The purpose of this article is to provide you with informative tips and things to think about that may help you get your new electronic journal off on the right'¦screen. This new communication medium can seem overwhelming at first, but the goal is the same as always - communicate/disseminate/learn - soon it should seem like an old friend. Described herein are some quick do's and don'ts, tips and pointers, and questions that should help you get a jump-start and help make establishing an electronic journal an enjoyable and exciting venture, while keeping the technological downside to a minimum.
Key Words: Online journal, Internet Service Provider (ISP), bandwidth, hosting, connection, journal design, online journal costs, professionalism, planning
Some Do‘s and Don‘ts in Establishing Your Electronic Journal
Your online journal is the latest "hot project." And you are going to make it happen -- yesterday. This is not your ordinary print project - it has been decided to establish a World Wide Web presence, and you are the only one they trust to produce a journal that looks professional, is user-friendly, and works flawlessly.
You recognize that this is going to involve a new and quickly evolving technology. You also know that it might require substantial resource dedication -- above what is currently allocated. Even though existing skills will be called on, you and your staff will have to develop many new ones or identify an outside vendor that meets your standards.
...the communication goal is the same...
Producing an electronic journal for Internet use does require you to reshape your communication skills for the digital, three-dimensional "virtuality" of electronic information presentation. But the communication goal is the same as ever -- provide the audience the information they seek, in the format in which they need it, where they want to find it.
The purpose of this article is to provide you with some informative tips and things to think about that may help you get your project off on the right . . . screen.
Is This Being Treated Like a New Publication?
The home page of your journal is a launching mechanism to the remainder of what you should be thinking of as a publication -- the "home site," if you will. Like the cover of a book or magazine, the home page sets the tone and feel of your publication, and helps users to decide where they want to go first, if anywhere.
You want to first begin with an internal education process by referring to the project as "the journal, the new electronic publication." Just about everyone familiar with launching a new publication will quickly grasp the parallel concepts involved and will begin to appreciate the scope and magnitude of the effort (this is very important - more on this later).
To establish and maintain a viable publication, you must be able to inform your audience of the publication dates and stick to them. On some journals, we still see pages that haven't been changed for months. After the initial splash, without frequent updates, there is little to offer.
Plan as you would for a new publication: Outline at least three electronic "issues." Decide on what publication dates will be: daily, weekly, monthly, etc. Date things appropriately, and ask the user to refresh the pages according to your publication schedule.
What's the Plan?
The term home page is often used loosely. Heard this one? "Oh, my home page didn't cost me anything but my time and a couple of little software utilities that I downloaded for free."
Whoops. Unfortunately, that's what a lot of the decision makers are hearing and the go-ahead to create the home page may have been sold on a form of this misinformation. While the simplest home page -- essentially tiny electronic bulletin boards -- can be created cheaply, that's probably not the kind of full-scale journal site that you want.
Call a kick-off meeting to help define what your journal presence really will mean. What is the purpose and mission of your journal? If you have a computer on-line, this will accelerate your group's focus.
To an extent, we are in that ugly gray period when peer pressure is dictating that executives pretend they know something they don't. Oy.
Invite the major project players and do your best to ensure that they and/or their empowered designees attend. This is critical. Often those in the position to wreak the most havoc do not participate in the early stages and begin to exert their influence near the end of the deadline. Differing opinions should be bandied about early and molded into a solid, focused plan. To be honest, this is where I have experienced most problems. To an extent, we are in that ugly gray period when peer pressure is dictating that executives pretend they know something they don't. Oy.
Clearly discuss, identify, and describe the time and resources needed to get your journal on-line. Continue to refer to your journal as a publication, and try to get time and resource commitments for at least three issues. Be sure to cover the obvious questions: Who's the editor? Who's the Webmaster? The designer? Get everything in writing -- or summarize meeting results in written memos. Try not to get rushed.
Remember the User?
As with all good communication, the idea is to get your message across to the user so that it is clear, accepted and respected. Make sure that you don't get carried away with the excitement of creating the journal and forget that its purpose is to inform the user in an interesting way.
For starters, make sure that there aren't too many layers for the user to wade through, as people tend to forget where they are or to lose interest.
