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Rex Sorgatz

I'm not passive aggressive. I'm aggressively passive.

jul 6
2009

Mediaite Launch

Today we announced the launch of Mediaite.com, a new site that covers all dimensions of the media world. I advised on it, including doing the design and development. Most of my previous launch projects had the support of a media entity with dozens of employees, so this was a different kind of challenge, involving such wonderful tasks as recalling the inner-workings of DART and building WordPress plugins. It's been a while since I was involved in a bootstrappy startup, so this post is for the few people who are interested in the nuances of moving between big and small media, for however long that historical distinction remains.

Power Grid

Although a lot is going on with the site, this feature will probably garner the most attention. The Power Grid ranks 1,500 media personalities in a dozen categories. It will predictably get criticized for some sort of navel-gazing, but just as with pageview counts and most-emailed articles lists before it, the index will also predictably be ctrl+refreshed by industry obsessives. All new metrics go through their hazing periods, and media hazing is the worst form of it.

As this month's Wired overtly suggests, the abundance of data should pose a new frontier for publishing. As personal data migrates online, accusations will arise about the narcissism of measuring thyself, perhaps even yanking in some conservative trope about the decline of society, or some liberal invective about the end of privacy. Everyone will eventually settle down, and we will all learn a little more about each other. The world will go on, and no one will take Twitter Followers that seriously. (Except Dan, who is on a mission to pass me. Please don't follow him.)

The Power Grid itself posed many technical challenges: how to build an extensible algorithm, how to gather the data, how to differentiate industries, how to eliminate outlying factors, how to display the information. Watching the launch of Tumblarity, with its mercurial display and confounding numerical obfuscation, was a lesson in information design. (It took me days to figure out if you wanted a big or small Tumblarity number.) While the Power Grid doesn't reveal every single data point (mostly because that would be visually overwhelming), enough data is available for surmising the gist of how rankings are calculated.

And it's more than just a game. If you want to get a snapshot of Joel Stein or Kevin Rose, there is some interesting data to investigate. If you have an active, data-focused mind, you can imagine future iterations of the Power Grid: new data sources, APIs, visualized trending data, other industries. Who knows...

Voice

The tone of Mediaite is opinionated, but factual. It will be more reported than most blogging today, yet it will take stances where it needs to. The site's editors (Colby Hall, formerly of VH1; Rachel Sklar, formerly of HuffPo; Glynnis MacNicol, formerly of Mediabistro; Steve Krakauer, formerly of TVnewser) provide the corpus of the site in TV, Online, and Print, while user contributions end up in the Columnists bucket.

I'll be writing occasional columns too.

Identity Design

"Nostalgic futurism," "pixelated pop art," "newspaper retro" -- these were some of the early identities we toyed with. After running through iterations of each, we ended up with something calm, simple, flat.

Information Design

If you follow online design trends even marginally, you've seen the grid take over the scene. It's a fine system, especially when applied to data-rich sites. But it also suffers from a deficiency: it makes you think vertically. Take a look at the NYTimes.com, undeniably one of the best designed news sites. Here's a test: Start scanning the page while thinking about how your eyes move in conjuncture with scrolling. Do you see a pattern? Your eyes are forced to move up and down with your scrollbar. This unnatural movement is because the site is built as stacks of content. Grid design implicitly enforces this kind of thinking, because it tries to build nicely aligned columns.

This is problematic, because I don't think people actually want to scan content this way. Blogs have proven they read content this way, but it seems easier to scan content horizontally.

This was a small innovation we discovered in redesigning msnbc.com, which was was reconceived in other prominent sites. These "horizontal sites" build a new kind of importance hierarchy. Designers don't realize it, but unaligned vertical stacks are a remnant of the way that newspapers were designed -- in columns, up and down. These new layouts are more like movie screens and wide monitors, with action moving left and right.

Platform

Except for the Power Grid, it's all built on WordPress, which I haven't used in five years. Some hacking was required to get the front page to have a non-blog layout, but enough advancements have occurred over the years to make it only mildly painful.

Conclusion!

