Henderson's take: top 10 on why IndyStar.com needs new leadership

Dateline: Thu 30 Jun 2011

Blog contributor/reader Tom Henderson's area of expertise is digital. So when he reads a website, he does so with years of experience as well as knowledge about how sites are being successfully managed. If the web is the daily's future, there's more trouble for Gannett....but we already knew that.

Here are Tom's comments about areas to improve at indystar.com:

"It's not tough to find on-the-surface reasons that say that the IndyStar continuum is having problems. Here are my areas for improvement:

"1) Their website sucks. They use the same CMS that the Courier-Journal does, and it's awful. The saddest thing? It doesn't work for users of Safari. It's unbelievable that these two Gannett papers use a CMS that misses common data on a browser by millions of Macs, iPads, iPhones, and so on. As an online newspaper, it's horrible-- and the IBJ makes mincemeat of it.


"2) No mobile web app or website adaptation. C'mon kids, this is 2011. Even the IBJ has a reasonable mobile app. Lots of sales co-marketing opps are missed by this, too. Plainly, they're behind The Corn Cob Curtain.


"3) RSS Feeds don't work. Who needs them? We're still churning butter by hand. It tastes better that way.


"4) No Video. Gosh, wouldn't want to compete with our news partners, now that we've decimated the newsroom, oops, I mean the DisInformation Center.


"5) No online audience building; comments are moderated by accident on their forums.


"6) No social media to speak of.


"7) No online or pushed email daily newsletter of a summary of events.


"8) "Partnerships" with local online media do absolutely ZERO for either "partner"


"9) Sales department, out on the links, instead of beating the bushes. No imagination, no content, no revenue.


"10) Classifieds DECIMATED by Craigslist. And with good reason. They're not easily searchable, there are no RSS feeds, and the robots.txt information is wrong on their site.

"Overall, IndyStar.com gets an F largely for their unbelievably bad and ancient CMS. Heads ought to be rolling, and it starts at the top.


"Better still: short the stock. It's not going up again, folks. The hey day is now the buh-bye day."

Comments

varangianguard [unverified] said:

Could be worse.

The Tribstar (Terre Haute) website has an ad box that pops up right over the text of any article one clicks on. A reader can see about one-third of any article's text.

2011-06-30 07:41:56

news junkie [Member] said:

I'm w/you on the Web site. It's terrible and, as you say, it does not work well with Safari. It's very frustrating. I've complained many times. Not only does the Star's Web site look like the C-J's, it looks like just about any Gannett-owned newspaper's site.

2011-06-30 08:11:34

andrew [Member] said:

Tom,

I'm on a mac but I never run Safari (it's low hanging fruit for bad guys - I run Chrome and Firefox). I fired up the indystar.com site on Safari and it seems ok at a cursory glance. What parts are broken? I know for a time they were splitting up articles into two parts to increase page impressions and the "next page" link was completely broken in FF - didn't work at all.

They seem to use the same CMS as a lot of newspapers. The Suntimes in Chicago used it; they may have switched to something else recently but Roger Ebert's site (a subdomain off suntimes.com) still uses it. IMO it's not the CMS's fault, but their shitty implementation of it. They seem far more interested in placing intrusive, interstitial ads all over the place than providing good content. They also use the execrable Vibrant ad network on roll over text. That alone is enough to keep me off the site. I fucking hate those things sooooo much.

Their RSS page seems OK tho (http://www.indystar.com/apps/pbcs.dll/section?Category=HELP02&odyssey=navgo4_other_rss%20feeds). What part of it is broken? Don't use RSS much myself, but it seems OK.

I agree their mobile offering sucks donkey balls. It would be an insult to other broken things to call it broken. Non-functional is more apt. I checked the android store and there's no mobile offering there either.

On the social media front, they have a FB and twitter page as well as the standard social buttons on all the stories.

Regarding video, I'm glad they don't use it because they'd probably use it poorly. They'd have some autoplaying fluff story on the front page, but they'd make you sit through a 30 second commercial before the actual content started.

And the classified? Shit, they simply outsourced them to Career Builder, cars.com and apartments.com.

All in all, I agree it's an F. But building a good site takes skill and money. They have none of the former because they don't pay enough of the latter.