The most effective way to make sure the user's needs are kept uppermost in mind throughout the process is to designate someone on the team to represent the user and give him or her the respect and authority -- and appropriate computer equipment, software, etc. -- to really do so.
Are We Professionals?
Remember the desktop publishing revolution 12 years ago? Everyone wanted to set his or her own type and create his or her own "look"? I still have some "gee-whiz" examples that are amazing (and quite honestly, one of them is mine, but, alas, I was young) -- innumerable typefaces and fonts, clip-art everywhere, a general lack of design principles. Well, welcome to the World Wide Web.
While it may be as easy to create an electronic journal now as it was then to create a desktop publication, you should demand the same professional touch used currently to identify your agency in print. Design your home page and site in accordance with your agency's existing levels of excellence.
Who will Review/Look at this?
Nothing will help your electronic journal like an honest and savvy review team. Recognize that it will take extra time. Your review team may be in-house staff. Another possibility is to call on one of your very reliable and stable customers/friends. A side benefit: A customer is likely to develop a feeling of ownership of your journal and thus "buy into" the project early, which may help ensure a successful launch.
How will They Review It?
Your existing publication review procedures should fit in nicely here. Print out the developed pages. Treat them like proofs and route them through a review loop, with signatures and approvals all around. In-house, at least, do not accept verbal feedback. Try using the same sign-off acceptance sheets you currently use to ensure compliance and timely review of pages destined for print. This allows feedback to be easily -- and accurately -- reviewed by committees.
Is there Anybody Out There?
Allocate time and resources to make sure your journal can be viewed by your audience and does not contain flaws. Often, when the system is being run in-house, things will work that won't work at the user's site. Or, they will appear sooner at your site than theirs. To establish good benchmarks, test with a variety of monitors, browsers, and modem speeds. Your review team can help you begin testing early so that flaws can be identified and corrected as soon as possible.
Stage user scenarios by viewing the publication on a variety of computers configured in a variety of ways with different dial-up speeds (9,600, 14,440, and 28,800, etc.). I generally slot the average user as having a 28.8 band modem, 32MB of RAM, a 15" monitor set at 16 colors with 680 x 480 resolution (as luck would have it, my home computer configuration). If you look good with this configuration, you'll look good everywhere (even on a laptop).
What Are the Other Guys Doing?
Get connected... and take a good look
It makes sense that you and your team have the resources to view the World Wide Web and learn what the competition is doing. Get connected (if you aren't) and take a good look at the variety of pages from both your competition and the web in general. Take full advantage: print good, bad, and mediocre examples and distribute them to your team.
Can We Afford It?
The costs of developing and launching your journal should roughly equal the costs of developing and launching a new publication, minus the cost of the print run. Then add the Internet provider's bill, which should be less than a print run for a print publication would have been. (The average magazine publisher might spend $250 to $1,250 per month to maintain a site; this figure varies depending on disk space leased and throughput logged. There is usually a one-time set-up charge, which will probably roughly equal one month's payment.)
Can We Handle It In House?
We know that there are advantages and disadvantages to bringing any process in-house vs. having it done outside. A specific disadvantage to doing your Internet work yourself is that the learning curve for a truly professional piece is generally higher than anticipated. You may find yourself supporting a staff bogged-down in unanticipated development rework. Considering the usual excited anticipation and rush to get a journal site up, this can lead to some very unhappy campers crowding your doorway just when you should be celebrating your success.
However, the current technology is changing so rapidly that if you don't do it yourself you might not understand where the trends are and you'll have to depend on your supplier to keep you informed. Also, a supplier not familiar with your specific needs will probably bring a more parochial view to the effort than your own staff and may not grasp the nuances of your unique message(s).
Can We Trust Somebody Else?
In an industry that is very young, it seems that everyone is becoming a web expert. The pressure is on for many to do so. Plus, the potentially lucrative business opportunities have created an electronic land (or should we say site?) rush, where everyone is trying to claim the marketing high ground as quickly as possible.
Verifying the credentials of this plenitude of potential suppliers can be a trying process. Don't overlook your present print suppliers with whom you have already established relationships. See if they have made the technological move. The good ones will have the feel of the market and can grow with you, provided they have committed the resources and talent.
