Clean, visually enhanced and tight are the words Xtra publisher and editor-in-chief Brandon Matheson uses to describe the new design of the Daily Xtra website that will be unveiled this spring.
Matheson says the press has learned a lot since the construction of Daily Xtra, which went live on June 27, 2013.
In reviewing the data about the interactivity of the site and how people use it, he says, it became clear that a lot of content went unseen. In a bid to address that issue, some of the content was then posted in more than one of the five markets — Canada, the world, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver — resulting in readers seeing the same stories in the different sections they browsed on the website. “It’s not a huge problem, but it’s just not your optimal user experience,” Matheson says. What’s been missing is a dedicated page where all the site’s content appears to the reader, he says.
The new Daily Xtra will feature a stand-alone, customizable home page, meaning users will be able to select the content they want to see from the various markets and eliminate “the clutter.”
“Somebody might only choose to see Vancouver and Canada news, or Vancouver and world news, and that’s what’s presented to them,” Matheson says. While there won’t be huge shifts in the content covered, he says, it will be presented more cleanly and with enhanced visuals to engage more readers more easily. Community news from Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver will still be a key focus of dailyxtra.com, as will coverage of international and national news.
There will also be a push to share Daily Xtra’s stories more effectively through social media and even to publish some content directly to social media channels, he says, since he doesn’t always expect readers to come to the website. “The same way we have used YouTube to reach audiences that do not visit DX,” he says, “we’re going to expand social media activity to eventually include some other types of social media content targeted to audiences, whether that be a special Instagram channel, whether it be a Tumblr feed, whether it be how we change and use Facebook.”
Prior to the new release of Daily Xtra, a mobile version of the site will be unveiled; it will be an exact reflection of the desktop site.
For readers who are concerned that the shift to a web-only presence means the end of investigative and feature pieces, Matheson says another site update following the spring launch of the new Daily Xtra is in the works.
“High on my priority list is to develop new story templates that allow us to do long-form journalism in the same sort of way,” he says. “We’ve never stopped doing that. Every piece of long-form journalism we’ve produced in the last number of years for the papers has also gone online, but I think there’s opportunities to find more engaging ways to tell or present stories to readers, because long-form stories do require a certain amount of commitment and we have to find ways to make them work on mobile devices and websites.”
One of the perennial challenges for Daily Xtra, and other media sites, is what to do with the rough-and-tumble nature of the online comments section, a source of frustration to many readers. “The one thorn in people’s side when it comes to comments,” Matheson says, “is how fast the stream of comment around a story can veer away from that story — completely — to the point where it’s not even focused anymore on why people are there, and then overwhelmingly some nasty tone emerges among people, and often about issues that are not even connected to what the story is.”
Matheson says he doesn’t have “a complete answer” regarding the future of the comments section. “That doesn’t make me feel bad because media organizations that have vast resources compared to us don’t have the answers either,” he adds. Queerty is spending large amounts of money to figure out the comments quandary, while heavy hitters like The Washington Post and The New York Times are looking for their own solutions, he says. “It’s just one of the interesting elements of what is going on in the online world that nobody has really corralled and has come up with that magic of an amazing comments system that weeds out what you dislike about it and keeps what you like.”
Asked if the comments section will eventually be dropped from Daily Xtra, Matheson would say only that he questions the value of having that element on the site and points to debates and discussions unfolding organically on social media platforms. He finds the tenor of the discussion on Facebook, for instance, more civil and of a better quality. He notes, however, that a lot of the commentary about stories is happening not on Daily Xtra’s Facebook page, but on the personal pages of people who are sharing content from Daily Xtra.
“I think it takes a different tone, because everyone’s page is almost like another little community. Not that you don’t see people disagreeing, but it doesn’t usually devolve into the vitriol that often happens on a website.”
He says he’s not concerned that social media sites like Facebook will eventually compete too directly with digital journalism. “It’s fine for stories to break or exist on social media and to have a certain level of citizen journalism around it, but journalists doing what Xtra does will always bring other information, other aspects, other perspectives to the story.”
What does concern him is the censorship imposed by corporations whose rules are not always in the best interest of the gay community. “Large corporations that run social media where a lot of the discussion and the debate is happening are controlling to some degree what people post and what they don’t allow people to post. I think, in general, that’s more problematic and [over] the long term may pose a larger risk than citizens who consider themselves to be citizen journalists, even if they don’t use that term to describe themselves.”
Asked about die-hard print readers who may be reluctant to get their news online, Matheson says that sentiment doesn’t surprise him; he professes to be a print lover himself. Still, he argues, gay and lesbian publishing, which is already a marginal business, is not immune to what’s happening in the media landscape, including declining ad revenues and rising production costs. “A move to a completely all-digital strategy just makes sense,” he says, pointing out that the press has had an online presence for a long time. Daily Xtra replaced xtra.ca, which went live in 1998.
Matheson says he’ll be sad to lose any print reader but points to the readers who are already “embracing us in digital,” some of them long-time print readers. “Xtra is still going to be there doing the work it’s doing with our unique content and our voice, and we hope that people come along for that.”