colors, graphic “furniture,” and content (naturally) should retain some local distinctions from site to site. Designers can spot the similarities between the Chicago and L.A. sites, or among Scripps' new sites, but people in general just want to get what they came for, do what they came to do, on any site they visit.

Update (10:20 a.m. EDT, 8/13/09): My fearless design leader at Scripps, Herb Himes, just weighed in on the LATimes.com redesign: “Very traditional, but well done. Pages visually better than the Trib, although their title bars do not anchor scan points as well. Navigation improvements from where they were.” The only other thing I would add, regarding all three of the cited redesigns, is I wish they had paid as much attention to article page readability (default text size, column width and line height, especially) as they apparently did to index page layout. A text size changer tool makes a poor substitute for good decisions on the defaults.

Video: MBA impressions from new grad

Here is my last project for my last MBA course: a video to share my experiences in the Georgia WebMBA program.

Now that I graduated, in case any of you wonder what it's like working on a master's in a virtual program, while your spouse is attending the same program, and while holding a full-time job and trying to have a family life … well, this clip pretty much says it.

Site 4: Rise of the Neapolitans

OK, if you count niche brands, naplesnews.com represents maybe site 6 or 7 in Scripps' redesign rollout. But it is our fourth newspaper market to get the new look and underpinnings, as of last evening. And the first in a market where we could legitimately ghost a palm tree and pier into the background.

Innovation at newspapers: What direction?

Don't let Steve Yelvington's excellent rebuttal (started to say “analysis,” but it's more direct than that) to the American Press Institute “Newspaper Economic Action Plan” pass without due consideration.

The API plan points the newspaper industry toward paid or subsidized online content, with assumptions such as, “Consumers perceive that content produced by news organizations is valuable to them,” and, “Consumers will actually make content purchases when they are confronted with many free options.” Yelvington and others, such as Techdirt's Michael Masnick, tread through myriad reasons to suspect paid content models, so I'll set that argument aside.

I focused instead on Yelvington's last points:

“Many of these weaknesses were discussed at length several years ago in the API's first NewspaperNext report, which recommended that newspapers clean up and maximize their poorly operated current lines of business (advertising) and then aggressively seek to create new kinds of businesses predicated on an analysis of poorly met consumer needs — jobs that people are struggling to get done.

“Such new businesses may in fact yield direct revenue from consumers, but they are not a paid content strategy. The N2 path is one of innovation — starting small, starting at the low end, willing to make cheap mistakes and adjust quickly, and evolving new kinds of content and services.

“Any path that attempts to reverse 15 years of social and technological change and force individuals to suddenly assume primary responsibility for financing the the old content and services is doomed from the start.”

Commenters traded thoughts on the future of advertising. Hal O'Brien: “Newspapers aren't dying. Advertising is dying; it's just taking newspapers with it as the low-hanging fruit.” Then, Howard Owens: “Newspapers are dying not because it isn't a valuable distribution model, nor because its advertising is per se ineffective. Newspapers are dying because even the subscribers newspapers retain find their papers boring and out of touch.” Then, Taylor Walsh: “The more appropriate question is: 'How do you lash together audience and advertisers in the same online social experience?'”

To all these points, I add some observations:

