Lessons learned from web publishing


Quote of the week:

"Donna Rice Hughes has been giving raunchy Internet tours to broadcast and print journalists, one of whom became nauseous and had to leave the room." --
one of the many reaction stories to the Communications Decency Act being heard by our Supreme Court. This one ran in USA Today. Hughes is with Enough is Enough, a anti-porn lobbying organization.

Well, I never seem to get on THOSE press tours.

Instead, my time these past weeks has been devoted towards putting up a new site for CMP called the Intranet Construction Site. It goes live 15 April, and will have a huge collection of articles on practical tips and suggestions on how to build intranets.

In addition to the web pages, there will also be a series of advertorials that will be inserted into four issues each of Network Computing, Communications Week, and Information Week magazines over the course of April and May. Some of the web content will appear in print, but most won't -- a function of the economics of print vs. web.

The process of creating this site has brought home some lessons about coordinating print and web publishing and I thought I'd share them with you. You might also want to take a look at an essay I wrote about a year ago for John December's on-line zine.

  1. Does your audience first see something on the web or in print? I would argue that most of our initial traffic for the ICS site is coming from the print readers of the above magazines. This isn't always the case with all web/print projects -- you have to guess, and create your editorial accordingly.

    Why is this important? Several reasons: how you display URLs in print, how you coordinate copy on web and print editions, and how you motivate return visitors to your web site. If you haven't thought through these issues, please do so. For example, if you have longish URLs, they won't work in print because people either won't type them in or someone will get them wrong.

  2. Should the web edition be a reference work or stand on its own? In our case, we were clearly designing the site to serve as a reference book on how to create and maintain intranet technologies, and so the articles are longish efforts with lots of details. Your web/print project may not work that way. Some of this I covered in an earlier Web Informant.

    Actually, the Supreme Court was wrestling with this very issue last week (you knew I had to have a tie-in, didn't you?). Is the Internet more like a phone conversation, a TV broadcast, or shouting obscenities at a street corner? Could be all of the above. But that's for lawyers to figure out - let's get back to building better web sites. (Want to read a transcript of the oral arguments yourself? Enjoy.)

    No matter what the legal analogy for the Internet should be, the best web-based writing is short and succinct. This is because reading from a screen is slower than reading from a printed page, as Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox web essay mentions. (If you haven't seen these, you might want to wander over to his site and read a couple of them. Nielsen, who works for Sun, has lots of good advice for web authors, including one of my favorites, "why frames suck (most of the time.")

  3. How easy is it to update your own content? The point of the web is dealing with change, and showing your visitors that you can stay on top of things. If you don't fix broken links or add current events, you tell your readers you don't care about your own content, and they will gradually not care about coming back to visit.

    Think about this before you setup your web site. Can you make modifications easily? Can you serve up dynamic pages from a database? (My Internet provider, Sohonet, uses Allaire's Cold Fusion for doing this, and some of the things they have created are a snap to modify.)

  4. Think about your budget because you may not get what you pay for. If the focus of your site is its content, then make sure you don't burn tons of dough on design. If you are designing a reference work, you should make it easy to navigate and search. Don't count on volunteer efforts to completely replace professionals. And so forth.

  5. Are web and print editions enemies or bedfellows? It really depends. Thom Forbes, in his latest column for Folio magazine, talks about web publications as enemies of the print world. They aren't always, depending on whether you can work the two together.

    Site-keeping and self-promotions dep't

    You may have noticed a few changes around WI HQ here. My web server crashed a few weeks ago, and the easiest solution was to move it to a new machine. In the process, I switched from running WebSite to Netscape's FastTrack. Why? My provider, Sohonet, is using FastTrack as their production server, and could do a better job of maintaining this software for me. As it turns out, I was their sole WebSite web site customer, and whenever we had problems it took longer to resolve because they were unfamiliar with the software.

    In the process, we also changed the way these mailings were distributed. A brief history, for those who are interested in these things:

    When I began WI in September 1995, I was running my web server on Unix and had a perl script to distribute these mailings. The perl worked like a champ, and delivered the actual HTML via email.

    Then I moved my server to Sohonet and NT-based WebSite. The perl script was modified to use Blat and Post.Office, rather than Unix sendmail. It worked reasonably well.

    Now I am using a Cold Fusion routine that Sohonet built for me. This sends out these mailings directly off my Approach database where I maintain the list. It would work better if I would remember to send the mailing to the right addresses (operator error -- you just can't get away from it!).

    Everything should be working okay now -- do let me know if you have any problems with these mailings, or if you want to be removed from the list, or if you have 20 of your closest friends that you'd like to send WI to.

    David Strom
    +1 (516) 944-3407
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    entire contents copyright 1997 by David Strom, Inc.