Anyone want to help design the Birmingham Post website?

Yes it’s true, it looks like the days might be numbered for icBirmingham. We are finally getting a new website!

When Trinity Mirror decided to keep the Post & Mail, part of the announcement alluded to the fact that an upgrade in IT and our websites was on its way.

Now it looks like a shiny, new Birmingham Post website will be launched at some point next year.

To my surprise and delight I have been picked to be part of the development team (I guess it was a good thing those bigwigs were reading my blog after all!).

Part of my job is to shape what sort of content the site should have. I’m going to be studying what’s out there on the web already to see if there’s stuff I think could be useful – and to try and avoid some of the mistakes that others have made.

Now, I know there are some things I want from a news website: a home page that is constantly updated with breaking news; rss feeds for categories of news that I’m interested in; email alerts for breaking stories; an easily searchable archive and the ability to post a comment at the bottom of a story. I am also stupidly addicted to links to the day’s most read and most emailed stories.

I also think there’s a place for video content, especially if it’s giving a slightly different angle to a story – maybe showing the drama of breaking news or, perhaps, the human side of a business deal. One video that caught my attention was a feature from the New York Times on Paypal founder Max Levchin. That really worked for me (except the damn stupid ad before the video).

Speaking of ads: My ideal news website would also have its advertising in a sensible place and certainly NOT have any of those horrible things that follow you around when you scroll.

But, the thing is, I’m just one person.

How I used news sites is different to how others might use them. I know, for example, I’m very biased towards the news side of things. But news websites can also provide other content too (features, share prices, weather, traffic information, directories, etc.)

So, I wondered, what sort of content do other people use news websites for? What features do other people find useful? I guess this post is a call out to people to find out what you might want from a new, improved, Birmingham Post website.

We’ve got a meeting on Monday to start putting all this stuff together. I’m really excited about it as we could soon have a website that I’m proud of, rather than one I have to constantly apologise for.

[Edit: If you want to see the sites and features I’ve been looking at, I’ve bookmarked them on del.licio.us tagged as Jo’sResearch. I’ll be discussing these at the meeting on Monday. Is there anything I’ve missed?]

20 thoughts on “Anyone want to help design the Birmingham Post website?

  1. The whole icnetwork thing has been a bit of a joke since it was first launched. The various sites around the group are changing and getting better.
    I quite like bits of what they’ve done in Cardiff – icwales – but it is a bit too in your face for me at times. The big plus is that beyond the big banners it is fairly clear and straight-forward.

    I think the best news sites are the most simple ones. Easy, quick links to stories and features and if you want to explore further you can make that choice yourself. I get increasingly annoyed with sites that leave you clicking aimlessly to find the articles you want. I know they are far from faultless, but I still like the BBC’s news site and The Guardian.

    Perhaps it is down to my own simple-minded view of things. But the what I’d like to see from the new site is clarity, simplicity and (as you’ve stated) quick and regular updates.

    One other major bugbear – they have to sort out the Post blog.
    Putting up columns that have already appeared in the paper (no matter how entertaining some of them can be) isn’t good enough. The blog needs to be fresh, different and add something new to what readers already get from the paper. If they’re not going to offer this, then I don’t think they should even bother having a blog. I know Marc and others might get a bit twitchy about content, but the Post blog as it currently stands detracts from the newspaper and doesn’t enhance it. Do it properly or don’t do it all.

    Sorry, rant over. I left 18 months ago but still can’t let some things go ;-)

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  3. Just to be clear, I don’t read the Post at all at the moment. That’s simply because I can’t get it on the web. I normally buy a guardian a few times a week, and read anything I miss on their site. So I’d happily start taking an interest in local news if you have a decent site.

    Starting with some nice clean modern web standards, proper HTML + CSS, if your going to be pumping a table based inaccessible design then don’t bother. You have to make sure the tools your using to publish stories support web standards as well. At each stage during the process you should make a point of asking about standards, accessibility and browser support. If your web team is telling your that it’ll be ‘Internet Explorer only’ then you’ve got problems. Plenty of nice URLs, seriously I want to go to /edgbaston and get my local news, RSS for everything. I want to be able to access the site on an iPhone or on a Wii. It might not look exactly the same, but it’ll be usable. If you’ve a good web team then this isn’t going to be a problem, they should know all about WordPress. If you can’t get it right, you’ll be laughed out of town.

    Interaction with the local blogging/flickr community, there’s more of us and we know lots of stuff that you don’t, if you do nice things like linking to our stories and give proper credits for photos you use then were more likely to send you stuff.

    Video is nice, but unless your employing people to film, edit it and share it properly it won’t be worth it. e.g. I’d happily watch good quality video, properly edited and I’d like to embed your video on my site, I want to see you put it on YouTube, I want a weekly video podcast of all of the stories you’ve published.

    These things are not complicated/beyond the realms of possibility even for a medium sized paper, you just have to have passionate people who enjoy this stuff and want to make a really good site.

  4. Ease of viewing is probably my top priority, but I can think of at least two ways that gets detailed. Properly set-up feeds is one. Ease of locating stories within the main site is another.

    When I think about where I get my local news, four online sources come to mind: BBC West Midlands (which is where I usually go, since it is easy to find and read); icBirmingham (which I only do in order to look for a particular story); Adrian Goldberg’s “Stirrer” forum (which I also only visit when there’s a particular story I’m looking for); Mik Barton’s Kings Heath website (which has a subscription option and a feed). There are also other services that produce newsworthy items, but these generally have some sort of syndication, too. The sites that don’t have syndication don’t get much attention.