If you hang around in the NYC media bubble long enough, you develop the social depression of a collapsing industry. The west coast is full of a giddy frisson about the inevitable demise of big media, while the midwest is skeptical of everything that gets force-fed to them from the coasts. NYC, which has essentially zero awareness of any of this, continues to constantly be shocked! when a TMZ or Pitchfork or The Onion comes along from the hinterlands with a massively successful enterprise.

The reasons for this amounts to a lack of vision. Even smart people, vampirically bound to the past, seem completely blind to developing new formats. The standard for online innovation right now is "launch another blog," which no one seems to recognize is about as depressing as launching another newspaper.

Mediaite is a hybrid model, borrowing some successful formats of the past and mixing it with some new ideas.

See also:

Howard Kurtz: Just the Messenger.

51 comments

Of course, it's down for me. :-)

posted by Aaron at 1:54 AM on July 6, 2009


Down for me as well...

posted by Bill at 2:06 AM on July 6, 2009

Hello, Rex? Is this thing working?

posted by fek at 2:52 AM on July 6, 2009

Yep, back up now.

posted by Rex at 2:53 AM on July 6, 2009

Thank you for your great work on the site, Rex. You were a machine, and the site looks great because of it. Nice work.

posted by Rachel Sklar at 3:20 AM on July 6, 2009

You misspelled the site's name in your headline. I think that misspelling/confusion will be common with a name like that.

posted by Barrett Chase at 4:08 AM on July 6, 2009

Branding 101: Make sure you have an easily spelled, naturally pronounced brand name. This is neither, as you prove by spelling it wrong yourself, and /media-ite/ is awkward to say.

posted by Richard at 4:19 AM on July 6, 2009

You should try Fimoculous!

I sorta agree and sorta disagree. I can't say Kotaku very easily, but it just does just fine.

posted by Rex at 4:22 AM on July 6, 2009

I was dead set against Mediaite when Dan first brought it up. I don't know when it started growing on me, but eventually the tongue-twisti-ness became a source of goofy amusement. I also like the way it looks spelled out, with those cute twin i's. I feel like you can get used to anything. We'll see.

posted by Rachel Sklar at 4:39 AM on July 6, 2009

Congrats!

posted by Kelly at 11:44 AM on July 6, 2009

Nice design Rex. The scattershot presentation of so many newsy sites overwhelms my eyes with so many different kinds of attentiongrabbers and makes me A) miss stuff and B) go away. This is very digestible. Nice job.

posted by Eric at 12:17 PM on July 6, 2009

Isn't this just another Pitchfork? It's a news site that also rates things. Holy shit: realization. You guys are the Pitchfork of Media. So who does that make your Nick Sylvester?

posted by fek at 12:19 PM on July 6, 2009

I'll be whoever gave that Liz Phair album a 0.0

posted by Rex at 12:23 PM on July 6, 2009

Not savvy PR to proclaim yourself designer and developer of this site. The clever Power Grid feature is so slow it can't be explored.

posted by Craig at 1:00 PM on July 6, 2009

Hahaha. "Savvy PR." Good one.

When I wrote this post, the site was zippping!

They're throwing servers at it. I think it'll be zipping again within a couple hours.

posted by Rex at 1:41 PM on July 6, 2009

I think everyone here had a clear sense of the value of The Onion before they relocated here, and it's not like media outlets turned their noses down at them. If anything, they were welcomed with open arms across the media, comedy and publishing industries.

posted by Nic Musolino at 2:33 PM on July 6, 2009

I beg to differ!

I remember very well the story in The Observer when The Onion moved here (of course I can't find it now). The tone was all shockey-shocked that there's this funny thing out there that's GUESS WHAT from WISCONSIN.

