Friday, November 9, 2012

5 radical suggestions for improving The Orion

Not taking home Pacemakers for the newspaper and website this year should make us all think about what The Orion can do to get back in the national winner's circle. Here are five big changes I think the paper could make to improve what it does.

1. Make the website look more like Time's

Not The Times. Time magazine.

In 11 weeks, has taken some solid steps to being more like a daily paper without the paper, but for a number of reasons I don't think it's going to get all the way there anytime soon. The weekly print deadlines are still the priority of most of the staff, and that means the website will continue to get 80 or 90 percent of its contents all at once. So, I say, make the website fit the culture instead of the other way least for now.

I think Time magazine's website would be a pretty good model. (It's not a coincidence that Time is a weekly magazine). Here's what I like and why I think it would fit The Orion:
• Daily news photography at has been an epic fail, so the paper should follow Time's lead and make the lead photo the visual part of each day's lead story (upper left corner on Time's home page). Time also uses that corner to link to related content.
• Featuring text stories with two- and three-line news headline links in the middle of the home page would play to the strength of the newspaper and put The Orion's best foot forward online.
• The site should use the upper right corner of the home page for the TV webcast. (Time uses it for a light feature on this day.) The webcast has been the one consistent nod to the importance of having fresh content on the site every day, and visitors should be able to find it in a prominent place on the home page.
• The logo area should be shortened to get more information on the opening screen. The premium ad should have a home under the webcast.
• Feature photo slideshows, which can be timeless, belong in the next tier of content.
• The news, feature, opinion, etc., section listings should be restored farther down the page.
• News and sports Twitter feeds can be played as a vertical element next to the sections (where the big red dot is on Time's home page).
• The most popular and most shared list of stories could go under a link to the PDF version of the paper in the right column under the ad.

I'd keep the breaking news crawl at the top of the page, as Time does. It still gives the paper an opportunity to play fresh content high up on the home page, but it really reduces the amount of real estate that has to change every day to keep the site looking fresh.

2. Replace section editors with senior reporters.

It's a truism of college journalism that the best writers ascend to editing jobs and their bylines are never seen again. That's never made sense to me. At daily papers, the promotion means more money, but the compensation for working on a college paper is the opportunity to hone your craft and compile a stack of brilliant clips.

So, I suggest keeping the best writers writing. Name a senior reporter for each section and have him or her write one major story a week, with help from a less experienced reporter (to do legwork) if necessary. The pieces they produce would become centerpieces on the section fronts each issue.

3. Separate presentation from editing.

If the section editors are spending more time writing, they have to spend less time doing something else. I think they should continue to work as content editors with other reporters in the section, but when they're done sending stories to the copy desk, they should be done with the paper.

That's the model on daily newspapers.

Page designers should start using page dummies so they can send stories with headline orders to the copy editors, who should be writing all the headlines in the paper. This would also encourage using a more maestro approach to page design, which would liven up the pages.

Centralizing the copy desk (no more section copy editors) with a traditional slot and rim would help spread the additional work around and improve the quality of headlines.

4. Have a website staff like the webcast staff.

Until some recent defections, the webcast staff has been what Kacey Gardner and I thought at the beginning of the year the newspaper would become -- a group focused on getting fresh content on the website every day.

That's more difficult for them, now, with fewer people. But the model is a good one. That small group of reporters and producers didn't worry about the weekly Orion deadline, so they were able to concentrate on producing something new every day. They experimented, found fun news ways to present the news and produced a webcast far superior to last year's effort.

I think a similar effort for the website itself would be just as successful. A group of reporters whose only responsibility is to put fresh stories on the website a couple of times a day is the best bet to improve the site. That would mean creating a postion for one editor whose sole job is to direct daily coverage. And it means someone has to be around to edit and post when the stories come in.

This new team would be an ideal place to assign new reporters, who could gain experience writing shorter stories accompanied by audio, photos and video.

5. Build a webcast set and standardize the webcast.

It's time for the green screen to go. All the great content in the webcast gets lost for me when Quinn Western glows around the edges because of projection noise. Without spending a lot of money, The Orion could build a small anchor set in the existing room upstairs (which would have the added benefit of cleaning up that space to make it more functional).

I don't love everything about the News OK set at the Oklahoma City newspaper, but it's functional and works well with the single-anchor setup The Orion uses.

It's also important to standardize the webcast. I think leading with hard news from the anchor, then going to a feature (like Wednesday's person on the street or sports interviews on Fridays), the weather and finally what's happening on campus that day is a great format. It leaves room for commercial messages in a couple of spots, and could be a consistent five-minute webcast.

It's also important that it be produced every weekday, no exceptions. The staff is going to need to get bigger to do that.