mndaily.com: past and present

Son Huynh

It’s been one week since the Minnesota Daily launched its new and improved website. The purpose of this blog post will be to reflect on the changes and compare them to the previous site. You might wonder why I decided to wait an entire week before making this blog post which should’ve came out when the site launched. The answer: I was busy. I know it’s just an excuse but after all, I am a student.

Anyway to start off, if you haven’t already read my column in the September 8th issue, you should read it here. It highlights some of the main improvements and features which we will go more in depth later on.

First though, a little word on this site and why we decided to relaunch. Last fall, we launched the new mndaily site using Drupal 6, a Content Management System (CMS). Drupal 6 was still a baby back then, there was a whole lot we couldn’t do back then that we can do now. The Online Department was also pretty new to Drupal 6 at the time and so a lot of it was experimenting and learning how to use/develop in Drupal. As a result, the site came out half-launched and there were many problems and errors the first few months. Over the year we fixed those problems and even developed new features for the site. Regardless, there were still many problems. It was hard and annoying for our Editors to put up stories and there were still usability and design problems.

So I made a decision to rebuild the entire site from scratch. We had learned a lot over the year and Drupal has also grown much. Armed with those two tools, we were able to rebuild the entire site, maintain almost all its core functionality while improving upon all the things that were wrong with the old site. We achieved this in approximately three months, the same amount of time it took us last time. As we compare the old and new site, I will point out where and why we improved.

The Header

There wasn’t a lot of things wrong with the old header. The biggest problems were probably the poor use of space and it was too cluttered. We mainly decided to implement the new header because we wanted to make it dynamically change (as you will see below).

Let’s see some pictures of the old and new headers:

Old Header:

New Header:

The first obvious difference is the skyline and background. The new one adds color and pops out a lot more. We also moved a few things around like the top links and the search box. As you can see, it’s a lot less cluttered and gives us much more room to work with. The thing I’m most excited about and most proud of is definitely the dynamic header. If you haven’t already noticed, the header will change based on time and weather. Currently, there are headers for dawn, dusk, day, and night. There is also rain, cloudy, and overcast. The combinations of these together make for quite a few unique headers. Expect to see snow when winter comes.

mndaily.com at night:

It’s also important to note that we originally redesigned the logo as well (the mndaily.com in the header). After some discussion with others at the Daily, the decision was made to use the old logo so that mndaily.com would remain consistent and keep the same branding. I won’t post the redesigned logo now but perhaps at a later time.

Sports

When we get into the new section designs like Sports and A&E, we get a little into some of the problems with the old site.

Old Sports:

New Sports:

Comparing the two screenshots, it’s pretty easy to see the new improvements. Obviously the new Sports page has a much more sports/Gophers feel to it and it’s much more visually appealing. The biggest improvements here are the stories. We shrunk the featured story, and though you might say it took attention away from the story, I definitely say it was an improvement. The old Sports featured story was simply too big and unpractical. More often than not, the photo being featured was a tall photo which meant that the only thing people saw when coming to Sports was the giant photo and perhaps the title. By constraining the size of the new Sports featured story, we allow people to be able to see the rest of the content on the site with minimal scrolling. The next major improvement is putting the sport being covered right above the story. People no longer have to guess what the story is about by reading the title and they will be able to quickly find stories they might be interested in. I will also note that all the sports sections have been placed into the sidebar (as well as the footer but we’ll get into that later). Before, there wasn’t anyway to get to any of the other sports sections not in the navigation unless you knew the URL.

Arts & Entertainment:

A&E suffered much of the same problems as the old Sports did so I won’t expand much here but notice how much better A&E looks!

Old A&E:

New A&E:

Having A&E split into subsections with nice green kickers makes the page look a lot like a magazine (or so someone I know likes to say). I definitely see where the magazine look comes into play and its very fitting for a section like A&E.

Multimedia:

So there wasn’t anything particularly wrong with Multimedia but I couldn’t resist being like other sites and giving Multimedia a dark theme. It just makes the all the content pop out so well.

Old Multimedia:

New Multimedia:

Blogs:

Multimedia falls into what I’m about to talk about here. Being a website and all, having online-only content is very important. It’s what separates us from the print edition of the Daily. I mean, why come to the website when you can just read the print version? The website isn’t just here to provide an electronic version of the stories, it’s here to provide additional content that compliments the stories. Our two major online-only content are Multimedia and Blogs. As such we decided to revamp and re-showcase the two.

Old Blogs:

New Blogs:

Footer:

The old footer wasn’t terribly helpful (as shown below). The new footer contains a sitemap which links to almost all the pages on the site. It also lists our twitter accounts and the major RSS feeds.

Old Footer:

New Footer:

Other Changes:

The improvements we have made are not limited to what’s in this blog post. There are many, many improvements that can be found throughout the entire site. One notable one is the switch to use Google Custom Search instead of the built in Drupal search. Google search is much better, though if you’ve been using the search system, you might notice old/broken links. This is due to old indexes made by Google and should be resolved when Google re-indexes the site.

Other improvements include a resources page, an improved promotions page, an improved about us section, and some minor changes in the front page, opinions, and backtalk. The resources page lists a lot of extra sites that we have as well as any services that we use (Twitter, Facebook, etc.). You can also find most of the RSS feeds here. Speaking of RSS feeds I apologize to the people that were using our old RSS feeds. We changed many of the RSS links and I should have given notice that we were changing them. Sorry again, I know of at least one person that had this problem.

Moving on, one of the major usability improvements which I haven’t noted yet is the simple clicking of photos. Power users of the old site will probably have noticed that photos didn’t always link where you wanted to. For example the front page featured photo never linked to the story and the photos on A&E and Sports simply didn’t link at all. This has been fixed, these photos will link to the story as one would expect it to. Something so simple yet it was actually quite difficult to do with the old system.

I will also note that we have made many improvements to the internal system. Our Editors have said that they really like the new site as it is now much easier to put up stories and content.

Final Thoughts

Lastly, one of the major problems with the old site was, of course, spam. Spam on stories, spam on forums, even spam on Campus Tweets. As a result, forums and Campus Tweets have gone away and we have made it so only registered users can comment. As Holly Miller, Editor in Chief, mentioned in her column, the Daily will always be on the cutting edge of new technology and new media techniques. As so we will be constantly making improvements and constantly adding new features. It also means that in the future, when there have been significant improvements in these new media techniques, we may revisit some of our old features like Campus Tweets.

Special thanks goes to the Online Department for making this new site possible:

  • Matt Aho: Web designer
  • Ryan Bailey: Web programmer
  • Matt Crane: Web programmer

As always, the Online Department welcomes any feedback. I am the Online Manager at the Minnesota Daily and welcome comments at shuynh[at]mndaily[dot]com