Note: This post was destroyed due to blog glitches. I’ve managed to replace the texts, but many of the links no longer exist. My apologies.
So, I should start off by saying that I have a ton of respect for everyone involved in TCJ. Dirk Deppey’s one of my favorite writers on comics; Michael Dean has been great to work for at the print Journal; Kristy Valenti is incredibly smart, pleasant, and hard-working, and a fine writer as well. I don’t know Gary personally, but I’ve enjoyed reading him over the years, and I greatly admire his work as an editor and a publisher. I’m very grateful, and, indeed, flattered, that such a smart and talented group of people found something of value in this blog, and were interested in hosting it. I’m looking forward to being here for a long time (I mean, presuming this post doesn’t get me fired.)
I also want to say that there are a lot of things that I think tcj.com has gotten right. Most notably, I think TCJ has done a great job in getting an exciting and interesting group of writers together. I’ve been a big fan of Shaenon Garrity’s for a while, and it’s great to see her blogging regularly. I wasn’t familiar with Anne Ishii, but she seems like a spectacular choice — and much-appreciated evidence that the Journal is taking manga seriously. Same with the addition of Roland Kelts. Eric Millikin is also a very smart and inventive pick. I’m looking forward, too, to promised essays from Tom Crippen (who I was lucky enough to have writing at HU for a while), Matthias Wievel, Charles Hatfield, Kim Deitch, and Ben Schwartz, great writers all.
In addition, it’s worth noting that the website really could be worse. TCJ has avoided the cardinal website mistake of being so cute that your page is completely unmanageable. The page isn’t dripping with mystery meat gimmicks; you don’t have to guess whether the link to the print edition is under Charlie Brown’s maudlin head or whether it’s instead under Enid Coleslaw’s. There are a couple of miscues, sure (”Blood & Thunder” isn’t going to mean anything to anyone who hasn’t read the print journal guys, which means it’s not going to mean anything to anyone. The link should just be to “Message Board”, okay?) Overall, though, things are labeled in a reasonable way. That’s definitely worth something.
So if I like all that, what am I complaining about? Well, let’s start at the beginning….
I’m probably just not imaginative enough, but I’m having difficulty coming up with ways in which the rollout could have been more botched. Johanna Draper Carlson has a good summary of the issue #300 mess, which I’m not going to harp on further here. But even setting that aside, the opening days of tcj.com have been…well, let’s call it unfortunate. Instead of an actual official announcement with attendant hoopla and excitement, the launch was spilled quietly by blogger Rob Clough. (Not that that’s Rob’s fault; I doubt anyone told him not to.)
In addition, the launch itself was made from Beta. This had a number of unfortunate effects.
First, excitement was somewhat muted, since the site wasn’t *really* ready — I saw at least one blogger (I can’t remember who) write that TCJ was “sort of” launching, which isn’t the kind of thrilling introduciton you want, I don’t think. Second, the fact that the site was in Beta meant that there were a lot of details to fix…and fixing them meant that portions of the site were going up and down and all around for more than a week. As of this writing, things are still pretty massively fucked-up actually. Thus, at the very moment when tcj was presumably hoping for a major influx of traffic, lots of stuff didn’t work. This was especially problematic in regard to Dirk’s blog Journalista, which, in theory, should have been able to direct lots of people to the new site but which instead was relegated to a kind of half-life on the tcj.com main page while it’s old tcj.com/journalista address went in and mostly out of service.
In short, tcj.com launched before it was ready to go. I can think of various explanation for why they might have done this (promises to advertisers seems the most likely), all perfectly reasonable, just as the decision to pull TCJ #300 because of vendor concerns was reasonable. However, the upshot of these reasonable decisions is that readers end up irritated.
And I think that that’s kind of a big problem. Not because the opening was fucked up; I mean, that’s bad, but the launch is just the launch; the website is hopefully going to be around long enough that people will forget that. But the psychology behind the launch worries me.
Basically, it’s not clear to me that tcj has figured out how to think like its readers. Or, to put it another way, it’s very unclear who this website believes it’s talking to.
The great thing about the internet is that it’s easy to find the stuff you’re interested in, and only the stuff you’re interested in. I can go to the Atlantic website, for example, and read Andrew Sullivan without having to even look at a whole range of other bloggers who annoy or bore me (I’m talking about you Jeffrey Goldberg.)
