Inside the new website

Published 8:59 am Saturday, August 21, 2010

Our newspaper’s web team has spent the past six months or so working hard behind the scenes to redesign and improve the reader-friendliness of On Tuesday, we unveiled the product of their work.

The launch of the upgraded site went smoothly. A few bugs — inevitable when a new digital product goes live — were quickly resolved, and readers have responded very favorably.

Users with dial up Internet access (we still have a bunch of those in Southampton County) have complained that it takes a long time for the home page to load. We made a couple of changes Thursday that sped up the load time considerably. If you’re a dial up user and slow load times persist, please let us know.

Many of the site changes are cosmetic — designed to improve the look and navigability of the product — but we also added some bells and whistles and improved the functionality of several existing features.

A slick feature is the integration of our community calendar — called “It’s Happening Here” in the print edition — with Google Calendar. Users who maintain a personal Google Calendar can quickly add an event from the community calendar to their personal calendar. Readers can also generate a map showing an event’s location.

We’ve significantly integrated our site with Facebook — the social-networking community to which most everyone in the free world belongs, it seems. I’m not much into Facebook, but many people are. Facebook fans of The Tidewater News — approaching 1,000 strong — can now communicate more easily.

The biggest change in functionality on the new site involves reader comments — a forum that has taken on a life of its own since we launched our first website nearly four years ago.

As publisher, I get more compliments and more complaints about reader comments than anything else we publish, in print or electronically. People either love them or hate them. A few months ago in this space, I challenged posters to clean up their collective act, and for the most part they’ve done so. We had to ban about a dozen posters who were consistently violating our terms of use and ruining the forum for others, nearly all of whom are “law-abiding” participants.

Still, we’re sensitive to the fact that some readers just want to read the news online and don’t give a flip about Joe Q. Public’s anonymous opinion. Neither do many one-time visitors to the site care to wade into dialog among posters.

Those who want to read comments or post them now have to sign up as a registered user, agree to our terms of use, and voluntarily join our forum “family.” If you don’t like the reader forums, don’t sign up. Or if you’ve signed up and want to “tune out” the comments on a particular story, simply log out and the comments will go away.

This policy change also addresses an occasional criticism we hear: that the reader forums portray the community in a negative light to outsiders and prospective newcomers. Unless those casual readers go through the registration process, they will never see the comments.

Coincidental to this policy change was mandatory reregistration by all who were registered users on the old site. As a technical matter, we were unable to move the old database of registered users to the new site, necessitating the inconvenience of having everyone register again. We apologize. Registration only takes a minute.

Users are reminded that they must submit a valid, verifiable name, phone number and e-mail address when registering for the new site. Posters can choose to remain anonymous to other users, but the newspaper must know who you are. We’ve already had to ban eight users who submitted fictitious names or contact information.

Though courts have held that website publishers are not legally responsible for content posted by others, we are determined to maintain a responsible forum where our readers are given wide latitude to comment freely and to disagree vigorously with us and among themselves, as long as they play by the rules.

Steve Stewart is publisher of The Tidewater News.
His e-mail address is