And this is somehow reverse elitist to say, and probably undermining my very point, but people in the midwest were reading The Onion for a decade before anyone on the coasts heard of it.

posted by Rex at 2:51 PM on July 6, 2009

I don't know if it was the same article (I remember one myself), but I remember it more tongue-in-cheek. But I guess to clarify -- are you arguing that there is an institutional voice in NY media, or ar you talking about the people? Because everyone here was thrilled with the Onion moving here. There's perhaps a gap between the comedy/publishing nexus (UCB/Conan/SNL) and the media scene encompassed by Conde/Tina/NYO. The former was more than welcoming (people were doing shows at the UCB, getting spots in bits on Conan and writing all over town). And perhaps you knew different people than I did, but everyone I knew in town was reading the The Onion online as soon as it launched, checking every Wednesday as soon as it updated, the same way they read Suck every day. Sure, I didn't know what The Onion was in 1993. But they weren't exactly doing national distribution.

posted by Nic Musolino at 3:05 PM on July 6, 2009

My general point -- outside of The Onion stuff -- is that people here quickly become blind to how the rest of America works. This is such a cliche, but it's also undeniably true.

I've made this point several times elsewhere, but even shows like 30 Rock suffer from NYC-philia, and I think the ratings show that.

(This is an abridged response. Busy day.)

posted by Rex at 3:36 PM on July 6, 2009

Hey Rex,
Having some WordPress issues? I've been doing non-stop WP development for a year now, so lemme know if you need a hand. God knows you've given me enough free support over the last few years.

posted by Matt at 3:41 PM on July 6, 2009

Thanks Matt. It doesn't appear to be anything related to WP/PHP. It's all about the hosting environment at this moment.

Thanks for the offer though!

posted by Rex at 3:45 PM on July 6, 2009

Some brief thoughts on The Onion in The Observer in 1999:

"The Onion's march into the mainstream continues. A satirical newspaper published in Wisconsin and on the Web, The Onion can no longer be considered just a cult hit. Its first book, Our Dumb Century, debuted at No. 26 on the extended New York Times best seller list; next week it jumps to No. 9, according to its publisher, Three Rivers Press. In other Onion news, former editor Ben Karlin, who had ventured to Los Angeles to write pilots and episodes of Cartoon Network's Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, has become the new senior producer at The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, replacing head writer Chris Kreski (who's moving to Martin Short's syndicated talk show, now in the early stages over at King World). Another Onion alum, David Javerbaum, recently left Late Show With David Letterman to try his hand athuh?musical theater."

More here:

"Giving viewers relief from all that, perhaps, will be the editors and writers of The Onion, a satirical newspaper published in Wisconsin (and available on the Web). According to Onion manager David Miner of 3 Arts Entertainment in New York, The Onion is near a deal with NBC to produce a series of specials, the first of which would be called Our Dumb Century . They're talking a fall '99 air date. As of press time, Onion editor Scott Dikkers was scheduled to have a meeting in New York with Conan O'Brien and his producer, Jeff Ross. The pairing of The Onion and Late Night With Conan O'Brien makes sense: Both have a gleefully absurd take on the world, and Mr. O'Brien is an Onion fan."

Shockey-shocked? None here, except maybe that part about musical theater.

posted by krucoff at 3:49 PM on July 6, 2009

Everybody I know was distressed when The Onion moved to NYC, not because we looked down on it but because we feared it would lose -- or worse, start to phone in -- its bonfire-of-banalities shtick and start doing parodies of NYC media/finance culture. If anything, its hinterlands cred gave it added allure (you know, "authenticity"). Thankfully it's maintained most of its original approach since relocating to Babylon, at least in my opinion.

Speaking of my opinion, since I know you value it more than any other, I strongly suggest you retire the endlessly offensive "Power Grid" ASAP for all the reasons you can guess, kthx.

posted by Eli at 4:09 PM on July 6, 2009

"is that people here quickly become blind to how the rest of America works." Hey, if you are the Midwestern expert, what are we missing out on? Maximumrockandroll? The Dells?

posted by Nic Musolino at 4:18 PM on July 6, 2009

I know this is v1.0 so you deserve some time to adjust, but I have to say the 'USA Today' analogy kind of fits. I'm not a fan of the design scheme at all. The icons for the main sections are embarrassingly bad.

Truth be told, I think the Awl, Gawker, NYMag, the Conde Nast portfolio all have shitty design as well. Everyone is trying to slap way too much information on the front page. I wish folks who deal in the online news format would try and subscribe to a 'less is more' aesthetic.

