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Irishtimes.com: The Perils of redesigning your website

by Frank Schnittger Wed Mar 20th, 2013 at 10:11:21 PM EST

The Irish Times recently launched a redesigned version of its online edition to almost universal criticism from its online users. I took part in some of those online debates and, as a result, have been asked by the Village Magazine to write an article on the redesign. The article is still being fact checked, but I thought it might be useful to put a draft of it online here to get ET users reactions to the article and the Irishtimes.com redesign itself. Given that ET is also going through a redesign process some of the issues may also be of relevance here, although please keep in mind that the article is written for a general audience in Ireland.

Amazingly, the screen-grab above shows three and a half full screens of content displayed on Irishtimes.com when the site is being viewed at full width on a laptop. The first screen really only shows you the top banner ad, the Irish Times Logo, and the top level menu. A drop down menu appears if you hover your mouse cursor over one of the menu options, but you can only read and select from the full menu if you scroll down the page first, and then hover back over the menu. Note the advertisements are in French, even though the website is being viewed from Spain (I.e. the Laptop IP address is in Spain).

For the complete text of the proposed article, please follow me below the fold.

Irishtimes.com: The Perils of redesigning your website

Ireland’s online newspaper of record?

The Irish Times styles itself as Ireland's "Newspaper of Record" - never mind its minority protestant nationalist and then unionist origins or the fact that the Irish Independent (and the defunct Irish Press) generally outsold it by a considerable margin. Now Irish Times hardcopy sales are declining at 8% p.a. and it is desperately searching around for new sources of influence and revenue.

To its credit the Irish Times pioneered on-line newspaper publication in Ireland, first as Ireland.com, and then as Irishtimes.com. The attempt to introduce a pay wall to garner more revenue foundered with a rapidly declining on-line readership and so it reverted to a free site with a subscription required only for archive material and its E-Paper - a clunky facsimile of the hardcopy newspaper - presumably intended for those who like the hard-copy experience but can't get their hands on the hard copy itself on a regular basis.

Nevertheless the "free-to-air" Irishtimes.com regained its position as one of the primary Irish news sites with a wide and varied readership. There were problems with the old site - many stories were only uploaded overnight once the print edition was published. Articles were generally not tagged which meant it could be extremely difficult to re-find that article you read yesterday or last week unless you could remember its exact title or author. Its use of hyperlinks to relevant sources and linked articles was sporadic at best. Comments by readers could sometimes be lost when the moment came to push the “post” button – or appear unpredictably some time later.

But the overall look and feel of the site was suitably information dense for a broadsheet newspaper of record, and gave its content the authoritative aura the Irish Times had built up over many years. You might disagree with what an article said, but you knew that it was important because it had appeared in the Irish Times: You knew that many people would read it and its content would help shape national perceptions and debate on any given subject.

The re-launch – into the Facebook generation?

And then the Irish Times went and changed all that and launched an almost entirely new site on the 9th. March - and all hell broke loose amongst its dedicated users as evidenced by almost 300 generally severely critical comments on the site itself and other online discussion boards. Conscious of the fact that a majority of readers would soon be reading it on mobile or tablet devices, the Irish Times sought a more "responsive design" and one that could more easily be read on smaller screens. The problem is that in doing so, they dramatically reduced the amount of information displayed on any one screen and those users viewing it on a desktop or laptop - still the majority - are presented with a screen filled with pictures, advertisements and empty spaces, and very little actual news or editorial content.

It is almost as if the broadsheet paper of record has been reduced to a Facebook page, full of photographs and one liners, and very little substantive information. Gone is the ability to get a sense of what is happening in the world on a single page. You have to scroll and scroll, and dig down into many layers of menus to find the story you want, or to see if there is any new coverage in your particular area of interest. It gets worse than that. Intrusive advertisements and “drop down on hover over" menus appear at every opportunity and an ill-timed or involuntary click as the menu drops down gets you to a place you never intended. Never has the browser "Back" button been used so often by so many to so little productive effect.

But perhaps the worst problem is that the site now has virtually no visual connection with the printed paper itself. It doesn’t looks or feel like the printed Irish Times, or indeed any authoritative, information dense, newspaper of record. All you have as a reminder of where you are is a small “The Irish Times” logo at the top of the page which disappears as you scroll down. Lest anyone think this is a silly traditionalist or stick in the mud complaint, it actually has some rather profound reputational, branding and psychological implications: If the site you are on looks virtually no different from a plethora of other news sites, the information it contains becomes essentially just another generic "yellow-pack" commodity, no more reliable or important than what you might find in any random Google search. You read it with a much more critical eye, and dismiss it much more easily.

