Beta Version Blues

I launched The Phoenix website when I did because I had accrued a ton of content that was quickly becoming irrelevant. While working on fine tuning the details, my team and I had to cut corners in order to make our launch deadline, which had already been extended more than once. As I said in an earlier post, most of the issues that arose were of human origin, not machine. While much of our labor time was spent working with the squarespace software, we were inhibited by our writers and photographers, who were slow in getting us what we needed. This is when it became clearest to me not only that web media is a human product, but that it is also a community effort. While I sometimes like to think that I can do everything, I can’t. It would be impossible for one person to write every story, take every photograph, design each page on the site, and continue to update each page over time. While I was sometimes dissatisfied with others’ work, I had to acknowledge that for an online public forum such as this one it was imperative that content from many different individuals create the whole. A public forum is not the product of one but the product of a community, and this helped me to re-evaluate my role in the structure of the project.

Unlike machines which are fairly predictable, humans are unfortunately very unpredictable and sometimes even unreliable. After our initial launch, Spring Break began and our contributors (who are obviously not as invested in the project as myself or my co-editors) began to lose steam. I received less than half of the content that I was expecting, leaving us high and dry. It’s a strange thing to come to terms with that despite having the labor time available, online media access, and technological know how, our progress was completely halted without our contributors’ information.

So, with two weeks of dead time where there was little news to report and we were waiting for content to come in from our contributors, we decided to upgrade the site from the tentative Beta version that we had set up. Prior to our revisions, each section page on the site was set up like a blog feed with articles presented in chronological order with the most recent at the top. While this made sense for the short term, the design was fairly basic. Readers could scroll through the most recent news updates, but the layout did not allow for thorough exploration of the content. We got feedback from a few site visitors, and most said that they disliked this design because they were forced to look at news that was uninteresting to them. I feared that by leaving this feed-style layout up on the site, our readers would lose interest. Not only that, but this style did not allow us to graphically display content in a stimulating way.

In order to change each section page so that they were easier to explore and navigate, we had to do a complete overhaul of the site. This involved altering almost all of the page pathways – the ways that the different section pages appeared and where they were located within the architecture of the site. In class we read about e-literature from a literary theory standpoint, so I knew the importance and nuance of the architecture of and pathway design of e-lit, but I had no idea how to actually implement or change layout to be radically different from print versions of the same content. Moreover, I had no idea which was would be “best.”

This is where I really started to pay a lot of attention to praxis, because truly what I was doing here was exploring uncharted territory. While many other news sources have made the transition to online and have created new and innovative ways of displaying their content, I had to come up with a way that made the most sense for our specific kind of content and for our specific audience. Moreover, we were constrained by the specific limitations of squarespace. Neither of us are versed in computer code, and thus had to use the tools available to us.

In English classes, I had always been taught that content dictates form: but is that actually true? To answer this question, I began to truly play. My co-editor and I dove right in, altering site architecture, redesigning pages, and changing and re-changing page layouts over and over again until we found the cleanest, easiest to use designs that we liked the best. Now, the site’s structure functions in a multiple home page fashion. When you visit SarahLawrencePhoenix.com, there is a main home page which showcases our biggest story (accompanied with a giant and very stimulating graphic) followed by a smaller headline and image from each of our main sections. At the very top of this main page is a horizontal menu of all of the different pages on the site: features, editorials, campus, city, about, and staff. We revamped each of these sections to feature a main home page for the section, where similar to the home page main stories plus images and presented in a graphically stimulating way. Instead of scrolling through a feed of all section stories, viewers can go to the section main page, look at the top 5 or so headlines, and explore them. If the reader wants to read older news, they can click a link at the bottom of the page which then directs them to a feed of all of the articles in that section which is similar to our originals layout designed but a bit more sophisticated and organized. Additionally, at the top of every page on the site is now a search bar where site viewers can search for whatever content they want. This was a crucial addition: there are no professional news sites on the web which do not include a search function. This was necessary for improving our legitimacy and user-friendliness.

While there are still many improvements that could be made, we were definitely limited by the platform of squarespace. Because we were not writing the code ourselves, we coulda not create incredibly complicated and specific page layouts like you might find on CNN.com or NYTimes.com. It would be amazing to develop our site to the level of complexity of one of those news sites, but it is just not feasible given 1. Our technological limitations 2. Our manpower/labor limitations and 3. Our content limitations (we simply do not have the volume, quality, and diversity of content yet to create an intricate site).

