NBC Chicago is making me sad

NBCChicago.com – along with several other local NBC affiliates – rolled out a re-design at the end of July, less than a year after a previous re-design, which emphasized its local news coverage. Though the new site is more attractive than the old, and provides more ways for people to interact with the site’s content, it now seems less interested in delivering news than delivering the moods of its readers.

I wasn’t blown away by the design of the old site, but I admired how they seemed to be paying attention to what other sites were reporting. Many of the local news stories had outbound links, and even mentioned other sites by name. Like all good blogs, they combined original reporting with some analysis and related information. The tagline on the old site was “Locals Only” and while sometimes that meant silly contests like “Which is better: Lollapalooza or Pitchfork?” it also meant they snagged good local writers, like Steve Rhodes of the Beachwood Reporter, to cover politics.

The new site, however, seems to be more interested in proving it knows what Facebook is.

I don’t see the value or newsworthiness in asking people which of six feelings/actions they have/take after reading a story. Sure, it makes for an eye-catching interactive element on the homepage

…but the forest is lost in the trees. The idea here (I assume) is that “NBC Chicago” (or “Peacock-Logo 70s-Font” as the case may be) is not some unseen group of editors and reporters. “NBC Chicago” is the readers of the site. And those readers are “furious about shady Olympics real estate deals” and you can read more about it by clicking that tagline. In a way, it’s an expression of what Brad Flora said in a post on the Chicago Media Future Conference site.

But it took me about 10-15 minutes of poking around the site to figure all this out. For those of you who spend time looking at metrics like “time spent on site” you know most of your readers don’t spend that kind of time on your site. Nor are they huge geeks like me who will take the time to figure out what’s behind all this. Instead, they’ll just see taglines like this…

…and – in an incredibly unfortunate juxtaposition – this…

Now, the first tagline suggests an ideological bent to NBC that I doubt is intended. But the second…well, if you were a professional news organization, would you want something on the main page of your site that essentially said “We think it’s funny that a hockey player beat the hell out of a cab driver over a matter of 20 cents?”

This erosion of NBC Chicago’s identity in favor of lulz wouldn’t be as much of a problem if the site could settle on a voice. Some stories are written as straight-ahead reportage, like this coverage of a death at Lollapalooza (although some copy editing on that dek would clear up what the story makes clear: This was the fire department’s only call to Grant Park, not its only call all day). But others, like this story on the Mayor denying that a developer will profit from the Olympics, play it cheeky with the Mayor identified on first reference as “Big Swinging D.” There’s nothing wrong with that per se – there’s plenty to be said for a tongue-in-cheek take on the news – but the context of both stories is identical, which is confusing.

Moreover, it wouldn’t matter that NBC Chicago offers cutesy features like voting on how a story makes you feel or contains comparisons of Mayor Daley to a large schwanz, if the site also made it easy to find breaking news quickly and easily. Yet I didn’t realize the new site offers up-to-the-minute traffic info in the right hand corner of the site until a few minutes ago. And this is after I spent a good half hour poking around.

To be fair to my local NBC affiliate, most of the above isn’t its fault. This new design is now in use by all NBC Local sites so it’s obvious this was a corporate dictum made from on high, whether NBC Chicago liked it or not. And there are some aspects of the new design that I like, like this “So Chicago” section. But with news execs constantly fretting about people “stealing” their content, it seems like the solution NBC decided on is one that makes it harder to find that content the first place.

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