Monday, December 22, 2008

The need for speed

By now everyone in the world has written about Twitter and the Denver plane crash Saturday night.

But from earthquakes and Mumbai, we already knew Twitter can break news.

Let's move on to the next headline: Twitter and links to live information can make newspaper websites look horribly slow, in these days of tight newspaper staffing.

This isn't a little inside dirty newspaper secret: Readers everywhere are seeing the problems. Local newspapers and websites must retain an old-fashioned commitment to speed to retain any credibility with audiences.

If there's a plane wreck or other big breaking news in our town, on a lightly staffed Saturday night or any night, we have to own it and remember the world is watching our coverage, in real time.

I was working in the Charlotte newsroom Saturday night and watching Twitter. The first our newsroom heard about the crash was a Tweet from Ryan Sholin. It alerted us to be prepared for remakes of pages and to watch for clear, reliable information coming out of Denver. But that information was painfully slow.

A couple of intriguing side notes: Readers appear to expect a high level of quality, speed and accuracy from newspaper websites, as if those sites are public utilities, even when they're getting the information for free. And as Ryan Sholin noted in a Tweet Saturday night, now the whole world gets to watch and try to figure out what's true during the early confusing scanner and live reports of breaking news. Newspapers have the experience to know initial reports are often wrong, and we can use that experience to help guide others through the firehose of live information.

What follows are some comments from the Denver Post's initial online story.

I hope everyone is alright, but why would the Denver Post allow spelling and grammatical errors in articles posted on the web? It is painful to read news articles like this.

It's hours after this occurred, and this is all you have posted?
The Rocky, Channel 4, 7 and 9 ALL have much more complete stories. Is this what we have to look forward to when you're the only paper in town? Sad.

Three hours after this plane crash occurred, and you've got a total of five sentences posted, and some of it is gramatically suspect. This is why journalism, especially print journalism, is dying. Meanwhile aviation-oriented websites from to to are reporting this story with speed and enthusiasm -- if you want to know what's going on, go there. I guess the "professional journalists" aren't as vital as they think. Tonight they seem to not even be working.

John, that's why newspapers are dying. It takes longer to put out news in a paper than you can get on TV or the Internet.

Man, some of the people here sure do expect a lot from a newspaper that is providing it's services at no cost to any of you.
If you notice a grammatical or spelling error, why don't you email someone at the paper and let them know? Or were you all those annoying kids in elementary school that when the teacher asked a question you would shoot your hand up yelling "OOOOOH! OOOOH! I KNOW, I KNOW! OOH! OOOOH!"
Get over yourselves.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Twitter visuals: They matter

Now that everyone's a-Twitter, a quick look at the visuals. While part of Twitter's beauty is its simplicity of setup and use, visuals still matter.

A few points, many obvious, but important:

1. Twitter avatars are small. Most people looking at your Twitter avatar will see it about the same size as a mugshot in the current skinny Charlotte Observer: 44pixels wide, or 3.6 picas or so. If you're using your face, crop tight. Consider radical crops that only expose eyes, or other pieces of you.

2. Twitter avatars are displayed in groups. So the color and design, or lack thereof, need to be simple and clean to stand out to be remembered. My three favorites, from designers, are in the Twitter block at the top. Can you pick them out?

3. Twitter avatars and backgrounds convey your brand, your visual sense and the amount of time and care you put into your product. If you use a standard theme, you're demonstrating your lack of originality and commitment to your brand. If you don't want to take the time to do a quality background that will tile (or not) and look good (settings/design/backgroundimage), then consider not using a background image and only changing your design colors to be easy on the eyes. Consider color-blind people and others with accessibility issues. Consider recruiting a friend with visual issues to test the ease of your avatar and page.

4. Technical tip: At times, it appears Twitter doesn't like photos in .gif format. Try .jpg instead.

5. Fun matters: Laughter, whimsy and fun matter on Twitter. Putting on a Santa hat, no matter how cheesy, or changing your avatar to reflect a season in some other subtle way will help endear you to your community. But numerous changes will confuse your followers. If your avatar reflects a standing brand, take care in changing too frequently: A touch of seasonal color might be all you need.

6. Numerous websites exist that will customize avatars for you, and trends, fads and fashion come and go. Dress accordingly.