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Welcome to the new Beacon

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 21, 2012 - “Just because you know the right way to do something doesn't always mean you get to do it that way." - My status update yesterday during the Beacon site’s launch

We knew we needed a new website a few weeks after we launched the Beacon in April 2008. First-class veteran reporters and a blog template were enough to get us out of the gate, but it quickly became clear that the site was going to impose a lot more on our capabilities than was reasonable. 

But, as a nonprofit with a staff of 14 journalists, the investment in building an appropriate digital infrastructure without sacrificing content was not easily attainable.

Note the use of the phrase "digital infrastructure." I'm not just talking about a website. The website is the part you see, but behind it are a content management system, a customer relationship management system, analytics software, security and technology to support workflow and asset management. Content is king, but in today's world you cannot set your sights on a kingdom without addressing all of the above -- not with a staff of 20 and plans to grow.

Those who have been with us since the beginning might remember the site crashes or the time the email system sent out 100 emails to the first 600 people on the list. We shored up and patched the old site once a year for every year we've been in existence -- using everything from a team of programmers specializing in the site’s programming language to a single freelancer with excellent trouble-shooting skills to a high-end agency developer. All agreed on one thing: The site was unparalleled in its quirkiness and ability to fold in on itself at a moment’s notice for no particular reason.

So, in true form, a few weeks ago, the old site started its annual you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me. Though a month or two of testing and tweaking was still to be done on the new site, a week ago we made the executive decision to leap.

Margie is always quick to point out that we would never have been able to articulate what we needed if we hadn't gone through four years of hell with the old site.

And she's right.

I come from a world of spec, spec then spec again. If we'd had the money when I first came on, we would have spent it on something that may have changed or challenged a good deal about what we've evolved into being. The limitations made us prioritize and focus -- even in our dreaming and scheming. I swear that half of the development process of the new infrastructure was separating out the things we were doing only because of the limitations of our old situation.

And that was no small task because this was development process by committee. No fewer than eight Beacon team members were involved in every step of the process. My experience on the other side of this coin knows what a horror client we were, but in the end, I have to admit, it was worth it.

If you were around at the beginning, you might remember how the Beacon launched. We weren't even the Beacon. We were the Platform, and we had plans for a soft launch in the spring with time to gear up for a real launch in the fall. In one afternoon in April, an incident that caused us to change our name and a column about it in the Riverfront Times shoved the Beacon out onto the stage -- ready or not. And while much more prepared this time, here we are again.

I can tell you from my 15 years in the field of large-scale application development (which is what content-driven websites are these days, applications) is that the bones of this new platform are solid. And by bones, I mean the data architecture, organization and structure of how this thing is built. We will be able to grow, build new applications, and redesign the "website" that you see without digging into the guts of the system. For an organization like we are, that is paramount.

What’s new for me? The part you can see is a work in progress, a very public work in progress. You have already begun to tell us what’s "unacceptable" about it -- while simultaneously what you love. While not perfect, given our circumstances, this seems to be the Beacon way. Our core, our mission, our goal are sound and unwavering, but the details, the tools, how you use the byproducts are not a one-way communication. We are going to have a chance to be transparent and have a conversation about the way we deliver the news. That, in the end, appears to be the Beacon way.

So thank you in advance for your constructive candor. We can't respond to everything, but your collective input will be invaluable as we prioritize and focus our next steps.

Nicole Hollway is the Beacon's general manager.