  • Advertising (more precisely, marketing communications) is not dead or dying. It is morphing, evolving, becoming radically more efficient. All messages, whether commercial or not, over time become less expensive to ready, aim and fire — even if the receipt and absorption of a given message remains extremely important to the originator. A dollar spent on marcom next year, even adjusted for inflation, buys better message quality and more units of message delivered. Both gross revenues and margins for the intermediaries, if any, decrease. Eventually, the model's efficiency crowds out some intermediaries, leaving only those who find new ways to add value in the form of better quality or more efficient distribution per message.
  • I have said this before, but it bears repeating. Any business models that pay for journalism will derive progressively less value from adjacency to or distribution with the products of journalism. No reasonable model of traffic growth, format transformation, or inventory yield management gets a typical local newspaper.com's banner ads, alone, to a point where they can cover the typical local newsroom payroll. Yes, you can point to certain blogs and niche content collectives that cover their content costs with adjacent ads — but most such cases cover a lot more ground with a narrower focus and far fewer people than a typical local newsroom. A solo blogger, opinion leader, with a true global audience can make it work because that's much more market reach per dollar spent on content.
  • Newspapers that have attempted the “jobs to be done” innovation approach (I have some experience with this) struggled to find profound enough undone jobs in their local economies, or to sustain nascent businesses that address the ones they did find. Say all you want about the giant sucking sound of the core business; yes, that contributed to our difficulties with innovation. To me, the struggle also signals a marketplace reality: consumers and business leaders establish expectations of their local media companies, and do not always respond well to those companies' attempts to break out of the box. I believe, as a result, that newspaper companies should focus innovation on improving the suite of marketing solutions they offer to local businesses. So advertising is evolving, adjacency is dying, paid content's a non-starter. Fine, fine, fine, but businesses still have offers and messages they need to optimize, then put in front of current and prospective customers right now, again tomorrow, again the next day. Shouldn't we be equipped to help them do that? Shouldn't they expect that from us? Can't we do more than just sell space in print or on the Web, leaving them to fill it best they can?

Borrell: Local online ads beat forecast

Gordon Borrell says local online advertising outperformed his Borrell Associates forecast by a fair piece:

“We may have been far too conservative earlier this year when we projected that local online advertising would grow 8% in 2009. At the end of the first quarter, the increase looked closer to 11%. When we finish collecting our second-quarter data in the next few weeks, I'm certain the number will be quite a bit higher.”

He says some companies even indicate “triple-digit growth” in local ad sales, but notes not all players can be winners:

“We aren’t, however, seeing triple-digit growth from companies that continue to labor under the delusion that 'convergence sales' is a viable strategy.”

Interpret as you see fit. I like the look of any advertising data that beats any forecast nowadays.

Photojournalism can be strategic

After wrapping up his 10-part series on what local newspapers should do to survive (he rolled up all the recommendations in one post), John Temple posted a wise reply to questions I asked him by e-mail last week.

My questions, in a nutshell: What about photojournalism? Can it be considered a strategic asset for local newspapers?

John wrote me back, but then expanded on his reply in the blog post. Good advice abounds these days on his blog, as the post exemplifies:

“Most people running newsrooms — and that includes digital newsrooms — came up on the 'word' side. It always bugged me to be called a 'word person.' But it is true that the perspective of most top editors is text first. That said, we've moved into a much more visual world and readers both expect and appreciate a much richer visual experience. Jay Small is right that still photography can play a huge role in making local newspapers more central to their communities. Watching events unfold in Iran reconfirms the significance and impact of photographs from people armed with cell phones. This is probably the most significant way that the public will contribute content, if newspapers make it easy for them to do so and reward contributors by treating their work with respect.”

Thanks, John!

More on SND: Time to think bigger

Charles Apple, one of the primo bloggers at Visual Editors, picked up the discussion about the future of design at newspapers and the troubled Society for News Design, in particular. In Apple's post, he channels Dean Lockwood of the San Antonio Express-News:

“One of the realities we are facing in the industry is that the 'production' act of copy editing and building pages is being either outsourced or consolidated in chain's hubs. I don't agree with it and it's not going to happen everywhere but there is clearly a bean-counter's momentum to this that I doubt is going to be stopped by any arguments we make about story development and so on.”

Agreed.

The comments roll through all the phases of grieving, and include posts from Alan Jacobson describing his redesign-for-ROI approach; others arguing that Alan's just self-promoting; and still others blaming media executives for all ills.

I dug back to find Apple's post and discussion because, frankly, the voices around what SND should become following its leadership crisis seemed to shout and goad for a while, then became really quiet. I find it hard to believe the discussion and debate could end so abruptly, or that so few people could care enough to keep it going.

Here's what I posted as a comment in Apple's thread:

Folks, remember that what pains the newspaper industry today also pains all forms of print, from periodicals to books to posters to billboards.

