El Faro.net, one of the few online newspapers in Central America, has introduced an overhauled version of its news Web site in an effort to better host in-depth reports and investigations, enhance interactive coverage, generate new revenue streams and develop a solid business model.
According to its creators, the new Web site could also pave the way for online media to create sustainable models of quality online news that can be replicated across the region.
Journalist and new media expert Tree Elven (pictured) led the project as a Knight International Journalism fellow. She helped develop the new design which she said solved several problems including obsolete sections, lack of a CMS (content management system), a handmade homepage, few community spaces, unattractive visual design and layout, and lack of advertising space and tracking system.
El Faro.net, founded in 1998, was always valued for its independent news and in-depth reports, but its poor organization and presentation was hampering commercial progress, Elven told IJNet in a recent interview.
IJNet: What was the philosophy behind the redesign of El Faro.net?
TE: The aim was to make El Faro's site more attractive to readers and advertisers by adding Community and Commerce to the existing content, ensuring continued news delivery and sustainability, and space for appropriate growth later.
Among our expected benefits are the re-establishment of El Faro as a cutting-edge, innovative news service in terms of digital delivery as well as content, community improvement and capitalization of reader loyalty.
Also, El Faro will face a new possibility for revenue generation via syndication, training, conferences and ... a new role as conduit for calls to action/social actions, such as micro-billed donations from readers. It can become the standout model for sustainable independent media, and therefore be of service to other small digital media outfits in the region.
IJNet: Was the online media model of this website thought up from scratch?
TE: Yes, it was in the sense that the focus was on identifying El Faro.net's needs and profile before looking at what’s going on elsewhere, and not being distracted by the thought that there is one single solution somewhere out there.
We spent plenty of time on such things as deciding what El Faro.net really means to people, which directions it wants to take and which might be red herrings or expensive experiments! We pooled information so as to build the most complete picture, both internally and externally, of the media landscape, and then work out the most promising path for El Faro.net.
IJNet: Is it something that other Latin American media can emulate?
TE: We'd hope it would inspire other media to optimize their output delivery and presentation. A redesign is always challenging and can be difficult for the most experienced. Unfortunately there's a perception that a redesign is something that happens 'over there' -- it's technical. In fact, a huge amount of input and collaboration from all departments -- particularly editorial -- is needed if it's going to work well.
IJNet: What new elements of media storytelling does the Web site allow for?
TE: El Faro.net was already serving videos via YouTube. The new site allows for a slicker presentation and delivery. Videos, photos, and radio have each been given their own section to cater to readers who have specific format interests, as well as forming part of the overall content offer. And El Faro has come up with a new way of storytelling -- a great multimedia mix that shows up well on the new site.
IJNet: What social media have been incorporated into the design?
TE: Mainly Facebook and Twitter at this stage because they have emerged as solid market leaders, are universally familiar and cover El Faro's needs -- Twitter can act as a vital breaking-news tool, while Facebook provides a loyalty-building forum.
IJNet: In terms of advertising, what has been your vision for El Faro.net? Does this Web site bring new technology to help with advertising?
TE: The idea was always to make El Faro.net more attractive to advertisers whilst achieving a good editorial/commercial balance for the readers. We spent a lot of time with the visual designer and the heads of editorial and commercial so as to achieve that well-integrated mix. The new site offers a whole lot of new, IAB [Internet Architecture Board] standard advertising spaces; and moving into 2010, El Faro.net will be offering its advertisers the OpenX (IAB-approved) tracking system for their campaigns.
IJNet: Is the currently available technology in the region enough to create sophisticated online newspapers that support multimedia stories?
TE: Yes, if you have a robust server and a lot of creativity, you can shape an open source CMS to make a good impact with effective functionality. The ideas and technology are out there, they don't have to cost a fortune, but you do have to be selective. It's a question of establishing editorial requirements and then fitting the technology to make it serve those purposes. If it is to work, everyone needs to be working together. Editorial may not realize the technical possibilities now at their disposal, and technicians may not understand editorial requirements. If they all understand one another, technicians can alert editorial to the newest developments out there, for example, by making everyone else fresh knowledge-wise.
IJNet: How do you see the future of online newspapers in the region? Are they feasible?
TE: As feasible as elsewhere, in that it's all about whether they are needed, if they are providing trustworthy information and are prepared to be flexible in changing circumstances, then yes. Online readers are increasingly demanding -- they will find other sources of information if they have to, but they do tend to prefer a trusted voice.
Beyond that, it's all about the ability to change. That includes editorial and commercial understanding of each other in a new way, which can be challenging in certain environments. But I believe it's vital that everyone be fulfilled without jeopardizing the newspapers' main purpose.
The way not to go is to think that there is 'a solution.' The most important goal is to understand your own product and readers, and be creative from there on. There is no single solution right now.