It's day one, the editorial will get more refined as well as the design, but my initial, not altogether fully earned content/design snobbery is not overly impressed. I guess I am just kind of disappointed with the lack of innovation.

posted by Soup at 4:43 PM on July 6, 2009

I gotta disagree, Soup. I think the icons are cute!

posted by Kelly at 5:12 PM on July 6, 2009

@soup Just 'fess up and say you want a horizontal scroll. (ducking)

posted by andrew graham at 5:12 PM on July 6, 2009

@kelly, I've got nothing against cute, if it's properly executed. I know a lot of people will disagree with me but OMGPOP.com does cute well, the Mediaite icons just look thrown together to me.

posted by Soup at 5:18 PM on July 6, 2009

I had no idea those icons would be so divisive! (I agree they could be better, but ya know, aesthetics.)

posted by Rex at 5:22 PM on July 6, 2009

I like the icons.

posted by katiebakes at 6:12 PM on July 6, 2009

Hey, thanks to everyone for commenting. At some point, I'd like to return to all this NYC stuff, because I think Spiers made a legit point. I might still try to craft a response...

In the mean time, I'm curious about what Soup says above. "Everyone is trying to slap way too much information on the front page. I wish folks who deal in the online news format would try and subscribe to a 'less is more' aesthetic."

Now there's something we can probably all agree with, yet no one ever seems to accomplish it. Soup (may I call you Soup?), I'm curious if you have any ideas on how this might work. I mean, take HuffPo, which has got to be one of the most attrocious design things on the internet. Do you have any idea how to take all that content and make it digestable in a "less is more" way? Or how about NYTimes.com? My guess is you'll want to come up with a bloggy solution, but when you're publishing 100 stories/day, that model breaks down (this is the problem that Gawker Media faces too, right? they're bursting at the seams of being a blog).

Are there any sites with abundant content that you think work? If not, any idea how it could?

(A few years ago, ABCnews.com did a design that had everything above the fold. It was bold! Unfortunately, traffic plummeted, and they quickly changed course.)

posted by Rex at 6:12 PM on July 6, 2009

The arrows on the Power Grid feel a little Dance Dance Revolution.

posted by Jed at 7:53 PM on July 6, 2009

I tried really hard to find an example of a news site that doesn't try to slap an overwhelming amount of content on the front page but simply couldn't find one. I'd love to know if it exists. That was sort of my point, that there seems to be a lack of innovation when it comes to this format.

I know you're being somewhat dismissive of the blog format but the nature of a news site is to remain fresh. You want to have the newest content up front. You might be publishing 100 stories a day but I don't want to see 40 of them linked on the front page. You want me to dig deeper into the site anyway, give me a reason to. Give me the latest posts and limit them to what can fit above the fold.

I have a more minimal idea in mind that I feel like prototyping, i'll share it with you when I'm done.

posted by Soup at 8:14 PM on July 6, 2009

Cool launch, Rex. Congrats!

posted by David Jacobs at 9:13 PM on July 6, 2009

Have you seen Nick Bilton's visualization of the abundance of links on major websites? Via that, Bloomberg News has a pretty sparse front page considering how much content it publishes. I don't know if it... works, but there you go.

posted by Zach Seward at 9:14 PM on July 6, 2009

@Soup, @Rex: I won't criticize about the annoying info overload on news sites, and that's because... well, that's what works the best and that's what we want.

The best example of this is Drudge. His site is complete info overload below the fold. But I go to his site first if something big happens. Many people do the same, and I guess some more people hit that site daily or hourly to scan the big stories. It's been that way for years now, with a site that hasn't had a major redesign ever, and was launched in the Netscape era. It's pretty ugly! It's as ugly as Google is empty. Both are insanely useful, though.

Oh, and Drudge has three ads, only one that you can see "above the fold". He benefits because he needs less clutter to make money.

