Boy, did I feel special. Last Thursday I got an e-mail from Ric Manning, online operations manager for The Courier-Journal, with an invitation to test-drive the paper’s new web template. It is still in beta testing. The site is not quite ready for launch — that’s just weeks away — but Manning told me how to get in. He wanted me to be among the first to have a look-see, and to evaluate it and let him know what I think.
I created my own profile and gave up all sorts of information about myself — though I stopped short of providing a picture and opted for a site-provided suit-and-tie icon. I could write whatever I wanted, concocting an online aura for all to see. If I join forums, discussions, blogs, etc., readers can look up my profile. The same identity works on all the other Gannett papers that have made the switch to the new format, including The Tennessean (Nashville), the Des Moines (Iowa) Register and Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger. That way, if I want to weigh in on Billy Ray Cyrus coming home to shoot the Hannah Montana movie in Nashville, I’m already signed in at The Tennessean.
I wanted to find out if I was part of The C-J’s secret advisory club, if I was among a select few given the opportunity to see and interact with the beta site. Was it my expertise as a local media critic that garnered my invite to this group? Was I special?
Probably not. Manning’s e-mail opened with a simple “Hello.”
So I e-mailed him, thinking I’d offer unofficial offline feedback and get material for this column. He passed me up the org chart to Multimedia Manager John Mura. Mura was polite but referred me to News VP Bennie Ivory, saying C-J staffers aren’t authorized to speak about the newspaper’s online strategy. Ivory didn’t respond to my e-mail request for an interview.
I have since gotten confirmation that my inclusion in the critics’ club wasn’t so special. Everybody I know received the Manning e-mail, and they were all playing with the new site, writing about it on blogs and telling anyone who cared how to access the beta site.
OK. But I still have thoughts on the site, which I’ll share here.
The challenge in designing newspaper websites is cramming a huge amount of information into a small area while making it easy to read and navigate, all the while encouraging reader participation. The C-J’s current site, like many in the Gannett chain, is a jumbled mix of elements and advertisements. The new one is much better.
There’s no way to understate the effort being put into Gannett’s online product. In the last year, The C-J has added plenty of audio, video, photos and blogs (although I’m curious why the blogs, even in the new scheme, are laid out so poorly).
Following the Gannett “mojo” model — that stands for mobile journalists, or reporters out in the field with all sorts of audio-visual equipment to go with their notebooks and pens — C-J reporters have been trained to shoot video and take pictures. A professional videographer is on board at Sixth and Broadway, shooting high-quality videos that rival some television shows for quality.
Some staffers, especially in the sports department, now appear in their own online video series. Sports columnist Eric Crawford produces a daily podcast.
Because I write about local news daily on my own blog, I spend a good deal of time on The C-J’s website. I’m ready for a new look and better functionality. The site is an important community resource. I hear they still produce an actual newspaper every day, but I have run out of reasons to ever get one.
The new template has a professional look, dominated by the paper’s greenish color scheme. Gannett operates 85 dailies, and by my count, The C-J is among the first 10 using the new template. The site strongly emphasizes registration and encourages users to take advantage of its social media capabilities. Gannett wants you to report, take photos and shoot video for the site. They want you to comment on stories and create a dialogue among readers.
Wanna see for yourself? Go to http://beta.courier-journal.com. Log in as louisvil-beta. The password is louisvil. At least until they figure out you’re not special.
Rick Redding, Louisville’s media critic, writes about media and local politics on his website, The ’Ville Voice (http://thevillevoice.com)