Then, as you consider them and other suppliers, the list of common sense things apply: Check their work. Talk to their customers. Ask if they have a customer advocate. Call them and try to get the line answered by a human being.
Can We Manage It?
When designing journal pages, use a modular design: i.e., develop your publication as a series of independent components that can be linked together and activated when they are complete.
This will help you allocate resources efficiently, because inevitably some components absorb more resources than anticipated, others less. This way you can shift your staff to where they are needed most, and you can continuously assign priority levels for each module.
Also, when something goes awry (and something always does during a new project), it won't necessarily stop the whole show and will allow you to have the site done on time.
Avoid "Under Construction" Areas
You wouldn't publish a newsletter with only half of the pages written, would you? Develop an announcement page of dates for new additions -- don't keep sending the user to pages labeled "under construction." It's frustrating, and many users will abandon you. They will also not have good things to say about the other pages.
Hold the Pixels, Please
Hold the Pixels, Please
Choose the graphics you will put up on your web site judiciously. The larger the file, the slower the download. While text files generally range from 2,000 to 6,000 bytes (2K to 6K) each and can be zapped over quickly, adding graphics to a page rapidly increases the file size. Graphics on web pages presently account for most of the time used to download pages.
Thus it's important not to overload a project with graphics: Many users flinch when they have to download files so large that they tie up minutes of their time -- especially when they don't know whether the content they are downloading will ultimately be worth the time spent. Many will simply abort and write off your page as too large to bother with. Or worse, they'll take the time but may be disappointed in the results.
Limit your home page graphic files to a maximum of 50K (less elsewhere throughout the journal), and that's at the very top of the "netiquette" range. Overall size for a downloadable page should never be more than 100K. Balance between a good graphic and the time a user has to download it is very hard to achieve. So you will have to test, test, test.
High Octane or Regular?
If you want to have, or simply must have to represent the scholarly information, really high-resolution graphics but don't want to offend the potential user, offer a "full" and "light" version of your publication. In all honesty, most users will choose the "full" version and be grateful for the courtesy of the warning (I personally have my browsers set not to load graphics; I'm generally after information).
Is There a Way Out?
When creating links from one document to another or within a series of documents, don't send users so deep that they forget where they started. Make it easy for them to return to the starting point by having appropriate links at the bottom of the page. Try to keep the publication to a maximum of four levels.
Where to Host Your Online Journal
While you can reasonably control all other aspects of an electronic project/journal, where your electronic message is "hosted" and the Internet connection upon which it is delivered can prove to be your biggest challenge. Due to the time and expense of establishing an in-house electronic delivery system, this is generally the only component of an electronic project that is always purchased from a vendor. By asking the right questions, you can improve your chances of finding a suitable delivery services provider.
Make sure your Internet provider's system is fast, secure, and easy to use. Choosing the wrong provider can make your life miserable (trust me on this). What good is the new journal if everyone is having trouble receiving it? Your audience will want instant gratification.
Internet Connectivity Providers
The Internet hosting systems of many providers -- big and small -- are constantly jammed, even those that have what appear to be the fastest and most sophisticated systems. A lot of these electronic snarls can be avoided if the provider keeps its system configured properly and has the resources to prevent internal users from fighting for band-width (their on-ramp to the electronic superhighway). Unfortunately, most providers, like the Internet itself, are growing too quickly to pause and proactively add and configure their systems in anticipation of growth and user requirements. It's not an inexpensive measure.
Public providers are the ones we hear of most, i.e., the big names - Your.Net and Our.Net, etc. Unfortunately, they are generally as electronically clogged as your worst freeway nightmare because they offer so many things to so many people. These systems often look good on paper, but, in actuality, your home page will have to fight continually with a cast of thousands for system resources - an electronic Kabuki dance, if you will. These providers generally provide the least expensive solutions.
Specialized providers configure their systems to maximize the delivery of the World Wide Web information. Where public providers have literally thousands of users, specialized providers maintain tight control over the allocations of system resources and how they are used. They are positioned to act more as your system administrator than a distant techie that doesn't know you. They generally provide more security and usage options, operate faster and more efficiently and have customer support staffs that actually answer the phone and are skilled at working through your problems (talking to a human being in these situations is becoming rare these days). This is, by definition, the more expensive solution (up front that is - experience teaches us otherwise).
