Web Watch 7: Not enough time, not enough design

I’ve had the pleasure of talking to a number of California community college instructors and their students in the last couple of weeks about their online publications. I’ve visited schools (and have more on my schedule) and hobnobbed with folks at the recent JACC NorCal conference. I got a lot of positive feedback on these Web Watches.

Not enough time
The No. 1 excuse I hear from advisers as to why their student publications have not gone online or are AWOL in updates is lack of time. Their students are spending all their time simply putting out print editions. But when I talk to students and share the concept of having staffs submit their stories THROUGH the online site –something you can do with a content management tool such as College Publisher– and cutting the online production effort in half, they totally get it.

Tearing hands off the clockIf you treat the online publication as something you do AFTER you do the work for your print edition then, yeah, I understand not having time. But if you make working on your online publication something the whole staff does as part of the whole production process you’ll find that you have lots of time.

Of course, that is difficult for those schools still producing HTML sites. Then you have to find someone, usually just one person, to handle the online site alone. I’m still amazed to hear of schools without online sites still planning to go that direction.

Not enough design
I figure there are several stages we have to go through to get our online publications to the stage where we are effectively training our students for the future.

  • Stage One — Get online. Start a site and get used to updating it on a regular basis. I’ve identified 48 California community colleges that have made it to that stage. Twenty-six either haven’t or used to be and have abandoned their sites. Six of those 26 are in the process of re-establishing sites, most through College Publisher. Of the forty-eight colleges online, 31 are through College Publisher. Of the eleven of the 48 that are inactive thusfar this semester, three of the College Publisher sites and eight are independent.
  • Stage Two — Shovel content from the print edition to the online edition. This is where most of us are. It is how we manage to stay online.
  • Stage Three — The online becomes important. You are comfortable enough to consider design (as opposed to those in Stage One where design draws the techies and journalism takes a back seat). You start to produce some web-exclusive content.
  • Stage Four — The online is fully integrated into the process. Stories are told in forms designed for online, including blogging, podcasting, videos and more. Updates, exclusives, etc., are common.
  • Stage Five — Who knows? At this stage the online prevails. Some suggest that it will replace the print edition. I don’t think so. But clearly the online publication dominates the thought process in story-telling. Print becomes a convenient way to reach other audiences instead of being the main audience.

Let me talk a bit about that design issue, because it is an area I think many of our colleges can start working on, once they’ve acheived stablity, that is. Too many of our colleges apparently are not looking at their own publications. Photos don’t fit, they’re either too big or too small. Odd ASCII characters appear in stories because they did not translate well or errant HTML codes. They’ve forgotten to put extra space between paragraphs to improve readability. Etc. To see a well-balance front page design see Cerritos College talonmarks.com. Okay, it is my students’ work, but its an excellent example of design balance, horizontally and vertically. They still have a bit of problem with making headlines fit, but we’re working on it.

One of the first things online editors need to do is watch the design of their front pages. Make sure that you avoid large open white spaces you would never consider in your print edition. This is caused horizontally by undersizing online photos for your page design. It is caused vertically by College Publisher sites by editors not balancing lead story columns and feature story columns; they either have too many featured stories or too many lead stories.

Other thoughts

  • Do you include links in your online stories? Not many of us are doing it. Start with simple links, such as to official movie sites when you do movie reviews.
  • The De Anza La Voz publication has a nice video about the opening of a new student success center on campus.
  • The Oct. 11 issue of the Fullerton Hornet has a number of provacative and interesting headlines: “Verbal Masturbation,” “Pop and Circumstance,” “A Side-Splitting Store,” “A Prayer to God,” “Science vs. Romance,” “Utopia Lost” and “Double Plus Bad.”
  • Glendale’s El Vaquero contains a story on tattoos that includes nude photography, though the print edition has more photos than the online edition.
  • LA Valley’s Valley Star tackles the issue of students and teachers having sex.
  • Long Beach’s Viking continues to followup on a story about a motorcycle-car collision that happened within site of its newsroom. Long Beach has had several opportunities this semester to cover big stories with followup stories many of our papers might not cover. Good journalism!
  • Mt. San Antonio College hired 42 new fulltime faculty this year. Yikes! That’s a lot, even for the state’s largest community college. One of the new hires is the journalism instructor, who has been given a 100% load advising the student newspaper. (The story, at least the online version, should list the 42).
  • Orange Coast College stinks, literally, according to a story in the Coast Report.
  • Congratulations to the NorCal schools that won Online General Excellence Awards this last weekend: Cosumnes River, De Anza, Sacramento, Skyline and Yuba. I won’t spoil the secret naming the SoCal schools that will be named in a few weeks.

View the sites yourself on a regular basis. Look for story ideas. See what’s working and what’s not. The JACC site has a pull-down menu that links to all the California Community College online publications. We try to keep it up to date.

Update: Bryan Murley of Innovation in College Media has added some interesting comments to my arguments above. I especially like his analogy of an HTML-based site to printing a print edition with hot lead.

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One response to “Web Watch 7: Not enough time, not enough design

  1. I was a former web editor, and I truly loved updating the website. It was a responsibility that I never took likely. When I learned that I was able to use html in the College Publisher program, I was stoked, because I was able to add a little spice to the story. I was making home game dates and locations bold, just like they are bold in the hard-copy.
    Each and every week, I’d make sure that the stories were ready to go, so all I had to do at 12:00AM Friday, was to hit the “change issue” button.

    When I quit do to personal issues with the EIC, the person that I had trained to become the next web editor, does not have the same passion as I did. This semester (Fall 06) the website has not been updated for four weeks. As a student that does not visit the campus often, I like many others, would like to know what’s new going on with the campus, but with the website not being updated weekly, we are not getting this news, we have to rely on the city’s newspaper. Its shameful that more people don’t put the same passion they put into the hard-copy into the websites.

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