In March some friends and I attended the London Indie Media Fair, to promote our monthly new media meet up, and I had the chance to sit in on some workshops they were holding. The first I attended was “The Importance of Independent Media” by Anthony Verberckmoes, and while it didn’t explain how it was important, it did discuss how the “mainstream media” is sophisticated propaganda perpetuated by rich white men. It wasn’t a surprise to hear Anthony espouse these sort of views, independent media is often very critical of the way the mainstream media operates and even markets itself, despite some of the similarities between the two, but if independent media wants to gain acceptance as the news source of choice it could definitely benefit from these evil tools of the mainstream media; branding.
Branding the idea of independent and user generated media, capturing its diversity, and building a community around it is key to reach out to those who want to be able to identify sources of passionate and free voices. But better brands are needed, and they need to be better than anything mainstream has to offer before they can grow.
In this article I’m going to take a look at six of London’s most prominent alternative media sources online, and go over what they do well, where they could use some work, and where they fail.
The London Fog
Called one of the greatest South-Western Ontario blogs, “The London Fog” drew more then 200,000 view in the last 12 months; making it one of the most popular sites on this list. The sites team of seven authors “document the continuing mismanagement of London by its people and municipal government” filling the void as London’s right wing voice. It’s been so successful in this realm that more left wing sites like Alt-London and the London Commons regularly voice their hatred of “The Fog”.
The success of The Fog ends there however, the site has seen a number of visual updates since it’s launch in 2003, but it has yet to develop a solid brand stratagy, and hasn’t extended its aesthetics beyond some dull default templates offered by their host. So my first recommendation would be to move the operation to a self hosted wordpress install; developing a strong brand is a lot better when you don’t have dot blogspot attached to the end of your name. I’d also suggest capitalizing on some of the traffic they pull and monetize it.
The closest thing to a logo the site has is a picture of a flag, the city logo in gold on a field of red much like the old USSR flag. Using that as a starting point for logo development, and the suggestions previously mentioned a great brand could be formed here that could surpass anything else London has to offer currently.
The sites current design released in 2007 feels more like it was created in 1999. This is probably more due to the poor compression of the header image and the lack of sufficient breathing room on the page then anything else they’ve done. With a branding system based on the previously mentioned flag the site could easily pull off a more textured but subtle weathered look of Word War Two poster art.
At the very least I’d suggest pairing down some of the over 600 links they have to the left and right of each post to something more sensible, say 50 or less, create more visual and physical separation of the comments and time stamp links, and remove the grouping of posts by date and unnecessary hierarchical element they could easily do without.
The Fog is at a point that with a strong design and brand, could expand the sites reach and become self sufficient. Either way though, I can only see the site gaining more traction as people begin to pull away from the over-saturation of left wing campaigns.
London Commons is more of a community post it then an alternative source of media. None the less the sites most valuable contribution to the mediascape is its promotion of local events through the blog posts and the events calendar. The goal is to facilitate a more closely knit community by providing tools and resources to encourage cooperation and sharing, designed so that “any Londoner can become the media”. They also have some lofty five year goals described on their about page that include a print publication, a professional sound studio, organizing public swap meets, and becoming an Internet as well as a VoIP service provider.
The design is a big improvement over the last version, it’s much cleaner has more breathing room, and overall has a much less heavy feel. Unfortunately a few things from the old design were carried over and a few new issues arrived. The first and foremost is the organization’s logo; it’s generic, bland, boring. It clip art married with horrible typography, and doesn’t seem to represent or connect with anything else on the site or in their mission. They should seriously look at doing away with it and moving in a new direction entirely, especially if they are looking at branching out into all these different areas. Finding iconography that represents them and their future ventures may well be difficult for a group run by consensus, but a strong purely typographic logo might be easier, maybe something in Helvetica (neutral enough to get past design by committee), or something more daring like Gotham or Futura but still timeless. Either way it would be a great first step.
Another hold over from previous designs is the poor user interface, and the mystery meat navigation. Making the site difficult to navigate might be more the fault of their framework then the abilities of the staff, but the use of the pictographs for navigation in the top right is not. This sort of guess what the picture means navigation is a very poor choice, especially when only two out of the four somewhat represent their function.
