A headline on the CNN news crawl prompts a visit to Star-Telegram.com but in its place is a stranger, a site that bears no resemblance and loads so slowly I think I've typed the wrong URL. Instead of the Star-Telegram's familiar front page I'm staring at DFW.com. Try again and finally it hits me: I've stumbled into Knight Ridder land.
It's not the happiest place, although in some respects it's the Internet equivalent of an amusement park chain. Lots of moving parts. Plenty of signs. Themes. A sense of familiarity no matter the location. Waiting for pages to download instead of waiting in line. Users venturing back for the content despite the frustrations of the previous visit.
This is the Real Cities Online Network, Knight Ridder's ambitious, coast-to-coast attempt to harness the economic potential of the Internet by becoming so ubiquitous that Web users will be forced to turn to a Real Cities site for local and regional information. According to Knight Ridder Digital, the network already reaches 58 markets, including more than half of the top 25. Real Cities affiliates include sites owned by Belo Interactive, E.W. Scripps Co, Media General and others.
Last month, Knight Ridder took a major step towards its goal of destination domination with the simultaneous deployment of a single-platform publishing system and a massive overhaul of most of its own sites. The move to an XML platform for all content across Knight Ridder, KR Digital president Dan Finnegan told analysts late last year, should enable "effortless sharing of content across our network and with other partners, lowering costs and improving quality across our network."
The redesign puts a uniform architecture in place at most of the 30 or so Knight Ridder owned-and-operated sites to pave the way for "seamless integration" of national and local content as well as national and local advertising. It also introduces vertical channels, such as business, that can be used for targeted advertising.
Make no mistake. This effort is driven both by the need to make money from the Internet and the belief that there is money to be made. It affects content in the way it is presented and the way it can be shared across the network but it is not about content.
Content, though, is what makes even the concept of Real Cities a possibility.
The February 7 relaunch was barely complete when a flurry of complaints and comments quickly filed in to Steve Outing's Online News discussion list, one of the bellwethers of online journalism. During the migration to portals, Knight-Ridder abandoned its history, rendering thousands of links and an untold number of user bookmarks useless. Not a heartening start.
It's a little too tempting to call on Yogi Berra as you tour the Knight Ridder sites since nearly everywhere you go it feels like you've already been there. It is like d?j? vu all over again and while that may work for game-winning home runs, it's not optimal when the subjects are media outlets and communities that aren't alike offline.
Knight Ridder Digital doesn't mind if you notice the similarities between sites. It's quite intentional and that's not necessarily a negative. The single publishing-platform can accomplish a slew of important goals: make national ad sales easier, provide big-site capabilities to smaller media outlets, and amortize Knight Ridder content across multiple sites while delivering it faster. In a current example, the same NCAA chart can be created once and linked to from member sites dozens of times.
In these days of disappearing sites and staffs, concerted efforts to make the Internet pay while are not only expected but should be welcome. And yet, promoting homogeneity like this takes streamlining and efficiency a step too far. Simply switching the pictures on top of the front page doesn't come close to acknowledging the differences between Charlotte and Miami or Ft. Worth and San Jose.
Granted, some of these sites the Star-Telegram included were in need of a facelift or something more drastic. It's not that I wanted them to remain frozen in time or that I don't appreciate upgrading navigation across the board. But I'm not looking for the functional equivalent of a collection of Steak-n-Shakes (insert name of favorite or least-favorite cookie-cutter fast food chain here) either. Then there's the actual design.
Again, some aspects are commendable. The scalable front-page design for the community portals takes full advantage of the screen. The navigation is top and side, offering multiple points of access. The main content is straight down the middle and links are clearly marked. The actual front-pages of each media outlet can be bookmarked, making it possible to skip the portal when news is the goal. There are logo links at the top of the portal front.
What you can't tell from the front is that on many of the sites it will take at least two page views to drill to the actual item you think you're clicking on. For instance, at DFW.com, you might think clicking on a headline that's says "Belfour Back" would take you to the story but you're actually en route to a page of hockey headlines where you once again have to find the headline and click to read about Eddie Belfour's return to play after smashing up a dressing room. I'm sure this will pop in to my mind if Knight Ridder touts an increase in page views due to the redesign. Ditto with stickiness.
After a few visits to various sites, I began to devise a formula about the effectiveness of moving parts on a web site one moving part gets attention, two can be tolerated briefly, three sends your fingers right to the mouse and four or more has you wondering if you can live without it altogether.
One of the tests performed when I get an eye exam sets off annoying red lights to check peripheral vision. Miami.com and other K R sites reminded me of that with blinking or moving ads on the top left, on the mid-right and on the lower right sides of the page. My eyes were constantly being drawn to the ads at the expense of my efforts to concentrate on the array of headlines in the middle or the various navigation or search compartments on either side. Good news for the advertisers, you might think. Think again. Add a pop-up, as was the case on KansasCity.com, and that scene from The Exorcist comes to mind. No, not the pea soup scene -- the one where her head spins completely around.
If I keep coming back to the Knight-Ridder sites it will be because the journalism they provide -- the access to award-winning reporting, the coverage of national and local events, the technology niche carved out by the San Jose Mercury News at SiliconValley.com -- is far too significant to ignore. Unfortunately, that sends the wrong signal to those might interpret return visits to be a vote of approval for the redesign.