It’s been more than two months since I wrote this post discussing some of the problems on TCJ.com. I wanted to do another go round — though I think this time there’ll be a good bit less fire and brimstone. In part that’s because there have been improvements to the site. Mostly, though, it’s because my initial disbelief and panic has largely given way to resignation. This is the tcj.com we’re going to have; best to get used to it.
Let’s start with the positive though. The site design has been improved. Clear visual boundaries have been added at the bottom of each post, and the “Read More” links have been made clearer and more attractive. Some (though not all) posts now have brief summaries on the main page rather than just starting in with text, so the posts no longer ends in the middle of a sentence. The Comments links on individual posts are also easier to find. And helpful blue tags (“Review” “News” “Blog” etc.) have been added to each post. All of this may seem like small beer, but the cumulative effect is noticeable. The site still isn’t particularly appealing, and the flashing ads on the side remain distracting and ugly. But it’s no longer a chore just to look at the content.
TCJ has also added a box of links to “Top TCJ” stories in the sidebar. Again, it’s not a huge change, but it’s definitely a good idea — and will hopefully give new users a good introduction to recent content. Individual posts now have social networking links available, which seems like a good move. And the link to the message board is now better marked, which is helpful (though it may be too little too late at this point.) Finally, TCJ is now down with those newfangled social networking sites. (Though one of the first Twitter posts is a Ken Smith link? Why?)
So that’s the good.
But there’s also been David Ritchie posting random tchotchkes, Dave Pifer posting even more random snapshots and
Kent Worcester posting his course syllabus, complete with advice on writing style quoted from Strunk and White. And while these are particularly egregious examples, they aren’t aberrations. You don’t get through a week on tcj.com without at least a post or two that makes you think, “what the fuck?” And not in a good way.
The problem here isn’t that posting random photos or random crap or your syllabus is necessarily wrong. My very strong preference would be not to look at any of those things…but probably someone out there is interested, and what the hell…more power to them. I mean, I keep posting these music downloads even though it’s fairly clear nobody really wants them. But, damn it, it’s my blog, and my readers can l scroll past it once a week if they want to get to the comics criticism.
That’s kind of the thing though; it’s my blog. With tcj, it often feels like there’s nobody at the helm. To pick on poor Dave Pifer again — who is he? Why am I looking at this snapshot he posted, anyway? TCJ.com has managed to get a blog’s randomness without the blog’s personal touch. Thus, for example, R. Fiore’s one-liners come across not as charming eccentricities, but as half-assed fuck-yous by somebody who’s posting because he’s supposed to, rather than because he’s actually committed to being there.
The sense that no one gives a crap is only accentuated by the fact that so many of the supposedly regular bloggers are already AWOL. Where did Anne Ishii go? Eric Millikan, one of the most interesting promised bloggers, barely even got started. There are some constants; Shaenon has been a rock; R.C. Harvey pops up consistently to talk about the comics pages; Rob Clough has been blogging his heart out. But overall…well, on February 10, there were 7 posts, one of which was an HU link, and one of which was Journalista. So you’ve got like 20 writers listed on the side there and effectively five posts. One of which, as it happens, was a review by me.
Meanwhile, on the same day, Tom Spurgeon had 17 posts. Sure, some of them are just individual images…but many of them were substantial. With its layout problems, the one thing tcj.com had going for it was the promise of constant, high-quality content…and yet its team of dozens is getting its ass kicked by one guy. Because that one guy actually cares. And caring, as it turns out, really matters.
I’m being somewhat inconsistent here; in my earlier post I said there was too much content; now I’m saying there’s too little. But, alas, I think the site has managed to have both problems at once. Because there’s no sense of why what’s being posted is being posted, the site feels both overwhelming and insubstantial. The whole thing has an air of despairing malaise — the toilet paper spools and spools, and you can hear the creaking and the distant flush. Who are we talking to? Do they want to hear tit jokes? Do they care what happens at the Hooded Utilitarian, and if so do they really want those damned desperately “controversial” updates every day? The comments sections positively echo; the message board has been rendered almost mute; it’s like everyone’s sitting around with their mouths slowly sagging, waiting for the drool to plop out and ruin their laptop so they can get up and burn their longboxes in despair .
I’ve made suggestions before about what the site should do, and I guess I still have ideas about what I’d change if I were king of the world. But at this point it mostly feels like rearranging the deck chairs, etc. — or, to pick a more poignant metaphor, like adjusting the format of your magazine for the fifth time while the industry goes belly-up. I think tcj.com’s main problem is simple, and perhaps unfixable — there’s no sense of editorial guidance. I have the highest regard for Gary, Michael Dean, Kristy Valenti, and Dirk. Individually and together, they know a ton about the industry, a ton about the internet, and a ton about putting a magazine together. For whatever reason, though, all that talent, knowledge, and dedication has so far added up to a site which seems to be running on autopilot. I mean…why not have themed weeks? Why not have roundtables? Why not have new interviews, for god’s sake — that’s what the Journal is known for, right? (And when you do have an interview why not include a paragraph or two of introduction so that people who don’t already know the interview subjects have some incentive to wade into the four part video?) Why not have Gary dive into that rolodex and get some creators to write pieces? Why not do something to make it seem like the energy that went into so many issues of the journal is being put into tcj.com? Everybody involved knows that a successful magazine needs enthusiasm, heart, and genius if anyone is going to want to read it, but nobody seems to have noticed that a successful website needs the same thing. The cosmetic changes are helpful and appreciated, but until and unless someone decides to treat this site as a personal labor of love, it’s not going to be worth the bytes it’s printed on. And bytes aren’t worth a hell of a lot.
Update: Suat has an even more brutal take here
Update 2: And Johanna Draper Carlson weighs in.
Just in case anyone thinks that this particular snarkfest brings me joy, I thought I’d mention that reading Suat and Johanna on tcj.com, as well as many of the comments here, makes me feel vaguely sick. I would like tcj.com to succeed anyway, but having tied my fortune to their wagon…well, let’s just say I keep hoping that things aren’t as bad as I think they are. Being continually disabused of that hope by a long line of folks whose opinion I value is not especially pleasant.
Update: And Heidi weighs in.