There is nothing blatantly wrong with the current Daily Texan website. It does the bare minimum, is for the most part responsive across all devices and it houses a powerful collection of archives. So why does everyone who works there hate it?
For one, it doesn’t lend any flexibility to creating new types of multimedia content. To really showcase the diverse work students at the Texan are doing, the website needs to be as much of a blank slate as the pages are in InDesign when the paper is laid out everyday. It also was not built with the workflows of the newsroom in mind. During my time at the Texan we tried rearranging the production schedule, department structure, and even physical layout of the newsroom to make it work, but the website should be adjusted to fit the organization, not the other way around.
Any student that has worked at the Texan is familiar with long hours, a fast-paced environment and little to no compensation, but in the end it is all worth it because you gain work experience you can’t find anywhere else on campus. For the web team, this doesn’t hold true. You can only learn so much from a site you have no means of changing, and you don’t have any clips to show for your work at the end of the day. Because of limited resources your realm of possibility is not as open as it is for everyone else working at the Texan.
As the Digital Director of the Texan I set out to change this. I thought surely with the vast amount of computer science talent we have on this campus, it would only be a matter of finding the right people and building a good team. The problem is hiring UT computer science students is what every other company in town, and in the world for that matter, is trying to do. The people we could afford, the ones willing to work for little to no compensation, often didn’t have the caliber of skills we needed to pull off a professional-looking product. They were many who were eager to learn and actively looking for experience, but the people that already had the skills we needed were being offered high paying jobs as part time developers from companies we couldn’t compete with.
The only resource we really had going for us was passion. The passion that came from knowing that there was something so wrong about a student newspaper that delivers a better print product than online product in this day and age. We knew the places students go the most to find out what’s happening on campus were the ones we receiving the least amount of attention and that had to change. We truly believed the student body deserved better ways to get information. Unfortunately you can’t completely overhaul a website with passion alone.
I’m willing to bet that I dedicated more hours than anyone has to trying to figure out the answer, and after two years I still came up empty-handed. Sometimes I would find myself thinking there has to be an easier way. Maybe the tools we were using were too complex. Maybe we could simplify and minimize the process somehow, but now I know it’s not about the tools at all. We will never find out which tools work and which tools don’t until we have the resources to give them an honest chance. Using Drupal or WordPress or any other option out there will not fix the fact that we can’t get a team of people to stick around because we can’t afford to pay them for the long hours, weeks, and months required for projects like this.
In the current environment at TSM, investing in a website never gains enough support because there is no feasible way to monetize it or gain a return through online ads right now. Also, investing in online initiatives is always at odds with sustaining the monstrous costs of printing the paper. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts when it comes to the success of The Daily Texan brand, and the benefits it will gain from a better online presence are not the kind that can be entered into a balance sheet. The way I see it to really get an online product we’re proud of that does justice to the great journalism done at the Texan there are two options: contracting the project out to a full-service web design agency or building an in-house team of full-time web designers and developers at Texas Student Media that leaves room for students who are interested in learning about the process. I urge the Texas Student Media Board to not dedicate a single dollar to the website unless they can dedicate every dollar the project needs. Any shortcut or funds thrown at the website here and there will just be a drop in the bucket. Ultimately it will not make a noticeable difference or produce a site much better than the one there is now. I know because I spent two years trying. If TSM truly wants an innovative, revolutionary experience online now is the time to get serious or get out of the business completely and figure out how to live with what we have.
I by no means am trying to say no progress has been made digitally at The Daily Texan. We’ve seen our social media accounts grow exponentially, we’ve done original data-driven interactive pieces, we’ve been given some great mentors in this new media space, and more students than ever before have had a chance to learn online tools used at publications in the real world. More can always be done to take it to the next level though. As I come upon graduation this May, I can’t help but wonder if I could have done better somehow to really make a lasting difference when it comes to digital media opportunities for students at UT. I’ve come to realize the only thing I failed at was not persuading the people who make the decisions to value my work and the work of all the wonderful students who stuck along for the ride as much as I do. The technology is just as vital and valuable as the journalism. Let’s find a way to invest in them both.
Fick is a public relations senior from Montgomery. She was digital director of the Texan until December 2013.