Loss of the Irish Times Brand identity

We are presented with information overload on the internet with many news "consumers" frequenting a wide range of newspaper, TV, community blog and social media sites. How do we determine what is truly important, insightful and likely to be very well written? We go to sites and authors that we trust: trust that has been built up over many previous reading and sometimes commenting and discussion sessions. This can be a named author like Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize winning economist and columnist for the New York Times. Or it could be a brand you trust like the New York Times itself. The point is, you immediately know - subliminally - that you are on the New York Times site from the look and feel of the site itself - and you see and read everything there in the light of your previous experience of that site.

Read the same article on an anonymous vanilla site, and you won't give it anything like the same credence, time and attention. Read it on a site you actively dislike - e.g. www.dailymail.co.uk/ - and you won't even give it the time of day. This is a phenomenon that marketers have long known: In a blind wine tasting even the experts often can‘t tell which is the €10 bottle and which the €100 bottle. But these same connoisseurs will argue long and hard over the merits of the €100 bottle when they can see and feel it. Many will of course argue that each and every article should be read with a critical eye and judged strictly on its own merits. But in the real world, who has the time? The whole point of branding is that it is a proxy for a critical analysis of every individual interaction with a product or service. You know you generally like a particular brand and so your default position is to trust other products in that brand range. Occasionally you may be disappointed, and if this disappointment is repeated you may change your mind about the brand range as a whole. But when you select and read hundreds of news and opinion articles from many sources in the course of a week – from a potential universe of millions of articles on the internet – you have to take short cuts. So you have favourite authors, and websites, and you know you are there because there are many visual cues telling you this is from a favoured source you have come to enjoy or trust.

Irishtimes.com used to be a brand extension of the Irish Times itself. Now it is difficult to know what it is trying to be. Irish Times online editor, Hugh Linehan writes of differentiating the online from the hard copy version of the paper, which is fine as far as it goes for the different technical capabilities and limitations of various online platforms. But if you distance Irishtimes.com from the Irish Times brand, you have to create a new brand identity, with different content, target markets and advertising strategies, and that is a major and costly undertaking in its own right.

So what is the target market for the new Irishtimes.com?

Some cynical observers have opined that the Irish Times is aiming Irishtimes.com at a youthful Facebook generation who want photographs and one-liners – and who wouldn’t buy a hardcopy of a broadsheet in any case – and in the process force its older more “serious” readers to go back to buying the hard copy. But this ignores the fact that many Irishtimes.com readers are from the Irish Diaspora who couldn’t buy a hard copy on a regular basis in any case. It also ignores the fact that existing Irishtimes.com readers have many other online news sites to go to if Irishtimes.com no longer serves their needs or meets their tastes. Advertisers will not be slow to depart the Irishtimes.com if they sense that many of the more serious (and often moneyed) readers are heading elsewhere.

Speaking of advertising, many users commented on the ubiquity and obtrusiveness of advertising on the new site. Irritating ads damage brands. If the same ad for a product you don’t want keeps flashing across your mindspace you will quickly form a very negative opinion of that company in general, even if it also produces products you do want. There is also no attempt to target particular ads at particular types of users. Many sites now allow users, on registration or re-registration to give information about their news preferences which allows advertisers to target products that may be truly of interest or value to particular users. Often, on payment of a registration fee, a user can opt out of advertising completely. It all helps to create a user experience tailored to the needs of particular types of users. Other than some ads which change depending on the international IP address of your internet connection (with the example above incorrectly targeting French language ads at a Spanish located laptop) the new Irishtimes.com still uses a blunderbuss advertising approach throwing the same ads at all users/readers as if they were all one undifferentiated mass.

Lack of personalisation and blogging tools

This lack of personalisation applies to the Irish Times content as a whole. You cannot create a “MyIrishtimes.com” personalised home page with a “Favourites” list of your favourite tags/topics, authors or content areas. You cannot mark articles as read and thus distinguish new from previously read content or bookmark an article for reading later. You cannot flag your main areas of interest so that you receive an e-mail notification of new articles in your special interest areas. You thus end up spending a lot of time wading through the site only to discover that nothing much new has been published in your special areas of interest since you last waded through the site. Time is precious on the internet: users will migrate to sites where they can find relevant content most quickly. Enabling users to create personalised views of what’s on offer is key to this.

