Our Brand Spanking New Home Page

Cross-posted on the Collegian: Web Wire blog.

All the News that's Fit to PrintYou probably noticed last week we launched a redesign of the home page of the Collegian Web site. You may have also noticed that we changed the Web site’s name from The Digital Collegian to The Daily Collegian Online. These are two of the more obvious changes to the Web site this year, but they will not be the last.

I would like to use this blog as an opportunity to highlight some of the new features on our Web site and give you an idea of where we are going in the future. I would also like to give you an idea of what is going on behind the scenes, so you can give us a break when things don’t look 100 percent.

The home page redesign is just the first part of a year-long project to revamp the Web site. I designed the new look, taking the best parts of an earlier mock-up from my Web project partner, Chris Bajgier. Our design goals included making pages wider, creating a consistent set of navigation links across the site, and making better use of space in general.

The new home page has more room for top stories, features, and section headlines. It also shows the weather more prominently and includes a preview of the day’s front page. This is a feature our design staff has been begging for and we’re glad we can highlight their work on the Web site. Behind the scenes, the page uses something called Cascading Style Sheets, which create a set of design rules and keep file size down. The expanded Collegian home page takes roughly the same amount of time to load as the original.

So far almost all the response has been pretty positive from both our staff and our readers. The biggest question/complaint we have gotten is why we aren’t using this design on all of our pages. The answer is a bit complicated. The Collegian uses some custom software to generate the article and section pages. We tried porting the templates over when we updated the home page, but ran into difficulties. At the last minute we decided to hold off on the other pages. We’re working on resolving these technical issues and hope to push the other design changes in the near future.

I won’t say much more for now, but I’ll be back later in the week with more details about our Web plans. In the meantime, you can read Editor-in-chief Erin James’ column about the web and Web editor Allison Busacca’s column about our blogs. Thanks for reading.

Technological Determinism

Technological determinism is an interesting concept I picked up in class this semester. Simply put, it is the belief that technology can change society and, generally, improve it. It is this belief which inspires people to put a laptop in the hands of every child in the developing world in the hopes economic development. It is this belief that pushes corporations spend millions on improving their infrastructure to increase productivity. It is this belief that motivates student like me to enter the field of information technology and we certainly stand to benefit from it. But it is only half the story.

I still believe that technology can empower people, but only when used properly.
It needs to be a means to an end and not just a means. I have seen the failures of technology determinism firsthand with my work at the Collegian this year. After studying the issues facing the paper, we decided to push forward with development of a dynamic content management system. Their systems had not been updated much in the last 7 years, so an upgrade made sense. By making it easier to update the website, we assumed that the rest would follow. A year later, though, we still are not finished and we have realized we still have a lot more issues to address. For example, if we build it who will come and who will use it?

My realization comes on the heels of a series of meetings with the editors and advisers about the status of our project. A new editor was elected this month and she wanted to share her ideas for the web with us. This was not surprising. What was surprising was that when we got down to it, we could do a number of the things she was proposing right now without a major systems change. We’ve been waiting for the technology to improve the content, when in fact we need new content if we want a better website. We need to help guide the content creators, the editors and writers, towards using the web as a medium for journalism. That is more than just sticking print stories on a web page. And the truth is a database will make little difference there.

So this post is my Jerry Maguire moment of clarity. Technology alone does not solve problems and expecting it to do so is unfair. The laptop program won’t be successful unless its backers can find a way to integrate them into these societies and their educational systems. And business productivity will come as a result of people using the technology better, not just having faster technology. So by the end of this semester we will have a road map for upgrading the website by the fall and the database will likely not be part of the initial release. We will be delivering news to the Penn State community in a whole new way though and at the end of the day that is all that matters.

Reporting Reflections

Tonight I went down the Collegian to do some work and got roped into attending their semi-annual “Meet the Staff” night. They get a bunch of current staff members to go up and talk to the new reporters about life at the Collegian. It’s actually a pretty well run thing, as the news coordinator is a former journalist and manages to ask interesting questions that keep the discussion going. Among topics covered were how to handle tough interviews (like the parents of dead students) or the difference between being a football fan and a football writer. We got a moment to plug our web project and share our advice with the candidates.

The event got me thinking back to my own experience as a writer with the Collegian. I started as a sports writer, focusing on women’s tennis for a semester. I think I enjoyed the work environment of the Collegian a lot, but I didn’t like being a reporter as much. I probably blamed the subject matter a lot, but truth be told I was a bad reporter. Hindsight is 20/20 and I can see a lot of the mistakes I made back then. I ended up quitting before the start of the following fall, only to come back later that year to start the web project.

The surprising theme of the night was that a lot of the staffers all had similar feelings when they’re started. Sure its tough being new in any organization, but I think being a reporter takes extra getting used to. It seems kind of unnatural to walk up to strangers and ask lots of questions, but that’s what needs to be done. It’s also difficult to take an event a part and tell it as an interesting story while being accurate. I ended up advising those who struggled with reporting to consider trying other things such as copy editing, design, or even web.

