Q&A with John Conway, general manager of WRAL.com

John Conway is general manager of WRAL.com in Raleigh, N.C. Before making the move to online journalism in the 1990s, he worked as a reporter at newspapers in Greensboro, N.C., and Orlando, Fla. In this interview, conducted by email, Conway discusses the recent overhaul in WRAL’s digital operations.

Q. Why is WRAL redesigning its website?

A. It has been seven years since the last major redesign of WRAL.com, and a lot has changed in that time. Web technologies have changed, connection speeds have increased, and content consumption patterns have changed. There also has been a proliferation of new devices (tablets, “phablets” and phones) in a dizzying array of sizes.

We had been following some of the early adopters of responsive design, most notably The Boston Globe. We saw a lot of merit in a build-once strategy that works on all current devices, as well as ones that have yet to be sold. It is important that users of our site have the best possible experience of our content and advertising, regardless of how they are accessing it.

So in 2012, we committed to launching a responsive redesign of WRAL.com in late 2013/early 2014, and we did that. We launched an internal beta version in early December and a public beta in mid-December.

Q. What are some of the major changes, and what has been the reaction from readers?

A. We wanted to create a world-class user experience across platforms — desktop, tablet and mobile. That started with a close look at our analytics to see what content was most popular. We also did heat-map testing to see where users focus on key pages as they are browsing. That helped inform changes to our navigation, which we streamlined.

Another key goal was to declutter the site, especially the homepage. So one of the first things you notice is more white space.

We also wanted to get more content above the fold. We did that by adopting a three-column design for desktop users, along with introducing what we call the “mega menu.”  The large drop-down menu allows users to preview content throughout the site. Discoverability of content is a key challenge for content-rich sites like ours, and we think the mega menu will help visitors find our best stories, video, photos and special features.

Users will notice other trends, such as the use of larger photos on section fronts and story pages, in-line video at the top of stories and a persistent toolbar for sharing, commenting and controlling fonts.

We also worked a lot on making pages load faster. That was tricky because of all the Javascript needed for the responsive design, but our technology team did a nice job of compressing and optimizing the code.

We also added an Amazon-like recommendations engine that is based on the reading patterns of individual users. If you read, for example, a lot of UNC and business stories, you will see more of those stories in the Recommended feed in the right column of most pages.

I have been through five site launches and redesigns at WRAL.com, and the reaction to this redesign has been fairly consistent with others. Some people love it; others prefer the old design. We’ve heard from people who like our cleaner, more modern design. Many have said that the site is easy to navigate. We’ve also heard from those who say why fix what isn’t broken.

We understand that change can be difficult, especially for heavy, loyal users who have grown accustomed over seven years to accessing content in a very particular way. That’s why we developed a number of tools to help frequent visitors make the transition. Those tools include a new Help Center and a guided, interactive tour of the new features, plus a video tutorial and blog posts.

Q. News and information are increasingly going mobile. What is WRAL’s approach to attract readers who use tablets and smartphones?

A. The responsive design is a key element of our mobile strategy. We think users should have a choice when accessing our content on mobile devices.

They can have a great experience of the rich WRAL.com site on the device of their choice, or they can opt for a tailored experience from one of our mobile apps for iOS and Android devices. (We have a news app, iPad-only app, weather forecast app, severe weather app, high school sports app, local entertainment app and an arrest photos app.)

With a surge in mobile search, it is important to lead users seamlessly from mobile search results to the mobile-optimized content. And now virtually our entire archive since 1996 will look good on any device. No more squinting or pinch zooming required.

Q. The Triangle region of North Carolina is a competitive market for news, including The News & Observer and WTVD. How does WRAL’s digital efforts compare with other news organizations?

A. We have strong local competitors. And increasingly, strong national pure plays are trying to make inroads in local markets. So we have to be on top of our game at all times.

Our competitors are increasing their investments in digital, which is leveling the playing field. That’s why we have beefed up our editorial, marketing, technology and sales staffs. It’s why we have one of the few local TV sites in the country with an investigative reporter and database researcher/reporter focused on digital content. It’s why we hired former ECU coach Steve Logan and former newspaper sports columnist Caulton Tudor to contribute to our sports properties (TV radio and Web).

As for how we stack up, media measurement firms such as Scarborough and The Media Audit show us having 2x to 3x leads over our nearest competitors. The Media Audit’s latest survey of the Raleigh-Durham market showed that 54 percent of adults visit WRAL.com at least once a month. Only one other local media outlet in the country had a higher penetration rate.

Q. Journalism is in a era of transition and disruption. How can today’s journalism students best prepare themselves for what’s ahead?

A. It used to be that strong reporting, writing and editing skills were all that mattered for writing and editing positions on the Web. Today, we’re looking for applicants who are more than one dimensional.

We still want those strong writing skills, but we also benefit from applicants who can shoot and edit photos and video, create interactive graphics or manage multiple social media accounts. Some experience analyzing data is useful. And while you are juggling all of those tasks, we need you to be accurate and fast.