March 25, 2011

I was deluged over the past 10 days with reader e-mails saying that The Post’s redesigned Web site, which debuted on March 13, “stinks.” Some used less polite language. The mail ran about 8 to 1 negative.

Readers complained of the site being confusing, hard to navigate and very un-newspaper-like. They found the fonts too small, the ads too big, the reader comment threads more difficult to follow, and the live chats and blogs hard to find. They said that pages on the site took forever to load. And by the way, they asked, where is the “Contact Us” link so we can complain to someone other than the ombudsman? (It’s ideas@washpost.com.)

Rather than my devoting 700 words to the glitches, some of which have already been fixed, with more likely to crop up, some background may be helpful. Many readers said they didn’t understand why it had to change. So here goes.

The redesigned Web site is just the surface manifestation of a huge organ transplant that has gone on here in the past 18 months or so. The Web site design sits on a new Mount Everest-sized bundle of computer code that controls virtually every word, photo, video and story that you see online and in print.

That code is The Post’s new central nervous system, and it has taken more than a year to connect it to all The Post’s brainpower — the newsroom. The final surgery was conducted this month while the patient was awake and walking, still putting out news every day.

Raju Narisetti, The Post’s managing editor for online, who has headed this project, put the complicated undertaking this way: “It’s like changing the engines of an airplane while you’re in flight without the passengers knowing it.”

Like a human brain, this new computer program is enormously complex, immensely capable when working and used correctly and a bafflement to most of us trying to figure it out. Every newsroom employee is struggling with it, not just the tech people. And it has a horrible name, the vaguely French-sounding Methode. To me it sounds like one of those bad hair salons that Tabatha Coffey on the Bravo network rescues with a management makeover.

And the geek name for it — content management system, or CMS — is even worse. It reduces the heart and soul of journalism — stories, photos, graphics, the news — into generic “content,” something akin to the unidentifiable filling in a Twinkie. Ick.

But Methode, developed by Eidos Media, is being used by the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, the Boston Globe, the Seattle Times, the New York Post, and newspapers, magazines, and Web sites around the world.

It’s helpful to understand that The Post is not really a newspaper company anymore, although most of its profits still come from the printed newspaper. Instead, The Post is a digital information factory that delivers its product, the news, through multiple conveyances: newspapers, computers, “smart” phones and, now, tablet computers such as the iPad. The Post’s new brain, at a cost of upward of $7 million, according to newsroom sources, allows stories and photos to be created, edited and designed in a single computer system and then tailored to each delivery method.

That’s the hope, anyway. When it’s working right. Which isn’t always.

There’s a profit motive too, or more accurately, a survival motive. The Post has two chief financial tasks right now. One is to hold as many print subscribers as it can, because that’s where the advertising money is. The second is to increase the number of online and mobile device readers, because that’s where the ad money will be. “To survive as a media company, we have to grow our [online] audience,” says Narisetti.

The objective of the new Web site, in marketing speak, is to increase reader “engagement.” I prefer reader loyalty or, perhaps, marriage.

The Post wants its online readers to be faithful — to find enough interesting material that they want to come back every day, stay a while, appreciate the site’s individuality and, yes, put up with its quirks as they learn to live together for a long and happy life. “We want to increase the amount of time spent on the Web site, the number of page views and the number of times readers come back,” said Narisetti.

Time, and readership numbers, will tell whether the redesigned Web site was ready for prime time. But Narisetti says that readers are the best testers of anything new because they’ll let you know right away what they don’t like. The ombudsman’s angry e-mails testify to that. I forwarded every one to Narisetti and his team of troubleshooters.

“I am a big believer in newsrooms and news Web sites being in permanent ‘beta’ as we try to constantly improve the user experience,” Narisetti said. “With that being said, yes, there were and are, and likely will continue to be, some tech troubles in these early days. And we are working on them.”

Let’s see how they do before passing judgment.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.