From my archive – 2001: Communications with nobody: is anybody out there?

24hm01-revised

Paper for CULT 2001 conference, October 2001, Copenhagen

By Jon Pratty

Image: homepage of 24 Hour Museum website in 2007

[This paper was written for the first conference I attended for the 24 Hour Museum website [now Culture24] which I ran as Editor from January 2001 to August 2007. This was the first chance I had to roll out my ideas for applying journalistic practice into the GLAM sector. I think a lot of this still has relevance and currency now. I am reproducing it exactly as I wrote it, and as it was published in the proceedings, which are still on-line as a pdf.]  

My name is Jon Pratty, I’m a journalist. I’m editor of the 24 Hour Museum website, which is a UK national portal dedicated to getting people to visit museums galleries and heritage sites all over Britain.

The site has been online since May 1999 and is funded by the UK Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) through their agency Resource (formerly the Museums and Galleries Commission) and ultimately therefore by Government.

Our homepage has a busy news section, updated every day if possible, plus we write features and interactive webtrails. We are a charitable organisation. We have a searchable database of over 2500 museums and galleries all over Britain. Unlike Culturenet Denmark we do not help people digitise their collections.

What do I bring to this organisation? Well, I just joined the organisation this March. For the past five years or so I’ve been working on national newspapers: a professional journalist in busy newsrooms, writing features and finding stories: from local papers to the Sunday Times to the Daily Telegraph.

From technology to arts, from engineering to energy stories. I’ve also got lots of experience working on the web – I’m a writer on a wide variety of sites, from the British children’s site Schoolsnet to T2 on the Daily Telegraph, from Vnunet.com to Britain’s leading over 50’s website – Vavo.com.

So I hope I bring skills new to the 24 Hour Museum organisation: not just experience of how things should be written, but also front-line knowledge of what makes the average reader tick. What would a newspaper journalist think of the 24 Hour Museum? I’ll be honest here and say that when our new management team took over the 24 Hour Museum project (in March 2001) from my point of view, the site was at best, just treading water.

At worst, it wasn’t talking the same language as the people it professes to reach out to – the general public. And I’d like to say I think this is a problem across the whole museums, gallery and heritage internet sector.

My first realisation on getting the editorship was that we needed to increase regularity of site updates – no-one would buy a newspaper if it had the same stories every day – so why should public facing sites such as ours not be updated regularly?

To begin with, I went to weekly updates, (from two weekly) and now we are getting close to updating every other day. Don’t forget that updating is not just putting up new stories – it’s also housekeeping and archiving and updating database entries etc.

Updating regularly is a spectacular drain on personnel resources – so I am now working with young student journalists in our office to add extra content. In return for writing for us, they get to see their names on the web and are given some advice on writing, some mentorship, and a reference to put on the CV. We get more content. We have been doing this for five months also with web design students.

Visitors to our website can see current examples of student design work in our trail section on the site: ‘Streetstyle’ and the ‘Toy Trail’ were both designed as final year student projects. My second plan is to review the language of the site – in the past it sounded as if it was written for the museum sector – not the public. We aim to use plain English. Not art critical language. I don’t understand it – and I’m not Einstein. But I’m a graduate, with a post-grad qualification, and I know my bullshit from my bullshine.

Don’t take this lightly – only plain English and good stories will grab the eye before web viewers click away elsewhere and you’ve lost them. Flick through a newspaper in a few minutes. Some of us just look at the pictures. Some just look at the crossword. And some really odd people even look at the financial pages.

But if the page you see doesn’t contain the stuff that grabs your eye in the first ten seconds (or probably less!) then you turn over. Why is this important? It’s vital right now. It seems to me that we’ve all been avoiding the word statistic for the last two days of the conference. As a newspaper editor I would be sacked for not considering what the readers want when I plan the edition. Many cultural portals seem to be more concerned with quality of digitisation than whether the end result will ever be looked at.

The stats are important: we get around 160,000 page impressions a month. We suspect that statistics may in reality may be higher, as we can’t get our site indexed by search engines that easily, because it is generated by a dynamic database. A fix for this problem is being looked at by our software engineers, SSL.

The third part of our plan is to redesign the site : the essence of our approach to redesigning is to go back to the first principles of Neilsen: simplicity everywhere. We are stripping out the filler that the first generation of the site was littered with. There’s less extraneous functionality. No scapbook. No shopping basket. No personalised browsing experience, based on the last time you visited.

Nobody wants that stuff. To the public it’s extra complexity – they go blind when they see it. We want to grab them with ever-changing content, then take them straight to the museum they’ve asked for, which we have 2600 in our database, to see an artist they like, or find an event.

Our database now grows itself. We have a simple online form, accessed by password, which allows any museum anywhere to build a record, a web page, live on our update site. Last week we officially rolled this out after a pilot with 25 museums. 500 museums were emailed, and we have now around 80 extra museums inputting data about events, opening times and so on. There are lots more to reach, but we are pleased with progress so far. This is a free service.

My job, as I see it, is now to use mass publishing techniques to get real stats and real feedback from the public. To get bigger numbers through the doors. To make a worthwhile web experience too. Not a worthy one, a fun one.

What will we do from now on?

1. We will use simple language.

2. We will update so much you’ll have to visit every day just to read the stuff and disagree!

3. We will use the resources we have better. We’ll make our dynamic database searchable by more webcrawlers.

4. We’ll open more windows onto our database, use all it can do, instead of spending more money on something more complicated, and therefore worse.

5. We’ll do all we can to make partnerships, make links and do silly things like our Harry Potter trail (launching October 29)

6. We’ll try to remember what fun is, and we’ll try to do it!

Jonathan Pratty

[Formerly] Editor, 24 Hour Museum

References

1. 24 Hour Museum Goes Live [May 1999, BBC, website, sampled 23.04.2013] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/342954.stm

2. Communications with Nobody – is anybody out there? [October 2001, CULT 2001 proceedings, .pdf, sampled 23.04.2013] http://cult.kulturnet.dk/pt3.htm

3. 24 Hour Museum – from past to future [July 2007, Ariadne, website, sampled 23.04.2013] http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue52/pratty

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About Jon Pratty

Human - for now
This entry was posted in Journalism, Museums and the Web, On-line publishing, Writing for the Web. Bookmark the permalink.

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