I have long been fascinated by The Voice of San Diego, a membership-based investigative news site in Southern California. Their model is one from which many news organizations can learn — they were doing memberships long before paywalls were cool, they understand the importance of covering specific niches in a community, they have a strong focus on watchdog investigations, and they’ve always made reader engagement core to their journalism. Today, the organization has relaunched its website with new software that uses technology to help amplify those goals. They realized that their old CMS was holding them back, and relaunched a spiffy new design in a move from which the rest of us in the new industry could surely learn (but I’m biased).
Switching to WordPress
In CEO Scott Lewis’s announcement blog post, he buried the coolest part at the bottom: The news site has migrated from a proprietary system over to WordPress. To me this is the best part of the announcement because it’s the very thing empowering all the other cool features they’re launching. The reason for the switch — though painful, as any major CMS overhaul is — was that they simply needed to be able to hire more people and innovate more quickly.
From Lewis’s post (emphasis added by me):
“If we wanted to really revamp the site or redesign something, we had to rely on [one company] to do it.
And they did most of what we wanted.
But we’d like to be able to turn to others: contractors, developers and maybe someday new employees, who can help us make our site better. We’d like to not shudder, like we always do, when some new innovator has an idea to make our site better but we have no idea how to implement it.
It is not that hard to find people who are familiar with WordPress. And we will be able to access all kinds of talent now.”
Yes. It always baffles me when news organizations spend millions of dollars on content management systems when that money can better be spent on hiring developers to build out custom tools and solutions on top of free, existing, modern, well-documented, well-supported, frequently-updated, universally-known open source software.
And Lewis is right. He says it’s a hard decision to make. It means moving over all your archives. Worrying about things like redirects and training and a myriad of other problems that come with porting your entire business over to new software. But the longer you wait, the harder that eventual transition will be. The more quickly you can move your archives to modern, open software, the more portable your data will be in the longrun. And opportunities for quickly experimenting and developing are immediately increased.
Other cool things they’re doing
The flexibility of using open source software is already making a big difference in how the community interacts through a few feature upgrades.
Better mobile experience
With this switch to WordPress also comes a responsively-designed website, rather than a “mobile site” model where two different sites exist, and sharing a mobile article URL looks terrible on a desktop site (not to mention duplicate links for all articles are messing with SEO juice).
Follow topics you care about
VOSD’s new site lets readers follow “narratives” that are important to them. You can think of it as a way of subscribing to particular topics. Readers can click a “Follow Narrative” button on a story (e.g. District 4 City Council Race) and then get a notification when they visit the site. It’s like a social network — think of that addictive red icon that keeps you coming back to Facebook’s newsfeed. When reporters or other community members respond to comments you make on the site, you also get a notification, rather than having to come back and check the site again.
More tools for readers to submit their own content
Have links, commentary, photos to share? Inspired by Reddit, VOSD is launching a feature that lets readers submit and upvote/downvote/comment on each other’s content.
These are just a few of my favorite new things about VOSD. You can read Scott Lewis’s full post about the relaunch on VoiceOfSanDiego.org. I love that he’s so transparent and honest about the problems they faced for innovating, how their eyes were opened, and how they’re moving forward — all in service of the reader.