This semester, I created a new website for Sarah Lawrence’s newspaper, The Phoenix. Prior to my involvement with the publication, The Phoenix was suffering. Fewer and fewer print editions were made each year as disinterested staff members drolly produced content. With quality on a rapid decline, community interest also declined. The newspaper was the laughing stock of the college, the butt of many writing students’ jokes. In order to breathe life into a dying publication, I felt that a new website (one that was better than the weak wordpress job the previous editors had created) was necessary.
To do this, I first established a human workforce: a team of dedicated students to delegate the work to in order to create a strong online press structure that would ensure the longevity of the site. This consisted of myself as project spearheader and overall editor, a web manager to handle technical stuff that was beyond my capabilities, and a photo editor to choose stimulating graphical content. We had an incredibly low budget, an unmotivated team of print editors, and nowhere to go but up.
Prior to beginning this project, I had no web design knowledge whatsoever and so developing this skillset was the biggest part of developing a new literacy for me. Because we did not have the time or the resources to learn coding language and actually design a site from the ground up, I chose to utilize the web creation platform Squarespace to host the site. Squarespace is easy to use, and easily integrates other web content, social media sites, and different kinds of media. While it provided us with a professional and visually stimulating design platform, it eliminated the customizability that coding our own site or using a different platform would provide.
It was difficult to begin, but once we got the ball rolling it quickly picked up momentum. The biggest issue was actually accumulating enough content, and content that was timely and relevant enough that students would actually read it. We were under a lot of social pressure: if the content was not relevant enough to the community, we would not only not gain readership but further mar the image of a publication that was already a PR nightmare. For weeks we rounded-up writers, pestered editors, and worked through the night to get the site ready for public readership.
The next biggest question was the internal architecture of the site. As we learned in the E-Literature unit, the way that content is organized dictates how users navigate through. The way that navigation and consumption of content works dictates how users will understand and process that content. I decided to organize the site in a visually stimulating yet easily navigable way. The main page of the site features one huge article with a large graphic and main headline. Beneath this are three articles, one from each major print section “campus news,” “editorials,” and “features.” Along the side of the home page is a rail featuring a twitter feed and the latest updates to our “perspectives/blogs” sections: music, film, fashion, food, and literature. The goal was to give a preview of each section and easily connect the reader to each section without overwhelming with too much content.
At the top of every page is a bar with each of the sections: campus, city, features, editorials, and perspectives. Clicking any of those links will bring the visitor to a separate main page for each section. These main pages are similar to the homepage, except instead of previews from every section, there are only headlines from that section.
Sarah Lawrence needed a new public forum. A place where current events, student life, and campus issues come together in one place and community members could inform themselves, each other, and discuss them. A really important aspect of the design of the site was integrating a comments section. Here, students could voice their opinions and concerns openly, and others could respond to them. Since the site’s inception, numerous students have commented and responded to each others’ comments, furthering the discourse that the paper has begun. In this area we have succeeded.
Beyond developing a web design literacy, I also developed social media, marketing, and branding literacies. One of the most important changes that we made was incorporating more student, non-staff member writing, art, and photography on the site. The website is linked to Facebook and Twitter, so every time a new article, photograph, or art piece goes up, I tweet and Facebook post the links to the site. When I do, I tag all of the students involved on their personal social media pages. This way, they can see their published work, share the links, and thus disseminate our content to a wider slice of the community. This not only increases individual artists’ visibility, but also the visibility of the paper as a whole. This also will help individuals build up their portfolios and present published works to potential future employers.
This is a technique of microcelebrities: media users who accrue fame and wide followings by commanding social platforms online. Key tenets of these groups are brand development, impression management, persona creation, and inter/intranetwork connections. By utilizing social media and targeted graphics, we were able to refine and re-market the brand of The Phoenix while increasing intranetwork connectivity.
Overall this project has been incredibly successful. There were few pitfalls, beyond the unavoidable annoyances of wrangling writers to meet deadlines and keeping up with regular site maintenance. The hardest aspects were the human co-ordination efforts. If there were 10 of me, creation of the site would have been a snap but unfortunately there is only one Wade. While I went into this expecting the technical stuff to be my biggest challenge, learning to be a team leader and organizer was the biggest issue. The human effort was the most important, and the most difficult to manage, part of the project.
Now, the site is almost fully developed. We have developed a strong readership, a solid internal editing structure, an easily navigable interface, and a regular maintenance schedule. While we still have a long way to go, I am satisfied with the progress that we have made. For me, the site will never be finished: there are always improvements that can be made and more ways to market our material to a wider audience. The journalism that we produce can always be stronger and always be harder hitting. For now, my goal of developing a functioning online public forum has been accomplished; but, I have three more years to see exactly where I can take this site. Stay tuned, big things are to come.