2011-06-30 09:25:52

Chuck [unverified] said:

Tom: A couple of these aren't true. I don't work there anymore, and I don't visit the site much anymore, but here's what I know are there:

2) Mobile app: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/indystar/id331907339?mt=8. It also has a mobile-ized version of the site. Just pull it up on your phone.

The iPhone app hasn't been updated since all the developers left around a year ago, but the web version's at least decent-looking.

4) Video: http://www.indystar.com/video

6) http://www.indystar.com/twitter

7) http://www.indystar.com/apps/pbcs.dll/section?Category=nlettersubscribe&odyssey=navgo4_other_e-newsletters


As for the rest of it: I know from experience that the CMS does indeed suck (and would also be why the RSS feeds are so difficult to get right), but there's nothing the local office can do about it even if they wanted to. That's all corporate.

There's plenty to still pick on (paginated articles, interstitial ads, worthless remnant ads, crappy content, etc., etc., etc.); we don't need to make stuff up.

2011-06-30 10:48:19

hendy [Member] said:

I'm on the road today, or I'd answer further. To offer some quick and hopefully satisfying answers:

1) the RSS feeds are often empty, untended, use Java sometimes and sometimes not

2) Don't tell me to download iTunes stuff on my phone; my phone is Android, as are a half a million new phones each day.

3) Video? On a good day. On a bad day, they're begging for user contributions and calling them their own.

4) Twitter? Facebook? Not actively or well managed at all. Just having people that tweet does not a social media system make.

And I stand corrected regarding the newsletters. Who knew? They don't push them to their registered base at all.

As regards Safari, blow it off if you will; it's what a lot of people use, just like IE. Great stuff? Perhaps not, this isn't a forum to quibble about browsers, simply that if you look at the datelines (missing) it'll be the first clue.

You can find CMS systems that work on street corners for gosh sake. If corporate choices suck, then scream bloody murder; we're talking about survival here, and it's really tough out there. Local presence helps, but it's being usurped in many dimensions. I want to see The Star do well, heaven knows why. Maybe it's that I want the only newspaper in the town where Iived for 30yrs to worth a crap.

2011-06-30 12:01:39

Christine Thompson [unverified] said:

Have to agree.

When I left the Star and moved to a industry that understood digital, it was a revelation.

Indystar.com needs help, badly. But like everything else in the Star these days, I expect that it will be left to flounder its way into irrelevance.

2011-06-30 12:33:19

Pasquale [unverified] said:

I think from a very basic design standpoint, the site is extremely confusing to navigate if you are looking for a particular story or even a particular section. And the search function sure returns some random results, although that often happens on even better-designed newspaper websites.

2011-06-30 12:37:46

Chuck [unverified] said:

Hendy: As for screaming bloody murder about the CMS, they have. Trust me, I did some of the screaming when I worked there.

Corporate runs the show in a very real and tangible way when it comes to everything, but especially digital. I assure you metromix wasn't a local idea. Neither was moving IndyMoms into the pos corporate solution. And that CMS certainly isn't.

As for Android: As I mentioned in the post, all the competent developers left around a year ago. There's nobody there to build the thing. And that's before you get into the nightmare Android is to develop for (bad platform and very scattered device characteristics).

As for video: Good riddance. They take forever to produce and don't drive enough engagement or revenue to justify the cost. I've been arguing for years that they're a waste of time when a photographer can shoot four assignments in the time it takes to get one video online.

The long and short of it is, at this point in any newspaper's life, they have to try to prioritize, even in digital. And Android and video's ROI is low.

If anything, they should be doing *less* things ... but better.

Take the basic stuff: articles, photos, and data and polish it to a fine sheen - both content and display. Strip away the remnant ads that cost you more in goodwill than they make in cash and put the users first.

Don't make apps at all: Make a mobile-optimised web site that's first-rate and works everywhere.

If you're going to do anything at all, make sure you're doing it the very best you possibly can. Otherwise, you end up doing a shitty job with everything.

2011-06-30 13:42:09

ComputerWheels [Member] said:

Does indystar even have a director any more? They let Bob Jonason go and kicked Kevin up to corporate.

