The Guts: Columbia Missourian launches responsive redesign

The Columbia Missourian is unique because it’s a city paper serving the residents of Columbia, Missouri, but its staffed by the journalism students at the University of Missouri supervised by faculty editors. The Missourian recently launched a responsive redesign, and faculty news editor Elizabeth Stephens took us behind the scenes. Editors hope this redesign will aid in allowing students to create more interactive projects, a big need in journalism education right now.

How long has this redesign been underway?

A year ago, four of us gathered to brainstorm our dream list in terms of functionality and design. We made an attempt at a custom CMS and redesign last summer, but it was cost-prohibitive. By fall, we realized we needed more of a plug and play system. In December, we began talks with TownNews and had a contract in January. We received the first draft of the redesign near the end of March. While May had come up as a possible launch date, we actually thought it would be mid-summer or fall before launch. However, our existing system was dying, so we moved up launch to May 18.

Who was on the core team to make this happen?

Laura Johnston (news editor), Roman Kolgushev (date editor and programmer), Brian Kratzer (director of photography), Joy Mayer (director of community outreach), Elizabeth Stephens (news editor), Tom Warhover (executive editor), and Rob Weir (IT director).

I imagine long-term projects like this are difficult given that your core staff is made up of students, which changes every semester. How did you involve students?

The speed at which this happened limited how much we could involve students. Our old system was struggling so much, we were down for 20 percent of the time during several weeks in April. At that point, actually publishing a website and a print edition became a question mark.

Because we work in semesters, our best opportunity for launch was at the beginning of a semester. It didn’t make sense to train students that are leaving us. We did training for summer staff before the end of the semester and will be training new students throughout the summer and when we restart in the fall.

However, we hope that this site will allow us to better incorporate big projects that were previously handled “off-site” — built separately and linked from the main site. The first one is Battle Rising, which went live six days after launch. This is a photo and video project that has been in the works for two years. I have a worked closely with a photo student to design a special section on the new site to display this content. In the future, I hope projects like this will be driven even more by student designers.

You switched up the background from navy to a light gray. Why the color change?

When TownNews asked what we liked from our old site, we said the logo. We have had the same design for eight years, and it felt dated. We wanted a fresh start and asked the designers to give us their best shot. We were really happy with the white space and airy feel of the new design.

There are very few section modules on the homepage. Right now you just have Latest News, Most Popular, From Readers and Opinion, along with a main news well. One thing that stuck out was the absence of a dedicated sports module. What led to that decision?

These modules are changeable, and we expect to make adjustments in these first few weeks but also based on season. We incorporated all of our content into the main section instead of relegating sports to a sidebar. As we gear up for football season, we will certainly be making changes. Summer is the slowest season for sports content, and we felt the lack of fresh content would be more apparent if we had a dedicated module to it. We have a lot more control over section pages and better navigation to them, so we hope that people will go directly to section pages that are more closely managed and designed. In addition, we thought a lot more about the article being the homepage, so the right rail is specific to the section the story you are reading is on. So if you open a sports story from social or search, you will see other sports stories in the rail.

Under the Most Popular module, you have a tab that says “Articles.” Will non-narrative storytelling content items, such as videos and graphics, show up here as well if they are popular?

Yes. I temporarily turned off the other types of content until our analytics catch up so more than one photo (or other media item) would show under the different tabs! They are updated now.

On the article level, the width for the actual story is pretty narrow. Why was the left rail, where I’ve seen quotes and related content, important to you?

This is part of the template from TownNews and plays into the responsiveness of the site. Because our stories are rarely just one piece, we like the presence of related links, infoboxes and other related content in that space. But we do have options for a more long-form article template that provides a more immersive reading experience that we will use on special projects.

Your letter to readers says that you will be phasing out your app now that you have a responsive site. What factors went into that decision?

We used a separate vendor for the apps, so keeping both doesn’t make sense on the business side when the responsive site does it all. On the design side, we didn’t have a lot of control over the reader experience on the app. App users weren’t getting the full experience. Now the responsive website gives all users the same presentation without having to manage across multiple platforms.

What is your favorite feature of the new site?

On the front end, the responsiveness is huge. We’ve had complaints about the mobile version for a long time, and we’re glad to be able to give everyone a positive reading experience on any device. Internally, it is great to be able to manage and manipulate the site in ways we were never able to before. We have the flexibility to try cool things without going outside the site. As someone who has been responsible for web presentation on the old site, it is nice to be able to say yes to things I would say no to previously.

[See an awesome design project and want to know more about it? Send it my way! You can email me at rschallom@gmail.com or find me on Twitter.]