Again, this is the Internet’s strength. And so what does TCJ.com do? It puts all it’s bloggers and writers and essayists in a single, streaming blog, regardless of whether they’re likely to attract the same readers. There’s a ton of content, but it’s not focused content. It’s not catering to the super-hero crowd, obviously; it’s not catering to the manga crowd — but it’s not really resolutely snobbish like Comics Comics, either. And though there’s not a focus, it’s also not organized in a way that makes it easy to find the bits you want to look at. For just about everyone, I think, the noise to signal ratio on tcj.com is going to be very high. It’s great to have Anne Ishii writing — but are the manga fans who are presumably her audience even going to be able to find her in the scrolling wall of unrelated text that is TCJ.com? (And yes, you can click on her name on the side and get all her posts…but that presumes you know you’re looking for her. You want to be appealing to people who aren’t necessarily already familiar with your content, not just those who are.)
There is some recognition that this is a problem, I think. It’s why all the posts are cut off after a paragraph or so with that annoyingly automated “Read More” link. In theory, the idea is that if everything’s truncated you can just scroll past and find what you want. In practice…well. Many of the posts are fairly short, but not so short that they get in under the “read more” break. So you’re constantly going past stuff you don’t want to read to find the one thing you do, and when you get there you read down until the “Read More” snaps you off in the middle of a sentence, and then you click the link and you get, not a whole essay, but just another 20 lines of text or whatever. Add in the giant flashing ads on the side, and…yeah, it’s just not a how I want to read my Internet.
In addition, the website often presents things in a way that make sense to the writers and editors, but not necessarily to the readers. For instance, the homepage shows two lists, one of bloggers and one of essayists. Okay. But…what is the practical difference for readers of the site? As a writer for tcj, I know that these groups are treated differently in certain ways — but why do readers give a shit? It’s all content going through the same sluice.
So…what to do? Well, in the short term I’d first try to see if I could tone down the flashing ads. I’d also see if I couldn’t figure out a way to make there be more of a clear visual break at the end of posts; as it is, the post text goes right into the little notation about RSS feeds and so forth, which is really and unexpectedly distracting. I’d also think about giving writers more control over the Read More placement, and I’d try eliminating it altogether for shorter posts. There’s just no reason to go to Read More when you’re only writing 300-500 words. (Robot 6 is one example of a group blog which seems to have figured out a better Read More compromise length — and to be just in general better designed for readability.)
In the longer term, I’d think hard about giving some folks separate blogs. Ken Smith is an obvious candidate, as his interests and everyone else’s are fairly distinct. A more or less manga-themed blog with Anne and Shaenon and whoever else fits seems like a decent idea as well.
And just overall, I’d separate bloggers out from essayists. Though as I said they aren’t clearly differentiated now, they should be. Blogging is really about self-publishing; the attraction of a blog, for readers and for writers, is the sense that you’re having a conversation, with little filtering. Having all the blogs go through the mainpage, and having them split up with essays, really dilutes and muffles the sense of individual voices and idiosyncratic interests which is what people go to blogs for. That’s especially the case if bloggers really are being asked to keep posts to under 500 words, as Rob said.
Essays, on the other hand, are ideally more formal and more curated…and, again ideally, should be teased and promoted rather than just dropped into a blog format. Splice Today, where I occasionally write, has a pretty good, no nonsense way to present essays which is somewhat bloglike, and could serve as a model. Or the Onion AV club, where you have a menu of essays could work. Basically, if you have an essay, you want to put it out there as a completed piece you’re proud of. And, you know, you want to keep it in one or at most two big chunks, grouped together, not in 5 scattered and dismembered segments.
And there should definitely be a menu of recent stories, or perhaps a scrolling list of popular stories (Splice Today does this) so that there’s some easy way to see what’s recent or important without going down the whole damn page.
Also, and finally, I’d think hard about how on earth I was planning to make money. Maybe tcj has cracked the code for surviving off of internet ad sales, but…well, I’m a little skeptical. The short-term goal needs to be upping subscription to the print Journal, surely. Don’t, then, for god’s sake, put your link to the journal subscription up in the ad banner. Put it down somewhere in editorial. And put it on our lowly subdomain too, for God’s sake. We want to help!
Even if, you know, we’re out on our collective ears tomorrow.