The new Irishtimes.com site also a missed opportunity to provide functionality that is increasingly becoming the norm on the internet and which is required to build an online community loyal to the brand. The old paradigm of newspapers being a medium through which professional journalists provided expert, privileged, exclusive or highly informed information and commentary to readers in a one way process is dying. Some readers come for the bunfight in the comments section at the end of an article. Unpaid bloggers or citizen journalists are increasingly providing highly insightful, specialised and expert analysis and content in lead articles on many sites like Daily Kos or the Huffington post in the United States, the European Tribune in Europe, and the Journal.ie in Ireland. Information flows have become multi-directional – between journalists and readers, readers to journalists, and readers between each other. This creates a sense of a newspaper or community blog site to go and spend your news hogging and online social time. It can create an online community and a fierce loyalty to the brand. It also creates the sort of users who spend a lot of time on the site – the sort advertisers are more likely to pay for.

But the new Irishtimes.com site provides almost no new functionality for active readers/contributors and bloggers. Comments threads can still only be nested down one level, which means it can be difficult to follow which comment is a direct answer or response to which prior comment. It is impossible for a commentator to find all their comments on various comments threads in one place and thus keep track of the conversations they are having. You cannot see who is “liking” or responding to your comments all in one place. As a result many comments and excellent responses are lost in the void, never to be seen again even by those who wrote them – so hard is it to re-find the comments you wrote a couple of days ago. Anybody who has ever contributed to a well designed community blog or online newspaper with personalisation capabilities will know how essential those features are for a rewarding blogging experience.

Lack of usability testing and quality control

The search feature on the new Irishtimes.com site is so bad many users resorted to vanilla Google searches outside the website in an effort to try and find that article they had read and enjoyed or commented on a few days ago. A lot of the usual content was simply missing. Many articles now require clicking on “next page” and “more” buttons to get to the bottom of the article or comment thread which means the user is continually moving the mouse cursor back and forwards from the scrollbar to the “more” button and running the risk of triggering unwanted popup menus or advertisements every time s/he does so. Many of the most contentious – and tendentious – comment pieces have no comment boxes enabled beneath them. It seems only one opinion is allowed. The new Content Management System (CMS) at the heart of the new site has the Irish Independent’s (Independent.ie) annoying habit of splitting words into fragments and hyperlinking fragments to often irrelevant content streams: Thus European becomes “Europe an” and Eurostat becomes “EU rostat” with the EU linking to all articles pertaining to the EU, and not specifically to Eurostat related articles.

In fairness some of the above issues may have been teething problems during the transition to the new site, but this begs the question as to whether the site had been properly tested prior to go live. Was the website design ever tested in a usability lab where a cross-section of target users – from the most basic to the most advanced – are monitored trying to accomplish a range of common tasks on the site? The many abortive attempts to perform simple tasks and general user frustration would have been obvious. It also appears the website hadn’t been tested adequately on a variety of common phone and tablet devices and so it simply didn’t work as designed. It all smacked of a very unprofessionally run website re-design and implementation project.

Lack of Transition management and Customer relations

Many users/readers will undoubtedly stay loyal and get used to the new formats and layouts. Many of the initial problems will be ironed out. But the Irish Times cannot afford to chase away a whole tranche of users to an increasing array of competing sites. Opportunities to attract and retain new users were missed. Above all there was no customer relations or change management strategy readily apparent to this writer. Users generally were never consulted on what new features they would like to see, or what attracted them most to the Irishtimes.com site in the first place. The new site was sprung on them without warning when it was clearly not ready for public use – resulting in a lot of user frustration, and ultimately a very hostile response.

The blogosphere has spoken on the Irishtimes.com, Broadsheet.ie and other bulletin board and online media sites, and it has not been a pretty sight… In fairness, Hugh Linehan, the Irish Times online editor, was assiduous in his responses to many of the views and criticisms and some have since been remedied. However the Irish Times still has a lot of work to do if it is to regain its pre-eminence as perhaps the most admired Irish on-line news site. Lost market share is increasingly difficult to regain in a diversifying and splintering worldwide news information market.

Some might say “why all this whingeing at what is essentially a free service?” The answer is that it is anything but free. It costs a lot of money to build and maintain an up to date fully functional news website and unless you get a large volume of traffic no advertising or pay wall model of business is going to be able to fund it – and then you risk the financial viability not only of Irishtimes.com, but of the Irish Times itself. Many users went to a lot of trouble testing and exploring the site in order to come up with not only reasoned criticisms, but also possible solutions to the issues raised. This demonstrates the fund of goodwill towards Irishtimes.com and the concern of readers that Irishtimes.com would make a success of the redesign. Building a loyal online community is a collaborative project: If you provide good substantive and up to date content, good collaboration tools, good personalisation capabilities and a safe, moderated, self-regulating blogging environment, a wall of free internet expertise and energy comes flowing your way.