And yep, all the Gannett papers use the same CMS, and the servers are Windows, so the Mac is very low in priority. They didn't listen at all when we objected to it, just added Windows servers like mad to keep it all running.

2011-06-30 16:39:03

ruthholl [Member] said:

Not being very computer literate, I'm amazed at the response, both in variety and depth, that Tom's post generated.
Andrew's observation that building a good site takes skill and money -- and they don't have enough of the former because they do not pay enough of the latter -- cuts to the chase for me.
But each comment has been good and pointed and informational.
Also, has anyone besides me noticed that the Star is now quietly advertising sex services in classifieds? They bury them under "Special/Notices," near dogs and cats and garage sale. The lead item the past few days is "Curious About Men? Talk discreetly with men like you!" It's a local number, too. I haven't called....not that curious...but did anyone else notice this and/or how long it's been in there?
There are six in all -- HOT GUYS! HOT CHAT! Meet Sexy Local Indy etc.
Were these in Metromix in the past????
So much for slamming NUVO. The Asian massage artists can't be far behind....
Hope someone can shed light on this...

2011-06-30 17:15:19

Gary Welsh [unverified] said:

Have you ever tried searching the archives? People researching a particular topic like to be able to search stories that ran years ago for information. Yes, they will even pay for the service. The Star's website keeps the archive lookup feature removed from plain sight. You really have to go digging on the site to find it.

2011-06-30 17:26:29

hendy [Member] said:

I will agree that a quality-driven endeavor is the best idea under almost all circumstances. I'll respond to Chuck, as he has the most salient direct experience exactly where many of the deeper problems lay:

Video -- Yeah stills are great. Tweetpix even. But you can also embed them in the Atom/RSS streams, along with a nice advertiser message-- and get sponsorship and focus. This is what I mean about the marketing department. These guys have pushed ink for so long, they're dying of soy poisoning.

Focus -- Also a good idea, because digital and social is a total afterthought. Someone at Gannett corporate ought to clean clock. I write for seven online pubs, and the very worst of them exceeds the very best of what is supposed to be a premier publisher in the world. Bah. Har. Snort.

I don't get into the political and content thing, except that Indy's demographics have changed, and The Star is politically clueless. Even the IBJ, wracked with the disease of right-wing orthodox sycophants of Michelle Bachman, has tried an even hand. The boorish, seething, mindless ramblings that find themselves on the left side of the page are the stuff of the bottom of the drain at Fox News. There is no excellence, there is no referential integrity, the facts are dubious-- when there's room for them. Ok. I've said that piece before. Let me move on.

Building a community means embracing your readers, geriatric as they've become because you are clueless as to how the latest generation thinks and communicates. Aspirations towards excellence actually inspires reasonable profits, builds community, and embraces diversity.

To those ends, online you must communicate, and be very accessible and persistent--> and convenient-- the first bookmark clicked. Does ANYONE DO THIS? Ok you Gannett Retirees and Ex-Favored Employees, your opinion is pretty damn biased in this regard, so stand against the wall and let civilians talk about coming to The Star for anything BUT obituaries (grin). The youth of America don't go for obits; they just don't. Their needs for info are vastly different.

The communities online that I've seen for The Star are miserable and are about as inviting as a mud puddle. The CMS is part of the problem, but there's a management attitude, as well. E Smith is an example of someone that gets it, but like other people overwhelmed by The Peter Principle, she's now elevated to a place where she's disconnected from a potentially huge audience. Tully might work, too, but he's no more a master of social media than nukalar fizzics.

Sign. Maybe they'll figure it out on their own, before the avalanche. Maybe not. I hate slow-motion train wrecks.

2011-06-30 18:03:45

andrew [Member] said:

While it might be nice if indystar.com did the social media stuff better, I think it misses the larger point: having good content.

Thinking of the sites I read on a regular basis (mostly reddit and Hacker News, but occasionally the NYT and Boston Globe) they all offer high quality content. The content on indystar is abysmal and, most crucially, not important to me. It's... uninteresting.

If the content on indystar were good, I'd read it. Shit, I started reading the Boston Globe after their "Big Picture" feature (http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/) started showing up on the reddit frontpage. Heck, the developer who came up with the idea even did an Ask Me Anything on reddit. It became popular because it was cool and interesting. If the content were good on indystar, an enterprising developer would figure out a way to socialize it. For example, one of the most popular features on Hacker News is the Hack News 100, an RSS feed that's not even maintained by the site.