Say what you want about the costs of actually producing (breaking) news, which Drudge doesn't do. There is a big demand for news and a lot of money flying around, and it's never enough. Corporate media is broken and that's a topic for another day.

posted by Brian Van at 9:36 PM on July 6, 2009

I posted a mock up of my 'less is more' concept here...

http://soupsoup.tumblr.com/post/136798340/on-rexs-site-where-a-lively-discussion-of

Let me know what you think.

posted by Soup at 10:51 PM on July 6, 2009

I think the "info overload on the home page" thing is crap. Personally, I can't have enough on the home page... my problem with 99% of newspaper sites is that they don't know how to do archives. There ought to be blog-like section-specific pages somewhere so I can get a sense of what's been going on with, e.g., Iran, for the last 48 hours. Too, I'd like to be able to see what was on your homepage yesterday. Archives, people.

But ... Mediaite seems to have this under control. It looks like a pretty damned nice product. What makes me chuckle is that I presume the idea was born during a conversation that started "Hey, Gawker makes tons of green; let's make something for people to read when they're done reading Gawker?"

posted by alesh at 11:03 PM on July 6, 2009

I think the site looks great as is right now: http://twitpic.com/9k6ij/full

Also, does the Financial Times website count as less is more, (http://www.ft.com/home/us) or are we only looking at websites that the painfully unaware read?

posted by paolo at 11:15 PM on July 6, 2009

congrats on the launch!

posted by rico at 11:35 PM on July 6, 2009

Grats on launch

posted by A Wizard of Earthsea at 11:55 PM on July 6, 2009

I dunno, guys, I don't think Megan Fox is nearly as attractive as people make her out to be.

posted by curt at 12:24 PM on July 7, 2009

I really think you've managed to make horizontal scanning work in a vertical setting. The order that my eyes go through the stories is the order you wanted because it's how my eyes have been trained to work. Yet it doesn't cross the line into horrific Wonderwall territory of horizontal scrolling (crossing my fingers that wasn't one of yours). Biggest biggie at the top and then large -> medium -> small stories horizontally in the next sections down. It's like reading lines in a book - left to right scan, skip down, left to right scan. Very natural.

The section dividers are prominent enough to divide and identify content yet blend in enough that they don't jump out to compete. They keep me inside a thematic zone, blocking out the higher and lower stuff temporarily until I'm ready for it. It's very easy to consume, and in fact encourages me to read each link in each section. No other newsy front page does that for me. Contrast to HuffPo, bastard child of MySpace, where my eyes go all ADD trying to scan content of variable size misaligned across multiple columns as I scroll down, missing stuff left and right because of the pace I want to keep, or the carnival/yard sale layout of a lot of front pages. You're lucky to only have a handful of categories, which keeps things simple and tidy.

I appreciate the nonwhite background. It's easy on the eyes. To make the site even easier on my particular eyes, I forced sans serif in my browser. The bolded, italicized, blue serif text in particular was giving me scattery eye interference. Sweet, sweet Helvetica. Goes nicely with the design theme.

If you're collecting/considering layman feedback for possible tweaking, here's some:

I'm not the site's target audience, but it seems like if you're someone who is interested in the Power Grid rankings, then one of your main user tasks on the site is to quickly determine who has risen, who has fallen, and then get the context, namely how much they rose or fell and why. Currently I don't see previous ranking context or any explanation of the cause for a given move, though granted it's only the second day. Makes the ranking system seem opaque and therefore arbitrary, despite the FAQ explanation of what is measured. I could rank these people if I wanted to and move them up and down at will but nobody would have any reason to buy it. Likewise for you guys. Why should anyone trust your rankings and movements? Couldn't you put a thumb on the scale so to speak, particularly if it was lucrative for the site owners in some way, and then hide behind the mysterious algorithm? Not that you would, just that there's nothing to give people confidence that it won't happen. Even if the risk of somebody manually tracking you from day to day to find irregularities means you'd never do it, it would just win people's confidence immediately if you were clear about what drove the moves.