The Bottom line: Whether an intended or an unintended consequence of trying to cater for smart deice and mobile phone access to the same site, the new Irishtimes.com looks awful on a laptop/desktop from the point of view of a user who wants to over-view and access a wide range of information quickly. It looks like a dumbed down, tabloidy, vanilla news site and simply isn't information dense enough to be considered a serious online broadsheet newspaper of record. It requires an awful lot of clicking and scrolling to get to where you want to go - even for an advanced user who knows what they're doing.

The new platform offers very little new functionality for developing a loyal on-line community and still seems embedded in an old world hierarchical "we produce and distribute the news to you" institutional paradigm rather than the dynamic, interactive, social, participative and democratic paradigm that is sweeping the world and is changing how news is produced and consumed worldwide. As such the new Irishtimes.com site still isn't equipped to compete in social, dynamic, and mobile web world and may even have taken a step backwards with this redesign.

Propaganda, branding, gossip, surveillance.

Propaganda only works if all media channels are owned.
Branding is the propaganda of loyalty to the the unimportant.
Gossip is prurient surveillance.
Surveillance is propaganda that no-one owns.

The Fifth Horseman of the media apocalypse is reality television, (apocalypse in its meaning of the exposure of hidden knowledge), Surveillance of the unimportant re-edited.

The future of news is not one-to-many as the media organizations would have us believe: it is many-to-many.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Thu Mar 21st, 2013 at 05:10:09 AM EST
Sven Triloqvist:
The future of news is not one-to-many as the media organizations would have us believe: it is many-to-many.

That was one of the points I was trying to make - if in less stark terms - as we are dealing with a general readership here which is largely only beginning to come to terms with on-line news, and for whom the collaborative or many to many production of news would be a very strange and subversive concept.

However there is still a role for commercial news organisations (and the Irish Times is managed by a non-profit trust) to provide a lot of primary news gathering and delivery. This requires a viable business model to fund, and branding, advertising and paywalls are strategies to achieve this. My greater point is that they failed to understand that the real power of the internet 2.0 is that it harnesses on-line resources and capabilities simply not available to a traditional newspaper.

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Thu Mar 21st, 2013 at 05:21:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You can't have many-to-many news while non-journalists (and some journalists) are kept in quarantine away from serious people who make influential decisions.

Irrelevant debate is the basis of the illusion of Western 'democracy.' You can have any number of opinion and discussion sites - some very good - and sites like the BBC that appear to care what you think by giving you a little box to rant in.

But if it doesn't make any difference to policy, it's all for show.

Now - I suspect that if citizen journalists were allowed to interview and heckle the great and the good in person the power balance would start to change.

But it's not happening here any time soon. And it's probably not happening in Ireland either.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Mar 21st, 2013 at 06:52:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I had a go at citizen Journalism a couple of years ago when I interviewed Dick Roche the Irish Minister for European affairs, on camera for 50 minutes, so I do think it is possible, and to some degree, it is happening all the time.

That is not to say I have access to the kleptocracy - the serious rich - who are determining (say) what is happening to Cyprus and the Eurozone at the present time. There is a failure of democracy and politics to govern in the public interest, but you have to start somewhere, and I think providing a good blogging environment on a popular site like Irishtimes.com would be a valuable contribution to this.

I would rather write for 10,000 people on the irishtimes.com than for 10 people at ET even if I were lost in the crowd of discordant voices there. If you want to facilitate change, you have to start somewhere and cynicism can me a mask to hide inaction.

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Thu Mar 21st, 2013 at 07:17:43 AM EST
[ Parent ]
An interesting development in Finland is the emergence of independent journalist groups who supply direct 'deep content' aka investigative journalism (which is in short supply in this country). You can, for example, buy the major articles of one group, Long Play, online. The name has the same connotations as Slow Food. Sorry I can't find anything in English on this 8 person collective: in Finnish here.

Their advantage is the obvious one: They are all very good writers, and they are not beholden to advertisers, politicians or corporate interest.

Their first major piece was built around a self-promoting philosopher, social futurist and pal of the PM who got 700,000 € a little while back for a study on 'Finnish society in the online age' or whatever. Their story also managed to point out the cracks, if not chasms, in the fabric of social decision-making and leadership, which had academics and all sorts popping out of the woodwork in reaction.

The article had taken several months to research (they all freelance for the majors meanwhile) and was full of very interesting facts, and expert opinion. (Major parts of the Finnish philosopher's report were presented to high level English philosophy academics at Oxford and Cambridge with the author's name excluded. Unanimously the experts labeled it as High School, or amateur)

This first major piece cost 3.90 for the pdf. A year's subscription is 54.00. And it works.

