USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC





Tinkering With the Virtual Community
Behind the Poynter Redesign
Tinkering With the Virtual Community
An Interview with Bill Mitchell

Somehow the soundtrack as I was thinking about this column was utterly appropriate: a two-year-old singing ?Where is pointer? Where is pointer??

The problem for some denizens of MediaNews.org: Poynter was everywhere after the site?s redesign launched last Friday.

"I'm as grumpy as anyone when it comes to change -- I wish every website still looked like Word.com from 1996." -- Jim Romenesko

MediaNews has been part of the Poynter Institute and its Web site Poynter.org since August 1999. The merger was accomplished with little noticeable effect on creator Jim Romenesko, except that he went from volunteer to full time employee.  Sure, Poynter had a presence but it was minimal for an institution holding the purse strings and easily tamped down concerns. The most visible change was the switch from the original MediaGossip.org domain name to the more staid MediaNews.org.

The sweeping redesign changed all that -- and a lot more. Users lamented the loss of the left-hand column or rail, wailed about the colors and fonts, cringed at the new registration process and, in some cases, hurled epithets at the whole shebang. Some were as cranky as the aforementioned two-year-old when she needs a nap. Others seemed to realize that Bill Mitchell, Online Editor and Marketing Director, and his team at Poynter didn?t set out to make their life hell, that, in fact, they might be on the right track in more ways than not.

Before I take a look at where Poynter went wrong -- and right -- it seems only fair to ease some of the pain out there. You have been heard and many of your concerns are being addressed even as I type. According to Mitchell, the left-hand items are on the way back and some of the Poynter presence may be scaled back. ?We want to make it possible for readers to get more news, faster, before scrolling,? Mitchell e-mailed Sunday. The feedback process will be revamped and the registration process reexamined while a redesign triage system is being set up for the rest.

Romenesko is no stranger to the way journalists respond to change when it comes to Web sites. As he noted in a series of e-mails over the weekend: ?I'm as grumpy as anyone when it comes to change -- I wish every website still looked like Word.com from 1996 -- but I know change is inevitable and people are going to complain about it. I posted dozens of complaints when Salon.com did a redesign in 2000; I posted dozens of complaints about Inside.com's look when it was unveiled; and I posted dozens of complaints when I updated the look of my Obscure Store site several months ago. Am I surprised by the reaction to the MediaNews redesign? No. Is it perfect? No -- and the online team knows that, is listening to what people are saying, and making adjustments.?

?Some people were pretty convinced we'd Poynterize Romenesko and ruin what he created. We got through that in two main ways: Jim kept improving the column, and his editors at Poynter have continued to respect his independence since the day he started,? writes Mitchell.

Like it or not, MediaNews is part of Poynter. It was acquired to drive traffic to Poynter.org and to add currency to the site. Poynter is under no obligation to allow MediaNews to operate apart from the rest of the site.  In fact, it could be argued that Poynter has an obligation to make full use of MediaNews and that means integrating it into Poynter.org. That can -- and should -- be accomplished without a cookie-cutter approach. It makes as little sense to sap MediaNews of its strengths as it does to pretend it is not part of Poynter. That?s one reason I was surprised to see MediaNews left out of the left-hand navigation bar now being used throughout the site.

Writes Romenesko: ?When MediaGossip.com became MediaNews.org in February 2000, I heard many of the same complaints that I'm hearing now. Somebody told me in 2000 that ?Poynter is ruining your franchise,? and others suggested that I simply go off and produce an advertising-funded site on my own. Ironically, people are now calling for the return of the version of MediaNews that was supposed to ruin me.?

Another irony: he thought removing the left-rail items was a good idea. ?I liked the left-column items for a number of reasons, but I found that many people simply didn't read them. Every week, I'd get e-mails from people asking why a certain story wasn't posted. I'd tell them it's on the left column, and they'd say something like, ?Oh, I never read those stories,? or, ?I only read the stuff in the center.?"
 
