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.
l

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s