Transparency and intentions aside, rankings movements seem useless minus context and history. Does a green up arrow mean somebody jumped one spot or 20? Where were they yesterday and last month? Listing the previous ranking, and maybe even a graph of historical rankings, would not only make today's ranking meaningful but wouldn't give away anything proprietary. Still though, if somebody jumps or drops five spots one day, I'd like to know why. If four to six metrics go into a person's ranking, which ones changed, or changed most notably to cause the movement? Did circulation nosedive? Did they do something to send Googlers into a frenzy? Isn't this what people ultimately want to know? Help me, or rather your users, understand and value the information and possibly make use of it in a supportable way. "According to media-ranking site Mediaite, So and So's star is on the rise due to xyz..." Otherwise I have to go do the homework myself and you may not get credit. If somebody's Google buzz is 10,000 today, for example, could there be a smaller line of text under it that says "(up 20% since yesterday)" or "(up 2,000 since yesterday)" or similar? You could click it for a historical chart, just as with the main rank figure. Then you really become a comprehensive and convenient intel center.

In regard to the Power Grid preview block on the front page, I'm not clear on why any two people appear there. Is it just a random pluck of people from a given featured category? Today it's #3-stationary and #7-falling, for example. If it's random, I'm thinking it hasn't quite earned its place on the front page. What if instead the biggest riser and biggest faller regardless of category were featured each day? As on personal pages, you could say "#7 among Magazine Editors" so people wouldn't think the two people on the front page were necessarily ranked against each other. For additional differentiation you could superimpose miniature versions of the category icons over the corner of each headshot to make it clear what industry each person is in. Or there's room for another line of text under their names for their category names instead. Given the extra real estate in that area, what if the person on the right were scooted leftward, and in the newly-freed up space to the right, the next biggest movers were listed in a small text-only way with little bitty colored ASCII arrows? At that point the preview section becomes useful, timely news-at-a-glance every day and invites further exploration of the Grid. If the ranking feature is what really sets this site apart, that would be a way to further highlight its relevance and dynamic nature on the front page. I could have the premise of the preview area wrong of course.

Minor personal point - I know it's common, but I don't see the point of link lists anymore assuming they're there for me and not some other business purpose. I never use them because I don't care what other sites a given site thinks I might want. And if I already visit any of those sites, I'll get there via my usual route. If it instead has some kind of traffic trading purpose for the business or SEO courtesy, or if I'm abnormal in my non-usage, then I understand.

posted by Eric at 12:44 PM on July 7, 2009

Kinda reminds me of Eric Black's site http://ericblackink.minnpost.com/

He has colors to break out sections. Maybe that's the only similarity.

Good work.

posted by taulpaul at 7:17 PM on July 7, 2009

Power Grid is interesting. Is it valuable at this point? Probably not, but it will be....*yoda voice* it will be.

I won't knock you for attempting to put something like Power Grid together. Ranking systems can be gamed, but we all know that. Let's see when Moot gets to the top of every category. I hope he is on your list so the /b/tards can unleash /b/tardness.

posted by taulpaul at 7:30 PM on July 7, 2009

Oh my God, if the comments section of Mediaite is this informed and wonky, I will be so happy. Except for the YM cranks.

posted by Rachel Sklar at 10:44 PM on July 7, 2009

Hey, you've got one of those cranks writing for you, Sklargatz. Until we outbid you for her, that is.

posted by fek at 2:30 PM on July 8, 2009

I like the design and the contents of the site. I find the Power Grid interesting as well. Two thumbs up for you and great work.

posted by Richard at 11:30 AM on July 9, 2009

On the Power Grid: can you fix it so that Bob Golic and Fareed Zakaria aren't ranked against each other? What kind of insight can one gain from these vast categories?

posted by alex at 12:14 AM on July 16, 2009

Mediate seem to have a problem delineating between comments and Twitter trackbacks (or whatever you'd like to call them). I'm interested in reading comments, but I couldn't care less how many people are retweeting M links. Wait, check that - it's an interesting statistic, yes, but I'm certainly not interested in reading them as comments. I also foresee a time when spammers find some way to completely take comments over the way it's going right now (although I haven't seen any spam yet, I think it's more likely that M isn't on the spam radar yet).

(Is there some place on M where I could/should have said this? I got too lazy to try to figure that out.)

posted by CRZ at 2:24 PM on July 27, 2009

It's something we're debating right now, actually!

posted by Rex at 2:26 PM on July 27, 2009




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