On the road to Oz

Taking the digital challenge

Anniversaries are about celebration but they should also be a time for reflection on the good, the bad and the ugly. This issue is filled with the good, including deserved tributes and acknowledgment of the work that Executive has done and continues to do. The bad and ugly, however, have been our approach to the internet. Analyzing our own digital experiences is a necessity, even if only to understand where we went wrong. We’ve had a website since 2004, but at first we viewed it more as an extension of the magazine than a platform deserving of its own care and attention. Issues went online all at once, the site got a monthly facelift with new content, and there was even a drop-down menu allowing readers to choose which issue they wanted to peruse. The drawback, of course, was that if you didn’t know in which issue we covered a certain topic, chances were you were never going to find it.

We knew this was a problem, but fixing it proved no easy task. Twice in 10 years, we redesigned the site. Our lack of in-house resources meant we could either pile an inhumane amount of work on our one qualified employee or farm the project out. Farm we did, but the results were less than ideal. The re-designed site went live in September 2012, much later than promised. By mid-2013, we realized that our site’s 2011 design already looked old and was far too heavy to easily load in Lebanon’s internet environment (download speeds, remember, were actually a bit slower back then).

Our goal in moving online was – and remains – finding more readers who appreciate our content

Sitting together over a cup of coffee, the editorial team drew up – literally on the back of a napkin – ways to re-work our website in-house. We were so impressed with the new capabilities of inexpensive digital solutions that hit the markets around that time that we even toyed with the idea of reversing our publication philosophy by going online first (meaning our print magazine would be a “best of” compilation of stories we’d written and published during a given month).

It didn’t take long, however, before we ran into not just one but several barriers on the road to being digitally savvy. The first problem related to talent. Producing Grade A content is what we are committed to doing, and we refused to compromise on that. While we had a talented team who gave their all, it was a small team. Writing quality stories, editing them and publishing them on two platforms (print and online) was more than we could handle, not to mention the fact that proper digital content management itself needs a dedicated team, not two people who are multi-tasking at all times to keep up with their other responsibilities. Going online first would have meant either writing very short articles or having a team of writers in the double digits, as the in-depth reporting and analysis we offer takes weeks of research and writing to produce. Our goal in moving online was – and remains – finding more readers who appreciate our content, not changing our content to match Twitter trends in a cheap effort to increase traffic to our site.

We know that our future is online or bust. A perfect example of why we need to do digital, and do it right, is our wealth of content. We have an archive stretching back over 15 years. It’s a chronicle of this country’s development, a first draft of Lebanon’s recent history to borrow the second most famous cliche about journalism (the first being its practitioners are all drunks). We should be monetizing our archives. But we also need to be prudent. Recent history offers several examples of assumed sure-fire digital concepts that blew up in the faces of those who tried them – see the 2000 America Online-Time Warner merger or the 2011 iPad-only newspaper The Daily which folded after less than two years but cost an estimated $50 million. With our own small taste of failure on a seemingly simple website project between 2011 and 2013, we’re being cautious with our human and financial investments into online going forward. But we are moving forward.

Matt Nash

Matt is Executive's Economics & Policy Editor. He has been reporting on Lebanon since 2007 with a focus on oil and gas, policy and legal matters.

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