The Past Imperfect of ChicagoNow

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You can’t run a 21st-century blog network at the speed of a 19th-century newspaper. I wish someone would tell the Chicago Tribune. Yesterday, when I ended my ten-month run as the scribe of the Chicagosphere online-media blog for the paper’s ChicagoNow content network, I was still waiting for the roll-out of site improvements promised on Day One. I was far from the only blogger dissatisfied with the paper’s glacial responsiveness. Eventually I realized why: ChicagoNow is a blog platform that simply wasn’t designed with bloggers in mind.

What other explanation can there be for a network of more than a hundred blogs that makes it hard for visitors to find and explore those blogs? Over the past ten months, I lost track of how many times friends and readers told me how inscrutable they found navigation on ChicagoNow.

If there’s one fundamental principle of website design, it’s this: don’t make me think. It’s decade-old advice that cautions designers not to cause viewers to puzzle their way through a website. Why? Because if you make it difficult they don’t find what they’re looking for, they leave, and they don’t come back. Before you can think about sexy things like SEO and PageRank, you have to make sure your visitors don’t get lost. Well-designed blogs have concise navigation bars and obvious ways to access past content. On the best blogs, you can tell at a glance and without furrowing your brow how to find what you need.

That’s exactly how ChicagoNow doesn’t work.

For months, ChicagoNow staff have crowed about a few superstar blogs on the network that generate hundreds of thousands of page views a month. That’s a neat trick–but you generally have to be a sports or pop-culture blogger to pull it off in the absence of an industry-standard navigation scheme. Most CN bloggers, however, write in topic areas that don’t as easily lend themselves to a cultural common denominator. Without an easy-to-understand, easy-to-use site design, it’s hard for visitors to find blog sites and remain loyal to them. And visitor loyalty is especially important because ChicagoNow bloggers are only compensated for local page views in the Chicago DMA and nowhere else.

Unfortunately, instead of relying on accepted standards, for ten months ChicagoNow’s online environment has felt more like Fisher Price Playskool for bloggers. That’s pretty insulting–not to mention limiting–for ChicagoNow bloggers who’ve come to rely on standard environments and tools from years of producing blogs for themselves and others. It’s an outright disservice to newbie bloggers who end up thrown into the shallow end of the pool, made to use clunky online tools and suffer through ineffective navigation that they might easily assume are somehow common.

Since the network’s May 2009 inception, many bloggers have contacted ChicagoNow staff seeking a change for the better. Here are a few of the things ChicagoNow bloggers have been asking for:

  • Top-level categories that make sense so that blogs can be found by occasional ChicagoNow visitors;
  • Industry-standard navbars and sidebars that offer easy and obvious access to category and date archives so that people stick around and browse;
  • Date archives that don’t expire (mine did, for months), pushing your oldest content into obscurity; and
  • Vanity URLs to help bloggers effectively promote their sites instead of being saddled with a URL that has 25 extra characters in it.

Bloggers have also been asking for something more: responsiveness. In the ten months I blogged for ChicagoNow, rarely was an issue investigated in a timely manner. The blogopshere measures timely in minutes. Unfortunately, the Tribune measures it in days.

Not that the paper was always slow to act. Frequently, inadequately strategized ideas were rolled out across the network on a moment’s notice. In one particularly impactful example, last summer a TweetMeme button was installed on all ChicagoNow blogs. Developers didn’t ask bloggers for their personal Twitter details first. Instead, they left TweetMeme’s default settings unaltered. As a result, thousands of retweets of ChicagoNow articles went out across Twitter that all pointed back to TweetMeme’s corporate account instead of the Twitter accounts of the bloggers who had written the retweeted posts, eliminating any possibility for bloggers to build new social-media relationships with readers.

I was responsible for pointing out the problem to ChicagoNow staff. Unfortunately, although the TweetMeme rollout took place in a morning, it took days to actually fix the problem. The delay was caused by ChicagoNow’s contracted developers being beholden to other clients. Making matters worse, after the problem was fixed, every time a global site rebuild took place, TweetMeme would revert to the default settings once again.

Why wouldn’t professional developers know how to configure a common blog widget like TweetMeme? And why wouldn’t the Chicago Tribune pay for its developers to be on call for a project the size of ChicagoNow, anyway?

There could be one good answer to both of these questions and this debacle started me pondering it: perhaps TweetMeme, like ChicagoNow, itself, was rolled out simply as a way to generate page hits and ad revenue for the Tribune, alone. Perhaps the needs of ChicagoNow bloggers were simply not taken into account at all? That would certainly explain ten months of blogger requests and complaints largely falling on deaf ears.

This January, after a year of hand-wringing for all parties, ChicagoNow began culling underperforming blogs. Given the still-underperforming state of site navigation, I shudder to think how many blogs that might be. For me, that meant my minimum compensation agreement was canceled. Several bloggers with ChicagoNow from the beginning, myself included, originally requested a compensation base in order to make writing for the new blog platform worthwhile. We were repeatedly assured by ChicagoNow staff that forthcoming improvements to site navigation and the strength of the Tribune‘s existing web traffic would conspire to improve the visibility and popularity of our sites.

Of course, neither of those things ever happened. As a result, my site–and I suspect many others–was never able to attract much readership. For my entire ten months writing for Chicago Now, visitor traffic to my personal blog, Chicago Carless, consistently exceeded the meagre daily numbers of Chicagosphere. I eventually stopped complaining, since everytime I begged for ChicagoNow to have its developers implement industry-standard navigation, I was just told to try harder, as if good writing and focused SEO can make up for a lack of a useful navigation strategy.

