We've just wrapped up our first week with the newly redesigned front page, and so far we've received a lot of compliments.
The other day, when we launched the redesign, I wrote about the increased emphasis on blogs, and the decreased emphasis on traditional news stories.
It's worth expanding on this a bit, I think.
The germ of this idea came from a beer-fueled conversation after a Poynter Institute seminar with my friends Matt Thompson and Sewell Chan.
Both argued emphatically that the "news voice" that has long defined the structure, tone and content of American newspaper stories is dead. Or that we should kill it -- I forget which.
I was beyond dubious at first. I've spent the last 17 years learning to speak in news voice, getting really good at speaking in news voice, and finally teaching others to do the same.
But eventually Matt and Sewell won me over. I saw they were pitching a form of journalism provided more transparency and more authenticity. Matt's written an eloquent blog post on the topic. Here's an excerpt:
"Worst of all, news voice had the unfortunate side effect of hiding the reporting that lends all good journalism its credibility. By meticulously pruning out references to reporters’ methods and circumstances from every story, the industry deprived the public of the best tool to evaluate or understand the work reporters did. Shoddy work could sit alongside skillful work, all under the same institutional imprimatur, and readers were given few tools to tell the difference. To the untrained observer, it’s not easy to differentiate a two-source press release story from a piece built on weeks of FOIAs and footwork."
There's some other great points that arose out of our conversation:
- The reporting process is an interesting narrative in itself -- and narrative draws readers to return again and again. They want to find out if you got the mayor to call back, and what he said, and if it's backed up by the documents in that FOIA request you mentioned a week ago.
- Opening that process makes it possible for readers to share their knowledge and help our reporting
- By omnisciently summing up what we've learned over the course of 24 or 48 hours (or two years, in the case of some unwieldy investigative projects at newspapers) with a traditional news story, we lose those two benefits. In terms of interaction, that news story is a dead end. We've just issued an authoritative pronouncement, and it ends the discussion. Blogs allow us to stop doing that.
After our Poynter conversation, I began to evaluate our copy flow and ask questions about whether we would be well-served by treating some articles as blog posts. The answer was a resounding 'YES'.
Some news is, shall we say... not really worth a news story. We go to great lengths to twist some factoids into news articles when they should really be a quickie blog post.
Because we cover Chicago, a land of legendarily uncooperative public officials, some of our traditional news articles end up holding for days while we wait for Alderman So-and-So to call us back. The same process, blog style: Post the article. Six hours later, publish a new post with the alderman's comment. The next day, another post with quotes from the alderman's arch-enemy. We get three posts instead of one article, and they happen in real time.
In the web world, those three posts are nothing to sneeze at. Traffic and posting frequency have a linear relationship. Without hiring staff more staff, the only way to grow traffic is by encouraging our existing staff to post more often. Our move to blog style has done that.
Over the past week, page views, time on site and page views per visit are all up between 10 and 20 percent.
We're still learning to take advantage of the new design, optimize our copy flow and cultivate the kind of writing that distinguishes blogging from the dreaded news voice.
But clearly this is an experiment worth continuing.