As you have no doubt noticed, this site went through a redesign and we have survived. These things are like tornados. You brace for them and then they hit and you realize you forgot to, I don’t know, stabilize the barn or whatever. And bam! It’s in grandma’s front yard down the road.

There have been several complaints and worries from users. We’re working methodically to address them all.

 But we’re slowly shifting from the mentality of repairing the site and toward the focus we always have: trying to improve the user’s experience. See, news websites are consistently improving. Remember what it was like to read or engage with the Wall Street Journal’s website just a couple of years ago? The experience of doing that has completely changed. Looking back, it’s hard for me to imagine how we tolerated news websites years ago. And at this rate, we’ll look back at the sites today and wonder how we could have possibly digested them. 

Improving these sites isn’t just episodic. It’s daily. Even before the redesign, we were working to improve something different on the site every day. But redesigns are irregular efforts to do a lot of this at once. So, if maintaining your news website is like a long, long, long hike, then upgrading the technology you’re using and reworking the look and feel of the site to accommodate new features is like grabbing onto the leg of a helicopter to take you a hundred yards higher on the mountain. It’s hard to do, you hold on and grit your teeth and maybe you break your leg.

But it’s worth it. You brush yourself off after them and realize something: It was a big bold move, yes. But it was just a move. After you make it, it’s back to hiking.

Now that things are settling down, I thought I’d take a minute to reflect and give you a window into what we are thinking and experiencing here. We’re a small group of people (but growing!) that is essentially trying to leverage the power of technology to have a disproportionate impact.

There is a tremendous disruption occurring in how we all get and share information. While it can be frightening, it’s also exciting to see how much information you can gather and package with less and less effort. That, essentially, is what we are trying to do when we go through these kinds of changes.

We’re working on the theory that other companies or organizations will develop the technology we need now and in the future to get you the best information and host the best discussions we can. In other words, rather than try to develop or customize something too much, we plan to continue to just buy or lease systems as companies get better at producing them. Some groups may partner with us for free to distribute our content or engage residents. Some may pay us to distribute our content. Someday, with open source efforts we may customize free software.

But we’re not going to ever hire web developers in house. (Oops, I had also sworn never to say never… hmmm. We don’t plan to. How’s that?) We’re not a technology company. We’re a journalism shop.

We’re testing the theory that you can keep up with good technology available to news or information sites by utilizing technological partnerships and outsourcing. We believe that others may very well be better at distributing our work than we are and if they want to propose something, we’ll listen. Our investment in this area should be in creating engaging content, good photography and good design. This isn’t to say we have invested enough in these areas. Far, far from it.

What we’re saying is that is the priority here. And we will keep trying as hard as we can to improve as swiftly as we can in those areas. We’re a long way from our ideal engagement with San Diegans, but we’re a lot farther along than we were just a year or two ago. We’re a galaxy away from where we started.

Hopefully this keeps us adaptable to changes in this industry. If someone discovers how to better handle one aspect of our mission, we can more easily embrace it if we are not married to some kind of technology we discovered, built or in which we invested a lot of time and money.

That adaptability, though, has brought us each week into a situation we never imagined existed.

Interesting Decisions

Throughout this process, for four years since Editor Andrew Donohue and I took over this operation’s staff, we have found ourselves making interesting decisions about issues we never knew even existed sometimes just months before. The decisions are wildly diverse and interesting.

Let’s take one recent one for example:  I received an invitation a couple of months ago from the leader of Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media offering to bring me to the Twin Cities to talk at a roundtable about the future of journalism and nonprofit news enterprises.

Should I go? On the one hand, we were busier than ever before.

On the other hand, I knew I could talk to some fascinating people not only at the conference but in town. Minnesota is an incredibly well cultured place. I could, for instance, drop by MinnPost.com, where CEO Joel Kramer (the former publisher of Minnesota’s largest newspaper, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune) decided a couple of years ago that he could do what we’re doing and add his own twists. Getting to know Joel has been a major influence on my thinking. His staff is working hard to diversify their revenue sources and create a credible and sustainable news institution in a city comparatively packed with culture.