Educational providers are a mix of the above - ask the questions below to identify where they stand. These days, an educational provider can be a godsend -- sometimes a lot less.
To identify the best provider for your needs, you're going to have to do some real research and testing (they're sprouting up like dandelions, and being acquired and merged daily), so place this task near the top of your project list.
Ask providers to visit you for the preliminary discussions and request that they bring along the technical person that will be in charge of your electronic project. If they have a problem setting this up or agreeing to it, look elsewhere.
Establishing an electronic journal is a big project and a serious one. It demands a good deal of resources, commitment and time. There is no doubt, however, that in the next few years we will see the number of electronic journals increase and the number of print journals decrease.
Ask the Provider These Questions:
- Get a thorough explanation of the systems. Talk to a provider's technical people if you can. Ask for a copy of flow diagram(s) -- how the provider's system works all the way to the Internet entry point. A good hosting service should be as close to the actual Internet entry point as possible. Does the company have its own Internet connection or is it leasing?
- Where will your files be placed on the host server? How many people will share the drive with you? Can you lease independent drive space where only your home page will reside? Most providers will stick you on a "public" drive that contains you and a multitude of others and promptly forget about you (until billing time).
- Ask if there have been any security breaches in the last year. If so, what kind? How much, if any, damage was done? What was done to rectify and avoid the situation in the future? What kind of security protocols does the provider use and how often are they enforced?
- Find out what kind of backup system(s) is used and how often your files will be backed up. Does the provider have an off-site backup system as well? Does the provider have a mirror system? A mirror system provides for continuous flow of your data by automatically backing up the main server. How much will it cost to recover your lost files?
- How many customers are on the system? How many different functions are available to those customers and how is the system configured to handle the various functions?
- What is the slowest component of the system? The system, like an army, will only be as fast as its slowest component. The slowest component will be your electronic bottleneck.
- Is the system in-house? Many providers are actually leasing space from a larger provider. This in effect puts your page in the same congested area that you are trying to avoid. Ask to actually view the system and see how the provider reacts.
- How efficiently does the system work at peak calling times? Will the provider give you copies of their system reports? If you can, of course, talk to their customers.
- What is your connection speed? The present "default" electronic delivery speed is at least 10 megabits per second (Mbps) -- six times faster than a T1 line. See if your provider can offer this service, and if the company is prepared to expand when the delivery speeds advance past 10 Mbps. If the answer to any of these questions is no, the company will eventually have to re-engineer the system (probably at your expense).
- Who else are you hosting? Ask for the home pages the supplier is currently hosting and review them. E-mail their webmasters and ascertain any trends in complaints. Monitor how long it takes to call a home page. If you keep receiving a message that the host is busy or that you have to wait for information, that generally indicates a serious bottleneck. Though some problems may be related to the home page author's design, if the information is constantly slow, suspect inherent system overload.
- Do you have a customer support staff? Finally, and perhaps of greatest importance, examine the company's customer support capabilities. Call and see how knowledgeable the staff are. Are they encouraged to build personal relationships and advocate theory? Are they patient? Do they have the time to take care of your problem? If you receive a recording that your call is being monitored, it's generally because the provider is making sure the technician is meeting stringent guidelines to get you off the phone quickly.
The majority of public providers promise that they will get back to you within 24 hours -- an eternity when you need something fixed or an explanation for your boss. When you need help, you want help. Make sure the provider's staff will be there for even the most simple questions while you're learning. Without professional customer support, everything is just fluff.
George West is Director of Online Services/New Media with the American Nurses Association (ANA). His information skills encompass the realm of the electronic knowledge/publications spectrum, including marketing, communications, and sales. A frontrunner in this field, he was Executive Editor/Publisher/Owner for one of the nation's first desktop newspapers, and created one of the first webpages (he currently has over 150 webpages in his portfolio). Prior to his current position with ANA, he included the development of the Harvard Educational Review to his portfolio of over 150 websites.