Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Worst Newspaper Web Site of 2008

Ah, the end of another year, and here's Part One of another obligatory "Best and Worst of" series, which The Bench will run through mid-January, 2009. Don'tcha hate "Best and Worst of" pieces? You don't? Okay, then, let's begin. BEST OF, WORST OF 2008, PART ONE WORST NEWSPAPER WEB SITE OF 2008: CHICAGO JOURNAL (http://www.chicagojournal.com) The Chicago Journal group of papers, owned by Wednesday Journal, Inc., is heir to the old Lerner papers, is a family of neighborhood newspapers in the Chicago area. and their print versions generally do a nice job of covering their respective neighborhoods. Before I continue, let me be very clear: This is not a criticism of the newspapers themselves, which I like and to which I have been a contributor. This is a critique of CJ's web site, not the actual papers or any of the writers. However, there is so much wrong with the Chicago Journal's web site that it's hard to decide where to begin, and it's something I've considered for over a year now. We'll muddle through somehow, though, starting with a list of territories: Booster, covering Lake View, Roscoe Village, North Center. News-Star, covering Rogers Park, Ravenswood, Edgewater, Uptown Skyline, covering Lincoln Park, River North, Old Town, Gold Coast Chicago Journal, covering South Loop, Near West, West Loop, Bucktown, Wicker Park, Ukrainian Village. Parent company Wednesday Journal, Inc. has a separate web site (http://www.wednesdayjournalonline.com/), which is even worse than the Chicago Journal site. Whereas the CJ site lists its newspapers in a sidebar, the WJ does not. They are: Forest Park Review, Riverside Brookfield Landmark, Chicago Journal, Austin Weekly News and Chicago Parent magazine. WJ has cleverly hidden them in tiny print at the very bottom of the home page, as though they are embarrassed to admit any association with them. That's a shame, because they are fine little publications. Remember, this is not about the print versions: It's about the web sites. Why the Chicago Journal Web Site Sucks So God-Awful Badly: No Sense of Urgency Remember that these are newspapers. Key part of "newspaper," of course, is "news." They are handicapped by the fact that they are weekly, so we cannot fairly expect them to be as timely as their daily competitors, such as the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times. In this era of the Internet, however, even a relatively small operation like the Chicago Journal can compete in the arena of breaking or up-to-the-minute news. Bloggers do it. Small town newspapers across the country do it. Sadly, the Chicago Journal does not. Rather, they make a very feeble, half-assed attempt. Sporadically and without any fanfare, they occasionally run "web extras," and more than one a week is unusual. These are supposed to be news flashes of hot, breaking news but all they do to promote them is to write "Web Extra!" in small print under the often-misspelled headline. The headline itself is given no special treatment (such as a brighter color, a larger font, special placement at the top of the page). Often, a "web extra" is buried three or four stories down on the web page. It's odd that a newspaper does not understand the concept of a banner headline, or how to adapt the concept to its online versions. The Site Is Poorly Laid Out As referred to above, the CJ newspapers are listed in a sidebar on the home page of their site. When you land on the home page, however, you only see less than half of the sidebar, so most of the newspaper listings are hidden. It would be a simple fix to move them to a horizontal bar at the top of the page, rather than hiding them in the vertical sidebar below the virtual "fold." They do, however, list a sampling of stories from current issues of each paper, but only a couple show above the "fold" and the rest are invisible unless you scroll down. If you click through one of the story links, and read that story on its own page, you will not see a link at the end inviting you to visit that particular paper's sub site. For example, on December 16, "Pining for Christmas by Nic Halverson" was at the top of the home page. It gave no indication as to which of the newspapers the story was from. Clicking through to the story, we see the title and author's name again, but with "Contributing Reporter" now tacked onto Halverson’s byline. But, again, no indication as to which newspaper it's from. Scroll all the way down to the end and still no hint. One of the two photos notes that they were taken by "Frank Pinc/Staff Photographer." The staff of which paper? Not given. This is actually the norm on CJ's web site. Which Calendar Do I Choose? Their are, oddly, two calendars to choose from. There's the non-descript "Chicago Journal Calendar" and the almost equally non-descript named "North Side Calendar." Neither is comprehensive or very large, so the separation is annoying. It would be more convenient for the reader to have all events in one place. Under the two calendars, you'll find the "Chicago Journal Community Guide." Click on it and you're whisked back to the top of a new page, where you'll see this idiotic message: "Find our selection of categories on the left hand side of this page under the 'Community Guide' title. Once you click on your category of interest, you will find the listings in alphabetical order." Huh?!? Now you need to scroll back down to where you just clicked, to find that there is now a short list that could easily have been put under that idiotic message - or into a dropdown list that kept you there in the first place. This is how web design is done when done with no consideration for efficiency or the convenience of the user. Some Communities Are More Special Than Others Continuing down the sidebar, we find the "Logan Square Community Guide." There is no explanation, or