I did go. And I had Sunday brunch with MinnPost’s leaders. We talked about getting ads, and donations, and grants and how to run the technology and some new technology that existed. We talked about reporters, full-time reporters, freelance reporters, operational costs, events and marketing costs — everything.

I also learned that MinnPost doesn’t let people comment in their discussions anonymously. Newspapers have been doing letters to the editor for a long time. They call contact information and do other things to verify the identities of their letter writers. Obviously an elaborate hoax could be pulled off, but most people reading things like this just want to learn and talk about what’s going on.

But when they came online, newspapers bizarrely just opened up the floodgates and enabled anonymous comments on their websites. Though at times they are insightful, funny and important, many times the forums turn into something resembling more of a bathroom wall than a civil congress.

We took the newspapers’ lead when we first began hosting comments. But we only had them on our opinion and commentary stories. We started to open it up a bit more but never with a coherent plan and we never enabled comments on our major stories or investigations. We just felt they weren’t doing much good and they had the potential to do much damage.

But we allowed letters to the editor and op-eds and guest blogs and all sorts of other things.

Why not think about what MinnPost and others were doing?

Andrew and I talked about it then and realized our new content management system would give us some more tools to help manage this.

We made the determination to allow discussions on all stories. But we would not allow anonymous comments. If you have something you can only say under the cloak of anonymity, you should contact our editor, Andy, or one of our reporters so they can consider investigating it further.

It makes sense to share the minimum of information about yourself in order to be part of a discussion like that. And it makes sense for us to do a little bit of work to verify your contact information. Over time, we’ll develop more and better tools to do this and have a good discussion. Hopefully, for instance, we’ll soon have a system whereby you can rate and reward each others’ ability to stay on topic and make salient points.

For now, the users who register with us to comment, will receive special invitations to expand their participation and verify the contact information they provided.

Again, in 2005, I never would have imagined these issues coming up or these decisions arising. That’s what makes this so much fun.

But it’s very hard. These technologies are improving but they are still difficult to use sometimes especially for an organization that doesn’t spend anything on experts. So, I was overjoyed when the switch, as problematic as it might have been for some, went as well as it did. Again, no doubt we’ve got some things to improve but overall it is an improvement and not a step back.

This was an investment of mostly just staff time in a new vehicle for the New Year. With it, we renewed a commitment to make voiceofsandiego.org the place you come for investigation, analysis, conversation and intelligence. This doesn’t mean we won’t have fun at times. We will do things on the lighter side and we have plans and dreams of doing intelligent work on the arts and sports.

But you can get gossip about Miss California’s sex tape from someone else — someone, in fact, who can get it to you much better than we can.

We do this because this is what our many members and users of the site say they want. And every time we demonstrate we’re doing it well, we get a few more of each. This makes it possible for us to invest more in doing it better.

So thanks for putting up with us through these changes. I hope you always see things improve even when we go through rough transitions.

Now that this transition is over, I have never approached a coming year with so much optimism and hope not only about our operation but about our city too. I think people are interested in a reality based discussion. More and more people want straight talk and facts about our city’s government, its education system, its environment, its economy and its people. They want stories to share and they want to share ideas and frustrations.

We are interested in nothing more than providing this and being able to provide as much as we can to the people who do this work well. We enjoy it. Journalists have always felt passionate about this industry because it is so much fun to help a community manage these discussions. Through nonprofit organizations, a community has an opportunity to directly help support them too — rather than wait and helplessly watch the industry crumble.

We’re getting better at it and judging by the many people who keep donating and reading, you’re getting more and more proud of us and interested to see what more we can do.

Again, we know we’ve got a long way to go. Your criticisms are welcome. They can sting our egos sometimes but we feed off of the energy they provide to always evolve and consistently evaluate our decisions.

Thank you to everyone for your support. We could have never asked for a better, purer mission. And we won’t stop pursuing it.

— SCOTT LEWIS

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.