This month’s Carnival of Journalism has graciously asked for my opinion on what gift I’d most enjoy from a programmer or developer, which is a relief, since Mother has informed me that my no longer being a ward of her home un-entitles me to things like Legos wrapped in reindeer-covered colored paper.
It’s an uncomplicated gift, and one I think many journalists of the digital age would like to find waiting for them underneath their Festivus poles: a design for an online newspaper or magazine site that not only looks great, but makes it easy for editors to categorize and organize stories online while being simple for users to find the latest news first.
Essentially, I’m reiterating the point Joshua Benton made over at Nieman Lab back in July—in response to Andy Rutledge’s proposed redesign of The New York Times’s homepage—which was: “the problems of large-scale information architecture for news sites are really hard problems.”
Which, well, sucks. It’s difficult to envision how an aesthetically-pleasing website—something that looks like Rutledge’s proposed redesign, which is now available as the WooTheme “Currents”—would alleviate the main problems still existing on newspaper websites. (For a great primer on some of these problems, check out Lauren Rabaino’s post on the life cycle of a newspaper story on 10,000 Words.) The first is how to give editorial staff ultimate control of which stories are populated to specific sections of the website; the second is how to ensure that readers can view breaking news without burying related articles or other news items; and the third, as I see it, is how you do this automatically so teams of editors don’t need to babysit the back-end of a content management system all day.
On smaller-scale sites, something like a weekly college newspaper, using some sort of CMS that forces editors to drag and drop stories into specific locations on the homepage and section pages (I’m thinking of my experiences with Polopoly’s College Publisher 5) makes sense: the editorial staff has ultimate control of where stories are populated on site (problem one), and because problem one is solved, problem two becomes easy to navigate, since editors can move latest news to the top of the homepage. Of course, performing these tasks manually means problem three still exists.
What makes the overarching problem particularly vexing is that smaller-scale iterations of such a phantom site are in use and mitigate all three issues. So, by way of example a la Benton, let’s stick with the website for The New York Times. That site is updated with lots of stories all day, and stories are accompanied by photos, slideshows, videos, blog posts, and user comments, among other things. Taken individually, it’s easy to point to aesthetically-pleasing sites that solve my aforementioned three problems. Blog posts? Look at Mashable. Photos? How about ThemeForest’s “Classica” or “Gridlocked” themes.
But how do we combine a multitude of elements into a large-scale news operation’s website so that editors can maintain control of where stories populate—in the print world, where stories are placed—without preventing readers from finding the breaking news and frees up editors from finagling with article placement on a site ad nauseum?
Programmers/developers … that’s what I want. I can’t promise lavish pay. I can’t even promise milk and cookies. Bourbon, though, I can do.