I am very satisfied with where we have come. One of the biggest initial reasons for creating this site was so that we could showcase more graphical instead of textual content. This new structure does that: each headline is accompanied by one main image of the story which helps to qualify the article and draw readers in. Not only does this allow us to showcase more content and improve readership, but it gives our audience something more interesting to look at. It is easier for them to explore and find content to read that they might not have found otherwise. It also gives more airtime to photographers and graphic designers. This not only serves aesthetic and content purposes, but also helps to market us. Artists whose work is featured on our site tell generate hype and interest from their friends and community members, as well as attracts new artists who might want to submit their content eventually.

We also incorporated a new type of news post on the site that we are calling photo story. These are stories which are especially effectively told through image, and include way way way more photos than a regular story would. With photostories we play with shape, size, placement, and color. Photostories incorporate digital galleries and slide shows as well as images placed throughout the text of the article. These pieces are exciting, immersive, and playful, giving our site the complexity that we cannot obtain through site architecture.

Though we were set back by a lack of new content, I think that these revisions were absolutely necessary. These major overhauls were implemented quickly and efficiently, instead of slowly and painstakingly as we would have had we not had this down time. I was originally upset by our loss of momentum, I think these changes will improve the overall longevity, legitimacy, and efficacy of our news source as a whole and will allow us to jump right in after the break on a regular news update schedule.

Finally, after months of work, stress, and setbacks, things are solidifying. For a while, the site and project in general felt almost weak and wishy washy, like a kids project that might be brilliant or might be a hot mess. Now, the site feels permanent and real, a feeling which is directly correlated I think to the fact that I’ve been able to sleep at night of late.
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After Much Ado…

After Much Ado…

Here it is! The initial product of this project, the launch that I have been dreaming of for weeks and that at times I felt like would never happen. This link will take you to the letter from the editor that I wrote. I have fragmented the explanation of my praxis on this project into multiple spaces—the NML blog, this blog, and my personal social media accounts. I think that this letter takes the ideas behind “why” that I have been grasping at trying to explain and clearly relates them to The Phoenix’s present and future audience.

Please let me know what you think! And, if you get the chance, explore the site a bit!

Here is a link to the site’s homepage

Enjoy!

Labor of Love — Curation and Birth

Saying that you are going to make a website and actually creating an webpage are two very different things. You can blather on about ideas for layout, collect new pieces, and take hundreds of photographs, but actually uploading them to the infosphere is a whole other process. 

Thus far, I had hand-selected a stellar staff (adding a third cook to the kitchen, Ellie Brumbaum became my newest/first Photo Editor), harassed writers and photographers into generating a respectable amount of text and images for the site, and planned the general aesthetic of what we wanted the page to be. Now, our task became breaking through the semi-permeable membrane of the screen—taking that content and those ideas and translating them into (another form of) digital media. It was time to do the heavy lifting, the coding that would take us from idea to product.

Before we began this process, I had an interesting philosophical debate in my head. Here, our class and group conference conversations about code really came in to play. It was weird to think about coding, because at the end of the day our content was not going to change very much once it was put on the site. All of the articles existed in e-mails, word documents, and Facebook messages. All of the photographs were taken on digital cameras and were stored in .JPEG and .IMG files. When we first started in on this project, it felt like we were taking physical paper media things and transcribing them into digital space. In truth, we were simply changing the organization of digital files, taking them out of private digital spaces and then displaying them in one public digital space. I realized that what we were doing was much less complicated and revolutionary that what our other team members do every two weeks for The Phoenix’s print edition. They take the same digital files that we use and transform them into physical media—a task that I realized was way more conceptually daunting than what we were doing.

The platform that we chose to host our media made our lives incredibly easy. Squarespace is designed with all of the tools that a web developer needs to create a user-friendly, graphically stimulating site. The fluidity with which the content was uploaded was relieving to say the least. Once we had designed the base framework of the site and had implemented basic digital infrastructures, it was a no brainer to copy and paste text, drag and drop photos, re-size and reformat text boxes and image galleries. We were not creating, truly, but curating.

Two weeks and hundreds of hours of uploading, copying, pasting, tweaking, shrinking, stretching, and re-configuring later, we had put up all of the content that we had spent so much time finding. Though the site was far from perfect (we still have a long way to go before it will be the publication that this campus deserves), it was ready to launch. As a last finishing touch, I wrote a letter to the student body explaining what the site was and why we made it. Writing this later felt like the last few, and the hardest, pushes of our labor. It was done. We had given birth to something brand new and uniquely ours. The only thing left to do was paste a link and hit “tweet.”

Herding Kittens

With the methodology for how we were going to create the web site decided upon, we now were faced with the equally daunting task of accumulating fresh, relevant, well-written content for the site. You really can’t have a news site without news. What was especially daunting for me about this was the fact that not only would I have to figure out how to get this content for the web’s initial launch, but I would also have to continue this process for as long as the site exists. News loses its punch if it is not timely. Regular updates on current events would be the key to generating regular traffic for the site.

