The Providence Journal's much anticipated new web site, providencejournal.com, made an underwhelming debut this week.
It is, no doubt, an improvement on the paper's old site, projo.com, which had the jumbled, garish look of an earlier era.
The new version, cast in blue tones, is cleaner and crisper. And the paper has bolstered its once-meager social networking capability; a "Facebook Recommendations" panel at the bottom of the site offers up your friends' favorite stories.
The site is, in short, standard fare for a regional newspaper. It could be worse. But it could be better.
Kelley MacDonald, director of information architecture for Virginia-based NavigationArts, which redesigned web sites for the Charlotte Observer and Sacramento Bee, says providencejournal.com falls short in what may be the key metric for a news site, circa 2011: telling stories visually.
The pictures are sparse. And the videos — tales of weddings and protests and the like – are often compelling, but narrow in scope.
Indeed, the paper has shown little appetite for the sort of sprawling, interactive storytelling — clickable maps, infographics, and on-camera interviews with sources — that other newspapers have explored.
The new site, as expected, offers breaking news and brief versions of Journal stories. But the paper's full reporting is only available through an eEdition — an electronic replica of the print product.
That eEdition is free, for the moment. But it will soon reside behind a "pay wall," accessible only to those who subscribe to the print edition or pay separately for an on-line subscription. No word, yet, on pricing.
The introduction of a pay wall is in keeping with a nationwide trend toward charging for the news. But the paper's specific approach, MacDonald says, is "behind the curve."
The eEdition, essentially a pdf of the paper, looks like something you might have found on the web 10 years ago. And it seems particularly out of place on the iPad — a lush, interactive medium that many in print media see as the best hope for saving an industry in decline.
"When someone clicks on 'iPad app' " on the web site, says MacDonald, and finds the paper shilling the relatively static eEdition, "that's an expectation thwarted."
There is, of course, reason to believe that the paper can thwart expectations and get away with it — at least for now. The Journal has no real competition for comprehensive Rhode Island news.
And if the pay wall drives enough readers back to the more profitable print edition — or at least slows the sharp decline in circulation — the paper will have a short-term victory of no small consequence.
In the medium- and long-term, though, it will have to do better online if it hopes to win the under-50 crowd. There is still time. But the clock is ticking.