Poynter.org was redesigned for a variety of reasons explained by Mitchell in an article posted on the site last Friday. He noted that just the news that Poynter.org -- and with it MediaNews.org -- was being overhauled drew concern, including a message from Jim Cramer of TheStreet.com warning ?Ain?t broke. Don?t fix.?

Not broken, maybe, but not perfect or even close to it either. The main site had grown too unwieldy to manage efficiently and, according to Mitchell, the architecture -- old-fashioned by Web standards -- made it difficult to implement features like e-mailing an article, providing direct feedback and customization. Switching to a database-driven site, as Mitchell describes ?the new Poynter Online,? provides those functions and more.

Maybe too much more. The list of features and functions is daunting. Registration, required to post comments in the feedback area, creates not only a user name and password but an entire personal page whether you want one or not. Clicking on a name in the feedback area or in other spots brings you to the personal page, which can be stuffed with all kinds of details including contact information, a photo, favorite links and the like. You can even set up a calendar and pick news feeds from Moreover.com. Much of this is on display by default unless you opt out. My first instinct was to block everything I could. I later relented a tad.

Writes Romenesko, ?All I know is that readers don't have to register to view MediaNews and read the stories I link. And I'm happy about that.?

Underlying all of this is Poynter?s desire to create a virtual community for journalists. As a former at-large director of the Society of Professional Journalists involved with that organization?s online efforts for more than a decade, I empathize with that. Poynter has the money and other resources needed to make the virtual community on a scale that could prove successful. Poynter also has a lot to share with journalists and should be commended for doing everything possible to extend its reach beyond the dozens able to attend seminars in St. Petersburg, Fla., every year or even the hundreds who can make to weekend workshops around the country. (I?ve been fortunate enough to attend two seminars -- one as a reporter and one as a participant.) Poynter.org is an obvious and potentially elegant way to accomplish that goal.

It won?t work, though, if it?s forced down peoples? throats like bubble-gum flavored medicine. Yes, some people may enjoy taking full advantage of everything Poynter.org has to offer. Some people just want their MediaNews.org straight up -- no frills, no bells, just content that matters to them. More than 80 of them want it enough to go through the registration process just to voice their complaints and, in rare cases, their compliments.

?The trick is serving readers interested in the rest of Poynter as well as those who aren't. We're especially interested in suggestions how to address both of those constituencies,? says Mitchell.  ?More specifically, we invite practical advice on enabling readers to get a faster sense of what's new at a glance. We've gotten several good ideas already, and welcome more. We've also gotten several good suggestions about the feedback set-up.?

Mitchell?s sense so far is that the reaction falls into four categories: ?1. good ideas that can be implemented reasonably quickly. 2. good ideas that make sense but will take time. 3. bad ideas. 4. rants rooted in fundamental objections that MediaNews is part of Poynter.?

One interesting reaction to the addition of the feedback option was the assumption by many, this writer included at first, that sending e-mail to Romensko was no longer an option. That?s not the case. He is still receiving and posting letters. Romenesko, who was as involved in the redesign as he wanted to be, didn?t warm to the notion of placing a feedback link at the end of every item.

?Initially, Jim was not inclined to enable feedback at the end of each item, so we altered the back end to make that optional on a story-by-story, item-by-item basis. A couple of days before launch, Jim said he'd like to use the feedback function after all, so he turned it on,? Mitchell explained. ?In retrospect, turning it on at least had the benefit of giving Jim's audience a way to complain more easily than ever before.?

What Poynter didn?t recognize with the redesign was that while it was busily trying to create community it risked destroying one that already existed.

Disclaimer: MediaNews.org links to my columns and to OJR. Everyone linked through this site benefits from a healthy MediaNews.org.

Staci D. Kramer is Editor at Large at Cable World and was a contributing editor to Inside.com. Based in University City, Mo., Kramer's clients have included Time, Life, the Detroit Free Press, the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, Multichannel News, APBNews.com, mediainfo.com, Editor & Publisher, The Sporting News, St. Louis magazine, several major papers in Canada, and numerous others. Her work has been syndicated by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, reprinted in two books and she has even co-produced a segment for "Nightline."