Most of the other independent groups simply have started their own limited distribution magazines - which do take advertising, though it's more like the ads in the book of the school theatre program i,e ad space is purchased in support of the editorial venture.

I disagree with TBG because I think this 'movement' will happen quite soon - at least up here in the Nordics. I do not believe that print news will survive, however tarted up, more than 3 years. It's in a death spiral, and there's going to be a lot of scrap steel coming onto the market. It is already happening here at the blunt end of the industry: paper-making. Stora Enso last month closed just two of their newsprint mills - reducing Europe's newsprint capacity by 3.4 %.

Finland produced a bit over 6 million tonnes of graphic papers (printing, writing, newsprint papers) in 2012. This was already down 7% on the previous year, and so it has been for more than a decade.

We are in the 'peer-recommended' phase of the transition now. Users on FB or other social meeting spots recommend all kinds of references to their friends. I am fortunate in having a wide circle of friends with different professional interests. They are now my 'news' source, and FB appears to present its individualized newsfeed according to neuronal filtering. I jest, but neuronal connections are enhanced by regular use, weakened or extinguished by lack of use, and severe overuse leads to deliberate damping. Even I can have too much anthropomorphine.

In FB, if someone is misusing your wall, or indeed contacting you unpleasantly or inappropriately expsong you to stuff you don't want to see, then it is very simple to unfriend or even block someone. This works even better than in the mind.

So my friends (a mobile feast) are actually designing a large part of my daily media consumption, and I am contributing to theirs. I do generally listen to half an hour of radio news late at night, but in general my  personal media landscape is made up of waveforms and packets, rather than minerals - with different reflective properties - on cellulose.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Thu Mar 21st, 2013 at 12:43:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Why I left news

I can well understand the pressures that young journalists are under in the US and UK. I haven't really met any with similar views in Finland. But this is the reality that I've heard expressed before:

I don't know a single person who works in daily news today who doesn't have her eyes trained on the exit signs. I'm not sure what that says about the industry, but I certainly don't miss the insecurity.

Sure, it took me a while to get used to my new job. When I go to parties, I no longer can introduce myself as a reporter and watch people's eyes light up. Instead, I hear how people miss seeing my byline. No one misses it more than I.

News was never this gray, aging entity to me. It was more like young love, that reckless attraction that consumes you entirely, until one day - suddenly -- you snap out of feeling enamored and realize you've got to detach. I left news, not because I didn't love it enough, but because I loved it too much - and I knew it was going to ruin me.

She says that traditional media news is no longer a career. It's done. It's over.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Thu Mar 21st, 2013 at 02:10:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I have sent my piece to Hugh Linehan the Irish Times online editor in case he wanted to challenge any assertions made in it. He said would get back to me this morning, but hasn't yet done so.  I suspect I have hit rather a raw nerve. I think they are well aware that their position is somewhat precarious and feel they need this negative feedback like a hole in the head.   But I actually think there is a way forward for them if they take some of my points on board. Not long term, perhaps, but at least for the next few years.

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Thu Mar 21st, 2013 at 02:27:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I thought it was good. Well formulated and substanial on the topics.

Small question though

European Tribune - Irishtimes.com: The Perils of redesigning your website

a wall of free internet expertise and energy comes flowing your way.

A wall comes flowing?

I am not a native english speaker, but is this an expression I am unfamiliar with or have you mixed up your expressions?

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Thu Mar 21st, 2013 at 05:17:09 AM EST
We speak of "a wall of money" flowing towards or from (say) a successful business. Perhaps even a "wall of people" coming in the form of an onrushing crowd. It is a strange metaphor I agree, and some might say it is an unfortunately mixed one. But have you ever been hit by a really big wave? Water may flow, but it feels very hard if it comes at you at speed. The very fact that the expression gave you pause for thought (as to its appropriateness and meaning) leads me to think that it might not, in fact, be a bad way to end the piece,

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Thu Mar 21st, 2013 at 05:27:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
that's because most walls don't move!

facing a wave twice your height coming at you, you see the word 'wall' is entirely appropriate...

he could have said 'wave' but he gives it more mass by poetic license.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Thu Mar 21st, 2013 at 05:55:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks Melo! I knew I could rely on you for the poetic license!  I'm still thinking about the whole piece and will probably tweak it here and there. Part of me feels I have been a bit harsh on Irishtimes.com but I will await further feedback before I come to a definitive view on this.

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Thu Mar 21st, 2013 at 06:05:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And mortality tends to be the same whether you hit a brick wall at 60 kph or a wall of water hits you at the same speed - horizontally or vertically.

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Thu Mar 21st, 2013 at 02:15:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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