The other thing I noticed was how much of an impact being there really is in an organization. Chris and I did a lot of development outside of the Collegian’s offices last semester and struggled, but this semester we stayed on site and got a lot more done. There were other factors, but I think being there and having people to talk to helped keep us motivated. Interestingly, they mentioned that the photo staff was cut off from the rest of news up until this year. The reason was the photo people had their own corner and stayed away from the newsroom. This year they started bringing photographers into staff meetings and suddenly everyone started working better together.

Anyway, I find the night to be much more worthwhile than I thought it would. Hearing people talk about their experiences also reminded me that there’s still I would like to do with our project and that time is running out. So that will keep me motivated towards getting something done sooner.

Sprint to the Finish

I naively though this would be an easy week, when I reviewed my to-do list in my head Sunday morning. Just get through the week and do my history presentation, then off to spring break. Unfortunately I miscounted my eggs before they hatched. I recalled throughout the day that this week would also include a midterm, a short essay, a scholarship application, scheduling for next semester, meetings, and an annoying CSS bug. So my easy week got a whole lot harder by the time Monday morning hit. I am getting closer though and I can take comfort in the fact that I get to go home in a couple days.

While this week I am putting out a lot of fires, I have been doing a lot of long-term planning lately. We’re only halfway through the semester and I am already being forced to look past that. I accepted an internship this month for the summer, which will require me to live in Erie, PA for about 10 weeks. I’m hoping the lake weather will make up for being far way from home. At the Collegian we’re making some progress with development, which means we need to start thinking about how we’ll implement it all over the summer for the fall. I am also narrowing in on a thesis topic for next year, which will involve newspapers’ adoption of IT. I even have a thesis adviser who wants to work with me.

Tonight I had to sit down and figure out what classes I’ll be taking next fall. It’s hard to believe at this time next year I’ll be preparing to enter the “real world”. Suffice to say, I am looking forward to a relaxing spring break. I got my tax refund recently and some of that spare cash is going into some great DVDs, including the new Controversial Classics DVD set, which includes one of my favorites: Network. That should be fun. Back to my earlier discussion – I can see my college years slipping away. So I guess I got to make the best of what I have. I also need to get to sleep, so that’s all for now.

Newspapers on Their Last Presses?

Grim day for the print media. I woke up today I found a post titled “The Last Presses” by Jeff Jarvis about the looming death of the print industry. Jarvis is apparently a media analyst and it seems he’s not far off. There is a lot that I could say about this article because it touches on a lot of stuff I am interested in. I work with The Daily Collegian, helping prepare and develop their transition into the web. I am also a big web news consumer, which I think gives me an idea of what readers are looking for. So here are some of my thoughts on the future of print and the web.

Continue reading

Newspaper Readership Down; Online Grows

News.com has report on the growth of online media, largely at the expense of the traditional print media. This is a disturbing trend for the newspaper business and makes the work I’m doing at the Collegian pretty important. Studies like this emphasize the importance of getting the print media to adjust to serving two formats.

One thing that is interesting note in the article is that NYTimes.com has gotten 270,000 visitors to sign up for its TimesSelect service in 2 months. This is encouraging for the business side of things. Matched with the growth of online advertising, I think there may be a bright future ahead for online media.

Turn Around with ASP.NET

For the first time in a couple weeks, I am feeling pretty good about the status of my Collegian project. We have been toiling in PHP and mySQL for 3 months now and have very little to show for our work. I am not sure anyone at the Collegian is really too disappointed with us, but we are disappointing ourselves. The systems manager pointed out a project at USA Today, with a much smaller scope and a lot more resources, took 4 months. Still, I felt like we were stuck in the road. I have been waiting for some externality to happen that would jumpstart development. It did today and it came from an unlikely source: Microsoft.

When we proposed our project last spring, we used the concept of using open source software as a cost saving measure and a learning experience for students. And I did learn a good deal. Unfortunately neither myself or my partner on the project had a whole lot of coding experience. This makes starting from scratch on a new content management system very difficult.

We had been making our cake from scratch, the news advisor noted, and we need a cake mix. So we’ve decided we’re going to chose ASP.NET 2.0 as our cake mix. Microsoft’s new Visual Web Developer really impressed us and its free to boot. I actually have less experience with ASP, but I have found a wealth of resouces out there to help me catch up. A big selling point, though, was the master template system and some of the other controls offered.

We still aren’t completely sure how we’re going forward. I’m not sure whether we’ll use MS SQL Server. We may try to still use MySQL or we may scale back our proposal and use static pages for the time being. There wasn’t anything wrong with PHP and I would definitely use it other scenarios. I do think that ASP may end up being better for this situation though. The good thing is I am feeling better about the project now and I am actually looking forward to programming again.