Bottom line, the content sucks. And that's why the site sucks.

2011-06-30 19:15:43

hendy [Member] said:

This week, I've been slashdotted twice. Content is important, but so is audience participation. It gets pretty warm when you have 40K+ geeks hit on your work. So, Andrew, you're right.

But the IndyStar is disconnected from its audience. It doesn't get it, and worse: makes only a half-assed effort at looking like it cares, all while succumbing to MBAs and the mindless ravings of its marginalized core editorial. It's a recipe for disaster. I really dislike it... but I wouldn't spend the time ranting on if I didn't think there was hope. When that stops, Indy has no more newspaper-- this, once a top 15 city of the top country in the world. That's really sad.

I watch The Recorder, The IBJ, the TV stations, commercial and public ones, along with Nuvo, and some other sources try to do the job. It's a hodgepodge effort done by people that at least TRY to care. Yes, those left at The Star care, but there aren't very many left. The paper has shrunken to a registration smaller than the Bloomington paper where I now live. Imagine that. The IDS puts out a decent paper here, yes, your tax dollars are paying for it but it has really decent journalism and not a small bit of fun and appeal to it.

I want to see better things. Someone needs to smack Gannett upside the head, metaphorically speaking, and show them how to run a national conglomeration of LOCAL news winners. And now, I'll get off the soapbox.

2011-06-30 21:20:46

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

Slow-motion train wreck. Funny.

And whoever thinks the ads don't make money via lost good will, clearly doesn't understand media these days. Every single damned ad on the IndyStar site generates income or trade-out opportunities. Or they wouldn't be there. The Gannett bean counters have taken over, and if it doesn't at least idle in neutral, it's gone. As in the latest round of personnel jettisons.

I use Safari, on my phone and my desktop. The IndyStar website, for this non-teckie, is lousy. I'm not teck-articulate enough to express it here among these folks, who clearly know their stuff.

But I'm probably the average IndyStar website user. It's about as effective as AT&T "Customer Service", which is direct from Manila and a nationwide joke.

I continue to hope for better. I'd pay for it--if it were remotely worth a dime.

2011-07-01 07:05:52

Observer [unverified] said:

The guy behind the design and functionality of Gannett's websites has an Indy connection. Read the comments on these Gannett Blog posts:

http://gannettblog.blogspot.com/2010/09/urgent-gannett-launches-new-site-design.html

http://gannettblog.blogspot.com/2010/09/indianapolis-star-is-latest-to-launch.html

2011-07-01 10:26:32

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

A dubious distinction, Observer. I don't care if he's from Monte Carlo. The site sucks.

2011-07-01 18:02:58

annoyed [unverified] said:

hendy:

"Ok you Gannett Retirees and Ex-Favored Employees, your opinion is pretty damn biased in this regard, so stand against the wall and let civilians talk about coming to The Star for anything BUT obituaries (grin)."

Who you calling biased? Sounds like you have some bias issues yourself.

And what do you mean by "favored"? Sour grapes?

Overall, you come across as a bitter, opinionated bully. Is that really how you want to be perceived?

2011-07-01 19:04:51

hendy [Member] said:

Annoyed,

No, I'm not bitter. I believe they can do better, much better, and they've failed, consistently, and have been boorish in the process.

I asked for opinions from civilians because the ex-employees and retirees are too close to it to see it from a genuine consumer's perspective-- the man and woman on the street.

Bully? Me? For what. I call them as I see them. I'm not a wallflower. I'm a bit brusque. Perceive me as you do. I'm not here as a stockholder. I'm not here as an ex-Indpls Newspapers or Gannett employee. I'm here as a guy that had a subcription for 30yrs, and carried The News on a paper route as a kid. I have loved Indy. I want to see my friends and associates, colleagues and the general population do well. Great cities need great newspapers. The Indpls Star as it currently exists, is not a great newspaper.

