Below the Fold

From the Baltimore Brew crew, a behind-the-scenes look at what we do…

Our online director: Designing The Brew and Brew 2.0

A day before my birthday in 2009, I got an email with the subject – “Former Washington Post reporter needs help with news website.” The email, in typical Baltimore Brew style, was lengthy, in-depth and self-effacing, and became the start of my involvement with “the Brew.

I’ve been volunteering my time to the Brew ever since. It has been one of the most rewarding projects to work on, and one of my longest engagements with a “client.”

Originally contacted to help bring the site back online and make it more secure after “some porn-wielding Russian hackers” crashed the site, I quickly became enthralled with the problem of online journalism.

With the funding goal met in our Kickstarter campaign, I’d like to share some of my thoughts on where I will be focusing my time, trying to bring your experience of reading up to the standards of the great reporting Fern and Mark do.

(SUPPORT THEM, BY THE WAY! THEY’VE REACHED THEIR $15,000 KICKSTARTER GOAL BUT A DONOR HAS OFFERED TO MATCH ANYTHING THEY RAISE OVER AND ABOVE $15,000. DON’T LET THAT MATCH OPPORTUNITY GO TO WASTE! )

This post has been sitting in the back of my mind for quite some time; it took the Baltimore Sun using DocumentCloud to spur me into action, so thanks. Even though the Sun is orders of magnitude larger than the Brew, I know we need to compete with them to keep relevant. Their use of Document Cloud is the second time they’ve beat me to the punch on using new technology or considering new content perspectives (the first being Charm City Current, which was similar to the neighborhood bloggers I wanted to enlist).

Brew Sketches for version 1.5

Original Sketches for the current version of Baltimore Brew

The current design for the Brew, while useful and meeting the goal of “not looking like a blog,” doesn’t really fit for the type of writing that Fern, Mark and the other great writers at the Brew do. It borrows too much from traditional news sites, has many features that were implemented poorly (after thinking about the site for a long time, I actually built it in a weekend, August 28-30th to be exact), and lacks features that are now hindering our readers from finding the great articles that are on the website. This was Brew version 1.5, or what technology entrepreneurs would call “Minimal Viable Product.”

Now, the Brew has large and committed readership, (37% of our visits come from regular readers who visit 2-30 times per month), has received many local and national accolades for its reporting and has played a key role in important Baltimore events (Sparrows Point, Occupy Baltimore, Rec Centers, tax breaks for development.) Our website needs to step up and meet the expectations people have about a news website, much like Fern and Mark have done to beat people’s expectations of reporting in Baltimore.

(Fern’s very sentimental about the coffee splotch design, and asks me to remind readers that it came from the local design studio of Claude Skelton.)

I haven’t set much in concrete for what I think Brew 2.0 should be, but I wanted to share some of the reading I’ve been doing, to hopefully spark you interest and involvement in the next version of the Baltimore Brew. This is “A News Website for Your City,” and I’d like for you to own and understand it as much as I do.

Our entrance into the problem of online news comes from Information Architects. These designers from Japan and Germany do the majority of their consulting for news organizations, and have done a lot of thinking into how news will survive in the current state of media.

Their article, “The Future of News: How to Survive the New Media Shift,” sets the table for the problems facing all news outlets, even small organizations like the Brew.

The next article covers some of the basic tenets that will underlie the design of the website, and that I’ve started being more conscious of since reading this design blog. “Web Design in 95% Typography” was written in 2006, but is still an article that I make all of my Graphic Design students read when we start working on interactive design.

The current design of the site is too cramped, with small body copy, bad headline typefaces and not enough respect for the content. I hope to change that.

Our last article from Information Architects has to do with monetization of news.

Baltimore Brew will always be “paywall free.” News is an important social and democratic tool, and should not be limited. There are opportunities, though, to enhance the news experience, and iA’s idea of “Business Class: Freemium for News?” raises some of those underlying concepts.

I’ll continue to share my thinking for the next version of the Baltimore Brew, and would appreciate your feedback, either via comment, Twitter or email.

Our online director: Designing The Brew and Brew 2.0
  • Gerald Neily

    I’ve been here since Brew 1.0, which really DID “look like a blog” with bottom-end WordPress software that was even cruder than Google’s free Blogspot. But Fern’s mission all along was much more. She enlisted and ensnared me the same way she did you with her eloquent emails. In the early days, she indulged my bloggier tendencies, perhaps because the mega-project du jour was The Red Line with its attendant antics, prior to the supersized Convention Center, Grand Prix and Kids’ Prison. The shriveling of The Sun was also a favorite theme.

    But then you and Mark Reutter arrived and she has raised the bar MUCH higher, and even more importantly, The Brew has cultivated a culture of readers who spread the brilliance far and wide with their comments. Now it all needs to fit together. Your job is like mapping The Brew’s collective human brain. Ben, we’re counting on you !!!!!!