    But the presentation of the main site is just as important for those times I visit. This is where things get complicated, since the site currently has so many things messed up, and most news sites aren’t a whole lot better. But there are two further things that would help: de-clutter the front page, and somewhere on the site, provide a linklog of other people’s news. (A news ticker of local blog/pod/videofeeds would be a nice touch.)

    Decluttering the front page would mean that getting to a particular page within the site would take an extra click or two, but setting the site up for ease of navigation would mean that less time is spent in fruitless searches. Having a top-notch search funstion would make a lot of difference. (A home page that’s just a banner and a search engine would suit!) Aside from that I haven’t got any specific suggestions – but will add another comment if I come across an example that works.

  5. Partly it depends on whether the Post has the resources to go for true convergence journalism – ie. the journalists filing different/longer/ video pieces for the web as well as reproducing what goes in the paper.

    Some kind of ability to pick up local (constitency level) as well as city-wide stories in feeds would be useful.

    I don’t mind ads that can be blocked using Adblock Plus in Firefox :-)

  6. I must say I read all of my news via RSS reader and it would be very nice to have the choice between an RSS feed that has headline and synopsis and one that features the full article text which not many sites do.

    I really love it when you get very richly linked articles. On Boing Boing when they have a story on a theme they have discussed in the past they stick a list of previous related links at the bottom of the page.

    Tagging is really important and it really helps to have a good search feature.

    The thing that BBCi do really well is when they have a big story that is regularly featured they will do an in depth analysis for example “The Israel Palestine conflict what’s that all about?” or “Why should you care about interest rates?”

    Also I like the regular round up of articles you might have missed that they have on life hacker.

    If I get one of those flash adds that covers up the text on screen and i can’t make it go away in two seconds I will not read the article and may never read the site again.

  7. Congratulations! I agree with Paul on the blogs, there’s no point reproducing columns as blogs, although if all the paper content is going properly online and easily searchable and accessible, it’s fairly academic anyway. I’d like to think my blog is an example of something a bit different, or it would be if I ever updated the thing.

    Would you want a different editorial line on the website to the paper, as seen on e.g. the Telegraph? Let’s be honest, I don’t imagine there’s that much overlap between the readership of the Post paper and viewers of a prospective flashy new website.

    And regarding my personal bugbear, this from other Tom: “Video is nice, but unless you’re employing people to film, edit it and share it properly it won’t be worth it. e.g. I’d happily watch good quality video, properly edited and I’d like to embed your video on my site, I want to see you put it on YouTube, I want a weekly video podcast of all of the stories you’ve published.”

    YES YES YES YES YES! All the post journalists are good writers storyfinders etc. They’re not cameramen/women, and it’d be tragic to see them waste Get in a videojournalist. It’s a real job.

    I guess what I’m most interested in seeing, as many on here have already said, is what role there is for user-generated content on the website. A few here seem to want ultra-local news, but I can’t see how there’s ever be enough time or people for the Post to generate that themselves. Maybe get it off the Mail local pages/website? On the other hand, would there be enough staff to vet all the UGC if it was coming in?

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  9. Why reinvent the wheel? Look at the Guardian and the BBC, as suggested above. They are extremely popular for a reason. Newspapers steal each others ideas all the time. Why should a website be different? And, please, don’t make it ‘shiny’.

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  12. Hello,

    This sounds like a really good opportunity to make something that Birmingham really needs. A single site that brings together news about Birmingham on the Internet.

    My biggest concern with the current ICBirmingham site is that it appears to be an afterthought rather than concerted vehicle for delivering news. Stories from the paper sometimes take a day or two to make it to the site if they appear at all. The search function just doesn’t seem to work on any level.

    I think the front page realy needs simplifying. It has way too much stuff on it (34 items of navigation on the right hand side) yet the news doesn’t exactly leap out. Much less attention to selling us services like dating and horoscopes will make people revisit giving you the opportunity to increase ad revenue.

    The BBC West Midlands site isn’t great for news and the Stirrer suffers from shocking design problems and a somewhat random editorial approach. There is a gap here and you should seize this opportunity.

    Birmingham has got some very good community sites and quite a few people that have been doing this for a number of years. Learn from them and don’t try and do this in isolation.

    Oh. and thanks for asking us.

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  14. Congratulations on getting picked – it shows that they have their heads screwed on in terms of knowing where to look.
    I’ve probably waffled far too much about the 21st century newsroom, but I think the one word I would mention is tagging – Everything Is Miscellaneous is a great overview of it, skip to the last chapter if you need to.

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  17. I’ve followed icBirmingham for years – back when we lived in Texas forward to today 150 miles from “home”. But I’ve never liked the site, it’s just that the local news is carried and that’s what I want to read!

    I don’t mind ads – after all they pay for the content just like in the printed version. A similar percentage of space devoted to ads as in the broadsheet would be fine.

    I like the “Your View” section in the Telegraph, as well as the ability to comment freely on articles. In fact I always go to the Letters page in the Telegraph before I read the editorials! I bet I am not alone in that. You often get a better feel for the nation’s mood reading the letters than you do the editorials.

    I really don’t think the BBC’s sites are very useful, so don’t use them as a blueprint – IMO anyway.

    Blogging is something that is embraced by the Guardian and the Telegraph, i.e. left or right wing, the blogs work.

    Good luck with the project. BTW I really enjoyed your front page piece on Curzon Street Station this Monday (was that yesterday, I suppose it was).

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