The way we communicate, one-to-one, one-to-friends, one-to-many and many-to-many, changes by the minute. Since print changes, um, by the decade, people find other, more efficient ways to do things they used to do in print.

Say what you will about tactile quality, well-understood interface, browsability, portability, or readability. Print forms may retain advantages there but in more and more cases they do not overcome digital advantages: instantaneous availability without boundaries, at much lower cost per unit of information communicated.

So the nut graf of this conversation becomes:

Information architects will see high and increasing demand in coming years for their skills and experience. Graphic artists focused on print will see gradually decreasing demand in coming years for their skills and experience.

Given that newspapers are leading the slide down the print crater, graphic artists who do not transition to information architecture might be able to climb back up into another print specialty for a while, but will never return to the glory days where we actually felt we were changing newsroom cultures and winning new readers.

So what is an “information architect”?

In my view, it is someone who thinks of the digital world in three distinct demand camps, with overlaps: communication, entertainment, and information. We play mostly in the information space, which, unfortunately, is the least engaging on average of the three camps.

Don’t believe me? Think about how much time people you know (NOT you, because you're in the news business and that makes you an outlier) spend sending text messages, ordering products, or watching online video vs. actually reading news articles.

So an information architect starts by knowing the difference. Her specialty is optimizing information to be communicated in its best, most efficient form for the broadest possible recipient set. But she does not stop there. She also knows how to engage people in conversations, and form communities, around specific types of information.

In that specialty, the graphic arts have a role, but it is just a small share of defining an overall user experience. A few former print designers I know have made this leap successfully. Others become frustrated at how much left-brain stuff is required, and how little time they spend exercising the right brain.

I know this for sure: Newspaper executives (at least in the United States, at ground zero of the business crisis) are in no mood these days to think of visual journalism as a savior. You get attention only when called on to help save money; for example, a redesign to fit narrower webs. The rest of the time, yeah, nice looking page, Jack, but ad revenue and circulation just fell double-digits again, so, like, cut some more costs … oh, gotta run.

Say what you will about Alan [Jacobson]. His redesign projects start and finish with return on investment in mind. That’s how he gets executives to listen, and those of you trying to inspire change from the design desk outward would be well advised to observe and learn.

Please don't get me wrong. Print will not die for many years, if ever. But staking your success on print alone resembles trying to climb to the top of a mountain that slowly sinks into the earth. Less and less room at the top, more casualties at the bottom. Newspaper people happen to be on the least stable ground.

I believe much of the consternation around SND these days just reflects the frustration and vulnerability we all feel trying to ride the mountain. I would love to help, but I can’t do much if the conversation stays focused on “making graphic design important again in the newsroom,” a futile mission I infer from this and other conversations.

Site 2 in Scripps' new UX rollout

While I joined my son yesterday on a college campus visit (yes, he's that old, meaning yes, I'm that old), our gang at Scripps Interactive Newspapers Group rolled out the second site in our latest cycle of user experience upgrades: redding.com, site of the Redding Record-Searchlight in northern California.

As with Site 1, courierpress.com of Evansville, Ind., redding.com demonstrates Scripps' latest thinking about news Web sites, in form and function:

  • Flexibility to showcase news of the day.
  • Emphasis on imagery. People wonder why we put dark backgrounds on some site components, and the answer is: to let photos pop more. It's the same logic by which TV makers surround the image area with a large, black frame.
  • Improving communication and the sense of community among site participants, well beyond just story comments.
  • Keeping and refining what was good about the old framework, including clean visuals, search optimization, streamlined administration and more.

The Redding site team explained the changes to site patrons, and opened up for comments that cover the good and bad of it. Your feedback is welcome there or here.

Customer privacy after shutdown? Hardly Clear

(Update [1:25 p.m. EDT, June 26, 2009]: Clear customer service just sent a note to members answering my questions and more. I added it in full at the bottom of this post.)

Greg Sterling noted the end of Clear, the program that let travelers pay to register with biometrics in exchange for swifter passage through security at several major airports.

