May 25, 2012

It takes two meetings, and much of a day, for editors and reporters to prepare the next day’s front page of the printed Post. It’s like a large team preparing a sit-down dinner, with a lot of discussion during the day over the menu, presentation, seating chart, dinnerware and decoration.

For the Post’s Web site, in contrast, it is short-order cooking at its most pressurized.

Web editor Eric Rich is top chef. Except that he and his home-page team have to change the menu every hour to produce a fresh, attractive and tasty offering. If they don’t get it right, the diners complain, and in nanoseconds they’re fleeing to that other diner down the street, which is offering free coffee.

To stay appealing, the home page has to change constantly, and it demands a rapid-fire supply of three things: fresh ingredients — news stories, graphics, photos, videos; reader data — a constantly updated stream of online indices that measure what users are reading and not reading; and finally a big helping of old-fashioned news judgment.

“We’re trying to be sure the page reflects the most important stories of the day but also is dynamic enough that readers who come back once an hour find something new each time,” says Rich, The Post’s deputy universal news desk editor. “Also . . . we want the site to speak to the interests of our core audience.”

In a signal of its importance, the home-page team sits in the center of The Post’s fifth-floor newsroom, in an elliptical, high-tech hub of computer screens, televisions and edgy lighting. It looks like a contemporary open kitchen, in which each preparer has a designated role.

The home-page day team, led by Kenisha Malcolm, manipulates the Web site so that photos, headlines, bullets, text and other ingredients read well, are balanced visually and make journalistic sense. Team members can move a story, insert a new one, change a photo and write a new headline in seconds, if need be.

The version of the home page that appears on the team’s monitors is special. Colored circles are superimposed above every story, showing which stories ranked 1 through 30 are drawing the largest audience. Detailed bar graphs indicate which stories are rising and falling. A rising or steady trend can indicate that the story is finding its online audience — best to leave it alone — or if it’s rising rapidly, that it should have more prominence on the home page. If a story is declining, that can mean its natural news life is fading — maybe a Washington Capitals or Washington Nationals victory the night before — or it may suggest that a headline should be rewritten or a photo changed.

These metrics, provided by Chartbeat, a real-time analytics service, also make clear how Web readers are finding each story. The most loyal Post readers come directly to the home page and treat it like a menu, scanning for what they like and clicking on it. But most online readers never come to The Post’s home page — they find a specific story through search engines such as Google and Bing, or via links from other Web sites — maybe the Drudge Report, Huffington Post or CBS News.

In making decisions about the home page, metrics are not the only guide editors use. Indeed, news judgment very often overrides the numbers. Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli may swing by to ask Rich, for example, to move up a story on a bombing in Syria. Some stories earn more prominent play just because they’re excellent stories, even if the Web traffic for them isn’t high.

And the home-page team always leaves room for dessert — the kind of quirky feature stories about our shared humanity.

On this day, Rich has his pick of several: a story about a “Before I die” chalkboard wall on 14th Street NW, where passersby are writing their life wish lists; a story on a new analysis of the Mayan calendar, showing that the world isn’t ending any time soon; and a multimedia package called the Dance of Life, the first in a series about the “hidden choreography of common tasks” by Post dance critic Sarah Kaufman.

Kaufman has written about the precision kitchen dance inside the City Zen restaurant. The story is accompanied by a compelling time-lapse slide show of the chefs’ and servers’ deft movements, set to music.

Just as there is art, artfulness and instinct in this new-media world of creating a Web site’s home page.

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