imaginable logical reason, for separating Logan Square from the rest of the city unless the merchants there paid extra to have their own section. However, the Logan Square Community Guide includes Government, Libraries, Health (no listings currently), Clubs (non-profit organizations, not nightclubs), Education, Social Services - hardly commercial enterprises. Why is there not a separate "Community Guide" for, say, Edgewater or Lake View or South Loop? More to the point, why not just one guide for all? Extra! Not So Extra! Further down, we bump into "Metropolis" in the sidebar. There, it touts Ann Gerber's tired gossip column and "Rescues of the week," a feature more concerned with the welfare of kittens and rabbits than it is with abused children. Click through and you'll find mainly warm-fuzzy feature stories. As of Dec. 16, the section had two "Web Extra!" pieces, one of which was "Obama supporters descend upon downtown Chicago Web extra!" You Call That a Bulletin? That Obama story was posted at 4:00 pm on Election Day. By that time, newspapers around the world had already been writing about the Grant Park Election Night party for days and days. Television crews from around the world and the US were there, broadcasting live updates all day. Was it really necessary for the little weekly newspaper family to post a "web extra!" telling Chicagoans what already we knew for days prior - that a large crowd of people was gathering in Grant Park in hopes of seeing Obama accept his victory? I mean, seriously, that's not "news" and it certainly didn't merit a "web extra!" treatment, the CJ equivalent of a bulletin. Furthermore, if you're going to do a "web extra!" like that, why bury it in the non-news Metropolis section, the link to which is hidden when you land on the home page? By The Way, There's Advertising Continuing downward, "Special Sections" includes an "Advertiser's Directory," which includes the following: A non-dated "Winter Education & Enrichment Guide" to private schools; the "2007 Fall Menu Guide" (yes, 2007), a list of 11 (count 'em!) restaurants; the "2007 Education & Enrichment Guide" (yes, 2007); the "2007 Spring Menu Guide " (yes, 2007); the "2006 Gift Guide" (yipes! 2006!) and the "2006 Pet Services" (how long is an ad contract good for at Chicago Journal? Eternity?) The weirdest part of the advertising sections: No link for prospective advertisers to find information about how to advertise with the Chicago Journal. In fact, I couldn't find such a link anywhere on the site. This is a glaring, money-losing omission, one that the publishers should be embarrassed by and for which Managing Editor Helen Karakoudas should get a pay cut. But let's go back a step. Suppose you click on the "Advertiser's Guide." Once there, suppose you choose the "2007 Fall Menu Guide" (there isn't one for 2008). There, you'll see restaurant logos alongside the restaurants' addresses and phone numbers. Some of the logos are linked to the restaurants' own web sites. Some are not linked. Each has "View our ad" link, but all lead to menus, not ads. (In the "2007 Spring Menu Guide," the "Link to our menu" link actually links to menus. Annoying, inconsistent, indicative of inattention to detail and a don't-give-a-crap attitude. In the main "Advertiser's Directory," there is a notice at the bottom of the page that says, "You will need the free .PDF Reader from Adobe to view ads or menus." That's nice, but why isn't it at the top of the page, and why is it excluded from the sub pages where it's needed most? The Challenge: Find a Copy Are you looking for a place to pick up a free copy of the dead-tree version of one of the a Chicago Journal newspapers? They are distributed free at coffee shops, conveniences stores and the like. Click on "Find a copy" and be ready to be flummoxed. A list of only 38 locations comes up, but the list is addresses only with not a single business name included. But only 38 locations, the vast majority of all their drop locations excluded? Is that laziness on somebody's part or just incompetence? Perhaps it's that don't-give-a-crap attitude again. Now, if you were advertising with the Chicago Journal, wouldn't you want people to know exactly where they could pick up a copy, so they could see that ad you paid for? Of course you would. Does Chicago Journal understand this? Apparently not. So Many Mistakes, So Little Time Finally, because this is tiring, there's the "Article Comment Submission Form" hidden beneath the woefully incomplete "Find a copy" (if you can) list. To put it bluntly, that's a stupid place to put it. Additionally, the Search function on the site is pitiful and rarely returns complete results where multiple targets are expected to be hit. Contact Confusion Finally finally, if you want to contact the staff you'll need to go to at least three pages on the site. Click on "About us" in sidebar and you might expect biographies about the staff. Instead, you'll get a list of names with email addresses. The "Feedback" link on the sidebar leads to a form listed separately on the sidebar, which bizarrely and irritatingly asks you for your Home Mailing Address (optional), Name (required), Email (required), Telephone (required), and an anti-spam passcode (required). This is knuckleheaded redundancy, because as noted above anybody could just send an anonymous email to any of the listed email addresses. This was longer than I had anticipated, but then the Chicago Journal's web site is worse than should be expected from a professional news organization in a big city full of talented web site management people willing to work on the cheap. Chicago Journal needs to put nepotism aside and hire a competent web site manager. Don't hold the Chicago Journal's lousy web presence scare you away from the actual newspapers, though. They're free, after all, and always have at least one or two articles worth your time.