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The high-stakes overhaul of a newspaper website

As the ProJo turns
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  November 17, 2010

TJI111910_ProJo

The Providence Journal's website, once considered forward-looking, feels a little backward at the moment.

The social-networking revolution that has swept the rest of the web has not yet landed at projo.com; Facebook's ubiquitous "like" button is conspicuously absent.

And while local competitors like golocalprov.com make heavy use of large photos and graphics, the Journal's website is all text and gray matter — except for the garish advertisements that occupy prime real estate in the left column, screaming "aren't we tawdry!"

"I come to this site and it looks like it has no identity," says Kelley McDonald, director of information architecture for Virginia-based NavigationArts, which redesigned websites for the Charlotte Observer [above] and Sacramento Bee. "It looks like an ad farm."

The Journal, in fairness, has had other concerns in recent years — industry-wide crashes in circulation and advertising revenue chief among them. And the company is moving toward design improvements.

Publisher Howard Sutton, in a recent memo to employees obtained by the Phoenix, said the paper has hired two local firms — advertising agency Nail Communications and web design company ExNihilo — to overhaul the paper's graphics and website.

Journal management, in keeping with longstanding practice, did not return calls for comment. ExNihilo did not return a call either and Nail's affable chief, Jeremy Crisp, declined to chat — citing client confidentiality.

But Eric Moore, senior vice president of media and entertainment for Razorfish — the company that designed the New York Times website — did speak with the Phoenix. His central piece of advice for newspapers looking to improve their web presence: "act like a digital native, not like a print tourist."

That means, above all else, making "your content very nimble, very shareable, very tied to the social," he says, "because that's the currency of media today."

It also means identifying one's value in an ever-expanding universe of options — and successfully exploiting it. The Journal has made some moves in this direction, particularly with the print product; local news now dominates the A section of the paper, with most national and international news — available at nytimes.com or elsewhere — banished to a B section.

That local focus is evident on the web. But making a full transition would mean devoting more resources to the Journal's high school sports initiative, for instance, or installing a local news widget like the one that appears on boston.com: a little roadside sign reading "Entering Your Town," with links to news by neighborhood and municipality.

Projo.com is also in need of some basic design upgrades. Sites like nytimes.com and charlotteobserver.com have found ways to deliver the jumble of information offered up by the American newspaper in a clean, compelling, and digestible way.

White space, line, and typography matter. A four-column structure, broken up with photos and widgets prevails at some of the best designed newspaper sites. And a consistent architecture — navigation on the left, ads on the right — makes the site more predictable for readers.

Projo.com's architecture shifts as the visitor moves deeper into the site. It delivers much of the news in a single, fat column. And it fails to make adequate use of photography; quality pictures, McDonald says, are the key to signaling the quality of a site.

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  Topics: This Just In , Internet, Media, New York Times,  More more >
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