Thursday, May 15, 2008

Philly.com Overhauled...For The Better? (hint: yes)

If there's one case study I continually come back to, it's that of the Philadelphia Inquirer (and Daily News), whose relationship with Philly.com stipulates exactly how the daily newspapers' content is portrayed and dispersed on the Web -- since Philly.com is the front door to their own respective sites.

(According to those who work on the site, the site is managed independently, and the papers have no say in how their content is displayed.)

Well, they've gone through a redesign. It's sexy, it's fun -- but is it newspaper?

(While Owen Wilson tracks through the Inky newsroom shooting "Marley & Me," I'll offer my two cents.)

To answer my original question, sort of. If you go to the Inquirer and the Daily News' direct sites -- they have their own individual styles. The Inquirer's is buttoned up and clean, the Daily News' is more fun -- which is a product of the previous redesign.

But Philly.com has changed, changed, changed -- and now looks like a middling, Web 1.0 magazine.

But that's a good thing. At least for now.

Before this, Philly.com looked almost identical to the Inquirer's site. Since they share content, that made it very, very difficult to figure out exactly where you were at any given moment. Am I reading the newspaper online? Or am I reading Philly.com content?

Why didn't I see this in the paper this morning? (Oh...)

Now, it's clear that each site is distinct, without sacrificing the relationship all three sites have that I imagine boosts traffic. Say what you will about the floating red ball logo, but the new site's got moxie:

The new Philly.com doesn't look like most other news Web sites. It doesn't have an endless collection of text links on the home page. Instead, it's got a clean, elegant design (by the good folks at the Philadelphia office of Avenue A/Razorfish) that highlights important content and is designed to move readers deeper into the site to find more. It makes very strong use of photos and video, in addition to text. It uses photo-illustrations of Philadelphia landmarks at the top of most pages so that there's no question that you're on a site about Philadelphia. In short, the new Philly.com has a strong personality and identity—unlike most newspaper sites, which generally lack local identity.

But those are just the cosmetics. Philly.com also tries to rethink what it is to be a newspaper site. Yes, the excellent content of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News is front and center. But the site is not just about news. It's also full of guidance to living and visiting in the Philadelphia region, including events calendar searches on every page, to help readers find out what's going on around town besides what's in that day's news.

More importantly, Philly.com finally breaks free of being a one-way lecture to the audience. It's bristling with calls to action for reader participation, in comments, discussions, user-submitted reviews, photo and video uploading and other user-generated content. Highlights of that reader content are displayed on just about every page, so that visitors are invited to talk amongst themselves about what's on the site and what's going on around them. I don't think any news site as gone this far in encouraging reader involvement. [Well, you can argue that Philly.com isn't fully a news site the way philly.com/inquirer is...in which case, why have separate pages at all? -- The Ed.] Underlying this is an industrial-strength comment-management system that minimizes the amount of work the staff has to do to police all of this user interaction.

On top of that we've got dozens of reporter and columnist blogs, a growing number of video elements and shows, ubiquitous horizontal navigation to keep readers moving around the site, some cool tools from Aggregate Knowledge to help readers see what others like them are interested in, and much more.

[bolded emphasis added -- The Ed.]

That's taken from the blog of Mark Potts, temporary VP-Editorial for the site (and erstwhile Recovering Journalist). And he's got a lot of valid points -- namely, that the redesigns aren't over, and that's the best news of all.

It suggests that it's not enough in this day and age to design a site and stick to it -- rather, news organizations have perfected the newspaper but are still working on the Website.

I could critique the sites down by specifics -- use of whitespace versus wasted space, picture sizes, architecture and linking schemes, branding and cross-branding -- but I don't think I need to. The site still has a long way to go -- I'd say we're maybe 50 or 60 percent there:

  • from a site that simply exudes Philadelphia in a refined way, rather than a touristy way;
  • from a site that exudes the Inquirer's staid, authoritative class;
  • from a site that exudes the Daily News' fun water-cooler ways (this one's the closest);

...but change comes incrementally, and I'm seeing those changes creep in, some clearly as test mules. Don't forget -- changes are happening behind the desk, too.

Many of the changes that I listed in my last diatribe-cum-wishlist for the Philly.com megasite were answered by Brian Tierney and Co. What that means is that someone's listening.

Here's to progress.

1 comment:

Daniel said...

Good assessment. I was playing around with the Philly.com site the other day after someone suggested I check it out. Great site!