Online delivery is here. Paper vanishes. The website, implemented as it is, with the content provided, is sub-standard. I read voraciously. I write as a researcher about 3500 words every day of the week, all seven of them. My friends in the newspaper business range from coast to coast. They're reporters, and mostly tech observers and writers. They work for the top newspapers in the US. I consider them peers and colleagues.

For more than a half century, I experienced The Star and News through first, my mother's eyes, and then my own. After its purchase by Gannett, the paper has steadily made an all-star leap for the bottom, a veritable rush. Instead of embracing new media, it did the worst thing you can do: a half-assed job.

Ruth has graciously given me the spot to both help people laid off in the most current round, to find jobs in media. Then she gave me spot to do critique of what's going on. And I have. Bitter? No. Vehement? Oh yeah. Read my stuff. Google it. I pull no punches. I try not to be an elephant in a china shop, but sometimes there are crashes to the floor. I hope to offend no one, but I call them as I see them. Daily.

2011-07-01 20:55:59

Ms. Cynical [unverified] said:

Where's Indianapolis Eye?

Now, that was an online newspaper ahead of its time!

Unfortunately, NOW is the time, and they're long gone.

2011-07-02 15:55:51

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

Hendy's right.

The current "darn it" attitude has invaded most of media. Few reporters today will willingly pursue more than one story at a time, and even if there's disappearing newsprint for their ink, I get the sense most couldn't write five stories a week if their lives depended on it.

It's true that the ad sales are way down, thus the editorial space follows. Except for Touhy, who rewrite police scanner stuff (and increasingly badly), the heavy-lifting reporters are not evident.

I'd love someone to prove me wrong.

And, this factoid: reporters become editors. When this laziness prevails over a decade or more, well, you see where the food chain beings and ends.

Self-fulfilling prophecy meets declining ad revenue. ANd there you have it.

Ruthie; how many reporters in your career, wrote so few lines weekly? (Whether it was published or not).

And how many reporters in your era, covered beats from their desks?

God I sound old. I know it. But if I'd seen some reportorial heavy-lifting over the last 10-15 years I'd have a lot more sympathy.







2011-07-03 09:54:17

Whitebeard [unverified] said:

"I get the sense most couldn't write five stories a week if their lives depended on it."
__________________________

One smaller Indiana daily newspaper I worked for gave reporters a bad evaluation if they didn't average about three to four stories A DAY. The editor would say, "You need to finish three stories and then be working on a fourth before you leave work."

I used to copy edit seven hours in a day, then be expected to write a news story and/or a column or editorial and do obituaries when they were phoned in.
That was in one work day.

The Star newsroom people were greatly envied by most and even scorned by many at small to medium-size Indiana papers.

Not saying that was right, just saying it was common sentiment.

A common comment I heard at the Indiana journalistic awards banquets/seminars was (something like) "Man, I wish I could get a job at The Star so I wouldn't have to work."

One of the former sports columnists at The Star would brag unashamedly that he banged out a column in about an hour or two, then went out and played golf the rest of the "work" day.

It's a different world at small-to-medium daily newspapers. Was then, I imagine it still is to a somewhat lesser degree.

2011-07-03 13:11:06

Whitebeard [unverified] said:

Thought I should clarify something from the post I made a few minutes ago.

I know there had to be many people working very hard at The Star before the ownership change and I'm sure there are still people there working very hard.

I imagine the fine investigative reporters The Star had back in the day worked their butts off.

So, I didn't mean my previous comment to be universal.

2011-07-03 13:30:12

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

Whitebeard: thanks for the observations. I concur.

Some of those small-town weeklies are still quite profitable. DIfferent focus, different audience...those newspapers have a shelf life of seven days, and their subscribers pass it around multiple family members, which makes for great advertiser exposure.

And they read it because---ta-daaa!---there are multiple local stories about local people, even the "chicken-dinner news," but school board, courts, county commissioners, etc. Usually written by 2-4 persons.

It's a different kind of writing, to be sure. And when "big" stories come along, the small-town newspaper has to be ready.

Some are. Some aren't. I get the sense that almost none of the Star's current crop of reporters would be ready.

I hope I'm wrong.

The Biz section certainly snoozes through a week, I'll tell you that. If that's all I could muster I'd give up.

Local sports is close behind these days.

(sigh)






2011-07-03 15:01:56

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