First, I tried tapping in to the network of writers the The Phoenix had already established. Some of those writers are stronger than others, and among the whole collection of them few actually were willing to go above their regular bi-weekly writing duties and write extra pieces for the site. It became quite clear to me that I had to tap in to other writing resources on campus. This is where the idea of social capital comes in to play.

I quickly realized that running up to people and asking them “will you write for The Phoenix?” would not work. First and foremost, people were reluctant to write because it is extra work on top of already heavy course loads. Second, because the quality of writing in the print issues have been so poor of late, students were reluctant to have their names attached to the paper. I had to figure out some way to convince people that we were not a sinking ship.

I started going through every number in my digital rolodex. “Who would be willing to do extra work for me for free?” Was the question running through my head. I started by making a list of students’ with strong, specific interests. My asked my musical friends if they would be willing to write music pieces. I asked my activist friend to report on open race and sexual consent dialogues that occur around campus. I practically begged my law-student friend to write about politics on campus. At the end of the day, it boiled down to utilizing the connections and influence that I had accrued in social settings to get work done.

I had to develop a marketing strategy. How can you sell something so undesirable as ‘extra work?’ It came down to changing that conception of extra work. I advertised writing for The Phoenix as a portfolio building exercise. Anything that is published in our paper can be put on a resumé. I researched events on campus and reached out to students were either 1. interested in what was going on at the event or 2. already planning on attending the event. It’s way easier to convince someone to go to an event and write about it when they are already planning on attending the event.

While many turned me down, a few did not. Slowly, I began to develop a base of writers who actually cared. As those writers began telling their friends about the work they were doing for me, people began to talk. Rumors of The Phoenix online being a space where anyone could get their voices heard or their art displayed spread, and people actually began to approach me to ask me if they could submit. People realized that if their group was hosting an event, they could get free press if they got one of their friends to write about it and send it to me. In this way, people began to contact me just to let me know that things were going on around campus and if I could cover them. While at first this was frustrating because it meant extra work for me in coordinating reporters and photographers, it was immensely helpful to start aggregating information. I can’t get someone to write about something if I don’t know that it’s happening in the first place. This led to a quite diverse first-round of articles.

Social media was a big one in organizing the writers. Most of these conversations with potential writers occurred on Facebook. Without this platform, I would not have been able to communicate with the writers that made the website possible. I organized a group on Facebook for all of the writers. Here, I could post deadlines, send reminders, give advice, and publicly answer any questions that the writers might have. This might have been one of the best things for the success of the project.

While I could organize all of them on one space within a social media platform, getting the writers to actually send me work in a timely manner is a whole other issue…

Getting Started

The hardest part of creating something, for me at least, is getting the process started. For weeks the question running through my mind was “how the hell am I going to do this?” As someone with 0 web design knowledge, I was daunted by the task of figuring out how to take the print publication that we have and transform it into content displayed on a web page.

This issue ended up being the first lesson that I learned as a part of this project. It became clear to me that you can’t do everything on your own—this is why I enlisted the help of Nabila Wirakusumah, a graphic designer and first-year student at SLC.

We decided that before us were two options: we could either enlist the help of a professional to design us a web page entirely from scratch, or, we could use some other platform and do the layout design work ourselves. While the first option would give us more creative control and a more unique graphical layout, it would be costly. For our purposes, it would require an investment of upwards of $750 to pay someone to create a page for us. While more limiting, we opted for the second approach and chose commercial web host Squarespace.com for our site. This would allow us to be able to directly change layout ourselves and upload content (articles, graphics, and links) more efficiently. Squarespace offers clean, generic, basic layouts for augmentation and use. While these sample layouts were quite elementary, we decided that the minimalist aesthetic and ease of access would be our best option.

While I wanted the site to be the best that it could be, I conceded that it would be more worthwhile to get the site up and running as fast as possible. I made the executive decision to choose speed and efficiency over perfecting content design. To me, it was more important that the framework of the site was established and publicized to start generating hype than to have a site that was immaculate down to the last photo caption.

This was a really nerve-wracking decision for me to make. The Phoenix has received negative commentary on its print page layouts for a long time. They are generally poorly crafted and make our newspaper look unprofessional. My biggest fear in creating this site was that it would look just as poor as the print paper does, and thus would continue to drag the publication down rather than bring it back to life as was my main goal. As an editor, I decided that a more important use of mental resources would be generating powerful, well-written, well-researched, relevant news pieces.

But as I was about to discover, trying to accrue strong writers is, as my mother would say, like trying to herd kittens…