Up Front: September 2008

Chasing stories

My insomnia continues. The Boss wrote about it 16 months ago in this space and how it played into a change in our Web site ó www. BusinessNC.com. Thatís when I started posting The Daily Digest, a roundup of links to the top business and politics newspaper articles across the state. One thing Iíve learned since: Negotiating newspaper Web sites is hard work, whether youíre poring through them on deadline at 5 a.m. or browsing casually during the day. But thatís what creates value in what I do.

Our G.D. Gearino (Fine Print, August) says newspapers are in trouble because the Internet allows anyone with a computer and the desire to do so to post news and opinion. An added benefit is that most of those amateurs make it pretty easy to find what they want you to read. Contrast that with some newspaper Web sites. Itís easy enough to find information about sports, traffic or entertainment. Articles of substance, not so much.

I spent more than 20 years in newsrooms around the state before coming to BNC eight years ago, and I still love newspapers and want them to succeed. The Boss periodically has to remind me not to let old newspaper ways slip into my work. I also understand the inherent difficulty of creating newspaper Web sites. I helped design two in the late 1990s and, of course, have a role with the BNC site. The sites have to be more than a regurgitation of the print product, and they must have a dis- tinctive look. Itís a hard job, and Iím not sure I passed my own tests.

But too often, it seems, form ó not function ó has guided development of newspaper sites. And evolution is pushing them farther down that winding road. Among the papers that have changed their Web sites in the past year are the News & Record in Greensboro, the Star-News in Wilmington, the Winston-Salem Journal and The Charlotte Observer. They all look great. But behind the pretty colors, the navigation is much tougher, even for someone who considers himself the ultimate newspaper Web-site user. In the first three cases, the redesigns broke up fairly straightforward listings of articles on their home pages into narrow categories spread willy-nilly over two or three Web pages. Not really an improvement for the reader, even one who doesnít scan three dozen Web sites every business day.

Iíll give The Charlotte Observer that much. Its new site, launched in August, is better than what came before. Which still leaves it, in my opinion, the least reader-friendly in the state. Categories matter little. Youíre as likely to find a story about the governorís race on the local section of the Web site as where Iíd consider its logical home ó the politics page. Most frustrating, at least from my point of view, is that some print-edition stories donít make it to the Web, at least not first thing in the morning.

I stick it out ó maybe I should say click it out ó because itís my job. I donít know whether the average reader would. At my most frustrated, Iíve even developed a conspiracy theory: The powers that be at the Observer want to frustrate Web readers to the point that they abandon pixels for picas, fleeing to the print edition.

I know. Itís often easier to see anotherís faults than recognize oneís own. So here goes, readers: Tell us if www.BusinessNC.com has the same flaws Iím complaining about or, for that matter, any others you want to bring up. Iím willing to bet it does, and we want to fix them. I donít want to lose any more sleep worrying about it.