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Kent Ward-By-Ward … Idea: A+, Execution: B-/C+

OK. I know I talk a lot about the Daily Kent Stater, even now. For a long time, my life revolved around it, and watching StaterOnline continue to bloom is a favorite hobby of mine, especially as I watch students I worked with, and in many cases hired and trained, grow into awesome journalists.

I also know many of them are reading this blog, and therefore I’m going to preface my discussion below with the disclaimer that my criticism is only to help me understand what I did and didn’t like about the Ward By Ward project, and also perhaps give you a little guidance on what could be improved upon for next time.

Idea: A+

First, to all the reporting public affairs students and Stater staffers who worked hard on the project: I love the idea. I give the idea an A+. Breaking down the RPA coverage into wards was a great idea. I’m sure it gave the students more depth of knowledge to cover issues in one neighborhood for a semester rather than the hit-or-miss intiation I got rotating among the cops/courts, city, education and county beats when I took the class.

It’s also helpful to Kent State students, many of whom will spend four years there and never venture farther off campus than the bars downtown. I spent three and a half years there, covered the city/campus and even edited the Stater, and I still couldn’t tell you what the most pressing issues are to residents in each of the wards. Hell, I probably couldn’t point out which area at least two of those wards covered. So awesome idea, guys.

Presentation: B-

The entry page is well presented. Though it’s not exactly the most interesting design I’ve ever seen, it is effective and doesn’t overwhelm me with choices. The text on the side succinctly sums up the project, who created it, why and what you’ll find. The map quickly pinpoints where each ward is. (One gripe, for some reason the marker titles are hidden by default. This makes you have to roll over each point to see which ward it is. I also would have liked to see some way to label the campus location on the map.)

The content in the windows for each ward seem forced and definitely not intuitive. My initial reaction was to click the photo. This only brought up the larger photo, which brings up the point, why advertise “View Photos” if there’s only one? And why were the specific photos chosen for this role. Seems to me you could have taken maybe the most definitive five or so from the audio slideshows (or the other photos that didn’t make that cut) and used them in this role. Instead, I click through and wait for it to load only to see a larger version of the so/so photo out front. Also, the text “Click the above title “Ward 1″ to read about residents there.” gets kind of lost, and if you’re going to point that out anyway, why not offer a link there, too. The “Click here for a multimedia slideshow about ward 1” also gets kind of lost there at the bottom, even though it seems the most important portion of the package. There’s also the add a comment field that, maybe just because it’s empty now, seems silly. Why not send them over the discussion boards and probe readers with questions? Or send them to a survey? Why not give them links to the City of Kent Web site to find out more about each Ward?

Slideshows/stories: C+

The slideshows would have improved at least one letter grade with the simple addition of one thing: the voice of the residents. I kept waiting for it and anticipating it. But not one of the slideshows had the voice of a real person. It was all the reporters talking about how “several people I talked to said” or “one woman mentioned.” I know there’s at least one audio recorder at the Stater we bought last semester and several more back in the photo lab, surely the reporters could have taken them out with them. It also seems the scripts for the slideshows could have been better planned. I like the casual feel of the talk, but it was punctuated in several of the slideshows by a few too many ums or was a bit disjointed, as if “Oh yeah, I’m supposed to talk about XXX now.” (Kudos to the Ward 2 team, which seemed to have the right idea.)

Also, each of the slideshows opens up in a window away from the main package without a link back. You have to use your back button. AND, what’s up with the one ward (Ward 1) randomly including video and being packaged in a different format? Weird.

Also, the photos in the slideshow left a lot to be desired. I know the reporters took the photos, but come on guys, you all took photo basics, yet a lot of the pictures came across as hastily captured snapshots. The idea to capture the different spots in the ward is good, but at times I felt like I was watching my photo screensaver on my computer randomly choose photos to throw up every four or so seconds. The only time I didn’t feel that way was the opening slide, which were well presented, and when the photos were forced into matching what the reporters were saying a little too much, it reminded me of a post by Angela Grant about writing your audio to match your images not the other way around. (Best example I can remember of this is when the reporter talks about there being tattoo parlors in downtown and it immediately flashes to two shots of the fronts of two tattoo places.)

The stories could have used context and been more interesting to look at and better organized. When I click, it sends me into another window, away from the main package and with no obvious way back to the main package. Don’t do that! The parts of such packages should each be clearly identified as being a part of the package. You just spent 15 weeks compiling everything, and only together does it truly convey the story you’re trying to get across. So, don’t leave me stranded and wondering if I’m in the right place. Take a look at Ward 6. That is page you get when you click through to read about the residents. It’s well and dandy. But give me a headshot if nothing else, so I can place a face with the name. The reporters, again, could easily have taken a camera with them, and several of them must have because there are photos of these people dropped into the audio slideshow. And why not just videotape the entire interview, pull a headshot from the video and give readers the option of hearing the person tell their own story without the reporter filter?

What could have been added

I see this project as a great opportunity to continue adding on. If each crop of RPA students focuses on wards this way and adds a bit more knowledge to the base each semester, it wouldn’t take long to have a fairly comprehensive guide to the city. Here’s a few quick ideas off the top of my head:

It might have been interesting to draw people into the project in a more creative way than a banner above the headlines at StaterOnline (which could be easily overlooked, especially considering its resemblance to an ad). One way that would be interesting? Give students an interactive survey. There are a number of ways you could go about it. Multiple choice questions such as, “Which Ward contains the most students/student housing?” or “What two wards cover the KSU campus?” or others about content in the stories/slideshow: “In which Ward do residents worry about the closure of a long-time grocery store?” or “Where can you find the most parks/bars/schools per capita?” Or something along those lines. Want to refer to the project in the paper? Put this quiz or a few questions from it on the front page and send readers online for the answers.

This project is almost too heavy on the real person/reporter’s take. What about the city council members, police chief, business owners? What do they see as the most pressing issues in their wards? What are residents calling to complain about this week? A video interview with the council members, for instance, would have a cinch to grab and would have added to the overall package.

But aside from that, I’d like to have seen some data on the wards or at least a breakout box about each ward‘s quirks and character. How many people live there? Who are they? What businesses are in the area? Is it mostly rentals/student housing? What types of crime are most frequent? What are the major landmarks in the area? Streetwise/neighborhood wise, where does it cover? Also, who is the council representative and how do you contact him/her?

Overall: B

A solid B, going by Kent’s own plus/minus grading calculations, and a well-earned one at that.

Could the project use improvement? Definitely. There’s a lot of room to grow and a lot of polishing to apply.

But what it boils down to is that each of those kids is still learning. Several of them will be handed a diploma next weekend, and nearly all of them, whether interning or beginning jobs, will head off to a newsroom this summer. It’s not necessarily important that this project, a first for the Stater, be spit-shined to perfection. What’s really important is that they’re doing it at all. And for that, they definitely deserve an A for effort.

One Response to “Kent Ward-By-Ward … Idea: A+, Execution: B-/C+”

  1. Tara Pringle Says:

    Yeah Meranda, I do agree with you. I was really excited to do the project, but the end result is not what I had in mind.

    I think Ryan did a great job putting everything together. I want to sit down with him and pick his brain. But I did think the package
    was missing a lot of links back to content. I got lost frequently while trying to access the different portions and I knew what was all supposed
    to be on there.

    Our team did, in fact, interview our councilman and videotaped it. I wonder where that is? TV2 site maybe? I dunno.

    But overall, great comments. You have amazing insight.