The FAQ that accompanies the redesigned Boston.com says that more change is coming: “Different features and sections of the site are scheduled to debut on different days. While we realize that this might be confusing in the short-term, we’ve studied our options carefully and believe that the gradual switch we have planned will ultimately result in a better user experience.”
With that in mind, here are a few random observations offered in the hope that better things are yet to come.
The look. By switching from a tiny sans serif font to the same one used by corporate cousin NYTimes.com, the site is automatically more attractive and readable. I’ve heard complaints that the Boston.com front is too crowded. It is, but it’s less crowded than before. The front also seems a bit newsier than it did previously, with the wacky, offbeat stuff moved farther down the page. The Boston Globe front would benefit from the same look, and I assume that’s coming.
Split personality. One problem I’ve had with Boston.com for a long time is that the site comes across as very different from the electronic Globe. That stems in part from its legacy. Although the Globe has always been the driving force behind Boston.com, it started out as a partnership with media outlets such as Boston magazine, Banker & Tradesman and New England Cable News. These days, it’s pretty much just the Globe, with video from NECN and New England Sports Network. But the split personality remains. Particularly frustrating is the fact that the Globe site conspires at every turn to dump you into Boston.com, whether you want to go there or not.
There are also cool features on Boston.com, like the “Government Center” collection of databases, that are maddeningly difficult to find.
Now, some of this is just a naming convention. Both NYTimes.com and washingtonpost.com let you choose that day’s print edition, which isn’t much different from Boston.com’s letting you choose that day’s Globe. But Boston.com has always struck me as flightier and more superficial, more separated from the core journalistic mission, than those other sites. As I said above, maybe that’s changing. I hope so.
Sharing. The hot trend of the moment is technology that lets you share stories you like on various social networks. Washingtonpost.com is particularly strong on this, letting you post stories to Digg, del.icio.us, Reddit, Newsvine, Facebook and something called StumbleUpon, which is a new one on me. The Globe’s options are relatively paltry, limited to just Digg, Facebook and del.icio.us.
Comments. As Adam Reilly notes, Boston.com still doesn’t allow you to post comments to stories. I know that the issue has been one of computer capacity, but come on, folks – buy some servers. (Yes, the site does have message boards, but that’s rather old-fashioned.)
More stories like what? I found a new feature this morning, but it needs some work. Example: Go to Shelley Murphy’s story on MIT’s lawsuit against the architect Frank Gehry, scroll down a bit, and you’ll find a box titled “MORE STORIES LIKE THIS.” Here’s what you’ll find:
- Patrick to consider replacing police details with flagmen
- United Tech profit up
- Massachusetts high schools vying to update old science labs
- State to study plans for school construction
Obviously the algorithm needs some work.
Almost forgotten. The link to Boston.com/Globe blogs has been moved to the very bottom of the Boston.com front, which doesn’t strike me as a smart move. The outside blogs section needs serious updating. Let me point out just one example: Under “Politics & the media,” you will not find Reilly’s Don’t Quote Me or David Bernstein’s Talking Politics, both at ThePhoenix.com; Jessica Heslam’s Messenger Blog, at BostonHerald.com; or (ahem) Media Nation.
With the Herald unveiling a redesign in September, we can see two different philosophies at work. The Herald has done something rather daring — it has almost completely broken the tie between its Web site and its print edition. Stories are posted blog-style, in reverse chronological order, throughout the day, with no differentiation made between wire copy and staff-written stories. It’s impossible to know whether some of those stories ever made their way into the print edition. And though the Herald is not exactly rolling in cash, publisher Pat Purcell has somehow found enough computer capacity to allow comments.
That said, BostonHerald.com can be easier to admire than to use. You’re constantly forced to drill down through submenus of submenus. I also find that I’m often missing stuff that I would have seen if I’d picked up a print edition. The solution I’ve hit upon — subscribing to RSS feeds for the sections of the paper I’m most interested in — isn’t entirely satisfying, as I feel as though I’m missing the flavor of the site.
The philosophy at the Globe, on the other hand, is evidently to take the Globe as a starting point and to build on it. It comes across as being similar to NYTimes.com and washington.com, only not quite as smoothly implemented — at least not yet.
These are interesting times for newspapers. New circulation figures show that print continues its free-fall. At the same time, efforts are under way to find new ways of measuring total newspaper readership, online and in print. As my Northeastern colleague Steve Burgard tells the Globe today, “You’ve actually got more eyeballs looking at journalism than ever before.”
By putting so much of their resources into the Web, executives at the Globe and the Herald show that they understand print’s days are numbered.