In the end I was offered the same rate as other bloggers: $5 per 1,000 local page views. Curiously, many of my ChicagoNow posts generated healthy national page views. That’s no help in the Tribune‘s financial worldview. Although most bloggers would benefit from the platform-enhancing exposure of a national readership, the Trib makes its money from local ad revenue. Instead, ChicagoNow’s compensation scheme is aimed at disincentivizing national readership. In essence, the Tribune demands that its bloggers ignore the growth potential of their own brands while expecting them to help bolster the Trib’s brand.

No blogger should ever be asked to enter into a lopsided businesses relationship like that. As part of my exit strategy, I’ve decided to reprint my Chicagosphere entries (for which I hold copyright) here on my personal blog, Chicago Carless–a platform with a built-in readership beyond Chicago.

I leave ChicagoNow grateful for the opportunity to widen public awareness about my writing, but disappointed at the the network’s unrealized potential. More than anything, I’m left wondering: who woke up one day and decided to create a blog platform seemingly designed to make it as hard as possible to be an effective blogger?

From my experience, I find it hard to believe that advice was sought from a single blogger in Chicago or anywhere else during the design phase of ChicagoNow. Any blogger with an ounce of good sense easily would have clued into the project’s glaring lack of effective navigation, and running the site by the blogging community could have staved off a lot of the bumps and bruises ChicagoNow scribes have suffered over the past ten months.

[Ed. Note: After this post went live this morning, I heard from a noted local new-media professional who told me he attended a pre-launch strategy meeting between ChicagoNow and local bloggers at which he and several others warned ChicagoNow staff about the need for better navigation. He said they were politely ignored.]

Because the Tribune did not do so suggests that ChicagoNow was never the “community blogging project” it purported to be. What seems more likely is that the Tribune, in yet another example of journalistic hubris, decided to try and corral local bloggers together to use as a revenue engine in support of a push into the online sphere. Bloggers were told that by allying with ChicagoNow they would reap the benefits of a fertile online platform with a limitless ability to grow. In reality, they just ended up pulling the plow.

I don’t think the needs of bloggers were ever truly considered when ChicagoNow was originally planned out. I don’t think they have been taken seriously in the months since the network debuted. And I fear they never will be.

Now that the culling has started, ChicagoNow staff say they’re moving away from a niche blogging strategy and towards a “community news” model, creating new neighborhood blogs to provide more “granular” local news. I wish those new bloggers luck. If the Tribune weren’t trying to re-invent the blogosphere wheel yet again, the paper might take might notice of the already successful experience of the Seattle Times. The Emerald City paper identified and partnered with existing and already well-read neighborhood blogs to accomplish the same, granular aim. The partnerships are working, and the Times heavily promotes the third-party community news content on its home page.

I doubt the Trib’s newsroom would ever allow bloggers to be taken seriously like that in Chicago. In fact, reporter reticence may explain the whole bloggers-be-damned blogging strategy in the first place. During my ten months blogging for ChicagoNow, the distinction between “hobbyist” bloggers and “professional” journalists was always underscored, generally by the journalists, themselves.

In one particularly brutal example of this, when I disagreed with Trib architecture critic Blair Kamin in an early blog post, he responded by:

  • writing a three-page angry letter to ChicagoNow management;
  • yelling at me over the phone for 10 minutes;
  • telling me it wasn’t my place to speak to him because it wastes his time when he’s not dealing directly with editors;
  • telling me it wasn’t my place to disagree with him because his Pulitzer Prize and years of architectural criticism elevate his opinions above those of rank-and-file Chicagoans;
  • saying that I didn’t “have the right” to disagree with newsroom staff, anyway, since my check was coming from the Tribune;
  • demanding that I edit my blog post to his liking; and
  • demanding that I take dictation of his verbal edits over the phone.

And if you think I’m kidding, I took notes during Kamin’s animated and highly disrespectful tour-de-farce–for which he never apologized–to make sure I remembered it all. In the end, Kamin didn’t get his way, but it’s safe to assume he’s not the only asshole in the newsroom. Shortly after the debut of ChicagoNow’s Division and Rush satirical illustrated blog about the Drew Peterson murder case, blogger Todd Allen received a series of obscene comments from an I.P. address traced directly to Tribune Tower.

At any rate, instead of following the proven methods of the Seattle Times, and in deference to the Tribune‘s fore-described internal Luddites, once again ChicagoNow’s blogosphere strategy waves in the wind, cut off from pre-existing good sense. What an unfortunate, but entirely deliberate mess.

The blog post you’re reading isn’t the first time a ChicagoNow blogger–much less this former ChicagoNow blogger–has voiced every single one of these issues. Staffers involved with the project at all levels, from ChicagoNow’s own community managers on up to executive management at the Tribune, have consistently heard these complaints from bloggers since ChicagoNow rolled out last May.

In all that time, the only consistent response to blogger complaints has been a physical one. I really think there must be a chiropractor on retainer at Tribune Tower. I don’t know how ChicagoNow staff would have made it through the past ten months of repetitive shrugging without one. Most of all, I don’t know how they expect their new strategy to work any better than their old one without finally putting a good navigation scheme in place.

But what do I know? I’m just a blogger.

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The de facto discussion thread for this post with over 260 comments and growing is occurring on the Windy Citizen. It is now the top-rated, busiest discussion ever to happen there. I invite you to follow the link to read what dozens of Chicago bloggers and old- and new-media insiders are saying about the points I raised regarding ChicagoNow. Before you go, if you like what you found here, please consider subscribing to my feed. And thank you for reading.

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