As a Clear card carrier for roughly two years now, I got word of the shutdown last night. My first concerns, as I posted to Greg in comments on his post, are:

  1. Do I have any prayer of a refund for unused months on my membership?
  2. What happens to my personally identifiable information and the biometrics Clear recorded when I registered for the program? If I destroy my smart card, does that make my info in Clear’s database untouchable?

I can't be the only customer with these concerns, but neither the curt “buh-bye” e-mail nor the company Web site offers any meaningful explanations on these matters. So I responded to the e-mail from Clear with both of these questions. Just now, more than 14 hours after my inquiry, I got an automated response that says, again, Clear is shutting down, nobody home, nothing to see here etc.

The tone is: “Moved, no forwarding address.” I realize the company ran out of money, and any remaining employees had perhaps scant warning that they would join the bread lines. Still, this episode seems worse than bad customer service: no attempt to address customers' concerns at all. The dead truly have no conscience in this case.

My concerns amount to little more than trees falling in an unpopulated forest. Fine. Lesson learned. But I will watch to see what the founders and investors in Clear do for their next great entrepreneurial acts, and take any of them with due caution before spending a dime on 'em.

E-mail from Clear customer service, dated June 26, 2009, 1:20 p.m. EDT:

Clear Member Update

Dear John Small,

In response to questions raised by our members, Clear would like to offer the following information:

Clear Lanes Are No Longer Available.

At 11:00 p.m. PST on June 22, 2009, Clear ceased operations. Clear's parent company, Verified Identity Pass, Inc., was unable to negotiate an agreement with its senior creditor to continue operations. Verified Identity Pass regrets that Clear will not be able to continue operations.

How is Clear securing personal information?

Clear stands by our commitment to protect our customer's personally identifiable information – including fingerprints, iris images, photos, names, addresses, credit card numbers and other personal information provided to us – and to keep the privacy promises that we have made. Information is secured in accordance with the Transportation Security Administration's Security, Privacy and Compliance Standards.

How is Clear securing any information at the airports?

Each hard disk at the airport, including the enrollment and verification kiosks, has now been wiped clean of all data and software. The triple wipe process we used automatically and completely overwrites the contents of the entire disk, including the operating system, the data and the file structure. This process also prevents or thoroughly hinders all known techniques of hard disk forensic analysis.

How is Clear securing any information in central databases and corporate systems?

Lockheed Martin is the lead systems integrator for Clear, and is currently working with Verified Identity Pass, Inc. to ensure an orderly shutdown as the program closes. As Verified Identity Pass, Inc. and the Transportation Security Administration work through this process, Lockheed Martin remains committed to protecting the privacy of individuals' personal information provided for the Clear Registered Traveler program. Lockheed's work will also remain consistent with the Transportation Security Administration's federal requirements and the enhanced security and privacy requirements of Verified Identity Pass, Inc.

The computers that Verified Identity Pass, Inc. assigned to its former corporate employees are being wiped using the same process described for computers at the airports.

Will personally identifiable information be sold?

The personally identifiable information that customers provided to Clear may not be used for any purpose other than a Registered Traveler program operated by a Transportation Security Administration authorized service provider. Any new service provider would need to maintain personally identifiable information in accordance with the Transportation Security Administration's privacy and security requirements for Registered Traveler programs. If the information is not used for a Registered Traveler program, it will be deleted.

How will members be notified when information is deleted?

Clear intends to notify members in a final email message when the information is deleted.

Who is monitoring this process?

Clear is communicating with TSA, airport and airline sponsors, and subcontractors, to ensure that the security of the information and systems is maintained throughout the closure process. Clear thanks these partners for their continuing cooperation and diligence.

How can I contact Clear?

Please visit our website, www.flyclear.com, for the latest updates. Clear's call center and customer support email service are no longer available.

Will I receive a refund for membership in Clear?

At the present time, Verified Identity Pass, Inc. cannot issue refunds due to the company's financial condition.

Has Verified Identity Pass, Inc. filed for bankruptcy?

At the present time, Verified Identity Pass has not commenced any proceedings under the United States Bankruptcy Code.

Clear Customer Service

Clear, 600 Third Avenue 10th Floor, New York, NY 10016

www.flyclear.com