The sidebar seems to be a hodgepodge of widgets trying to get your attention, lucky the most useful and important of these is at the top, and the somewhat superfluous extras below it. On some pages it almost blends with the content unfortunately, especially on the groups page where the content almost lines up perfectly with each event listing. Some better spacing between these elements might resolve that issue, but a look at what is needed in that bar, at what size, and what for, is warranted.
Another thing would be to not have the welcome message display on the homepage asking users to create an account if they are already logged in. But the overall design seems a bit haphazard, I like the colours, and think they could take the stylized urban imagery and run with it successfully, however in general its a bit underwhelming. The one page that looks really good is the Events page, the calendar is clean and isn’t obstructed by other elements looking for your attention, even though changing modes produces some undesirable results, and the name of the month could be much larger.
The word consensus is thrown around a lot describing how the operation is run, which is where I see trouble arising. Design rarely benefits from consensus, and to grow further I would advise they develop a board of directors who could be voted upon by the users (shareholders). Having one or two people in charge of a particular mission within the group and not always seeking consensus from everyone could improve the work flow and produce a stronger organization.
From My Bottom Step
From My Bottom Step has shot up out of nowhere in the last 12 months, while it was created in 2007 and contains articles from a previous site dating back to 2001, it seemed to be gaining a lot of momentum in the first quarter of 2008. Run by community activist Greg Fowler the site spear heads a number of issues in London surrounding pedestrian rights, accessibility, environmental concerns, public transit, and various issues in municipal politics. It also has a rather useful daily post highlighting some of the news in the region of interest to readers.
Recently the site has been conducting a survey of it’s users, showing signs that the site is at the very least transitioning to the next level to follow it’s growth. Greg has also opened the door for user submissions to the site and maintains a handful of regular contributors.1 However despite the addition of staff the site seems to be cooling down a little, while there are still great articles being published by contributors, Greg himself has slowed to a trickle in the last couple of weeks.
The sites design is fairly generic, making use of a default template provided by his provider. There is a significant amount of clutter in posts via share links, and the sidebar with a long blog roll. The photo for a logo at the top is something I’m used to by now, but I’ll be glad to see a change when it happens. Less focus on the more repetitive items like the comics and the daily news would be advisable as well.
Even with some change on the horizon for the site, without an increase in contributor’s or Greg picking up the pace, it might now continue to have the explosive growth it’s enjoyed without it’s creator at the helm.
Alt London was one of the first alternative media websites I came across after moving to London, it’s fairly well known but is the least useful. It’s not that the content, that ranges from Perez-Hilton style photoshop jabs to baseball scores, isn’t good. It’s the way it’s presented or rather the lack of presentation. It’s so poorly designed that it drives people away, and in a recent survey ranking local blogs tied for last place with the NortheastEnder. Broken RSS feed, the inability to create new accounts, and the most complimentary reaction about the site being that it wasn’t “The London Fog” are telling.
It’s by far the worst designed site on this list, there is no organization at all, everything seemingly thrown on the page without any thought. As a comparison the average page length of sites was about eight pages, where as AltLondon is a whopping twenty pages. Some design, any amount of all, would help this site get back on track and help regain some of it’s lost traction.
Indymedia - London Chapter
Indymedia is one of the most successful global independent media network; recognisable, adaptable, and easy to franchise. That reason alone puts London Indymedia on this list. However being part of a great brand hasn’t been able to make it a powerful presence in London’s mediascape. If The London Fog is London’s right wing, Indymedia is the extreme left wing; aggressively left wing, almost to the point of being counter productive.
The site is fairly bland, even for a site run on Drupal, and fails to take advantage of the equity built up by it’s parent organization. The information is clearly laid out though, mostly due in part to the use of a free theme. That isn’t enough though, and if the content continues to be more extremist and sparse on facts then the site isn’t going to be able to bring it’s message to a wider audience.
In a recent survey Blog London was at the top of peoples list. Inspired by sites like Freshdaily’s BlogTO, Bill Deys of Deys.ca fame started the site looking for authors to help post a couple of times a week about the happenings in London and upcoming events. It hasn’t really taken off in that regard, with about 3 authors posting semi-regularly, however it does manage to post some of the more unique stories and events going on when it does get updated. One of the best features is the feed offered, a mash up of numerous blogs in London and the surrounding area.
The overall design is what you’d expect of a very basic wordpress theme, nothing very flashy or too imaginative. The biggest issue with this design is the poor contrast, everything is a shade of the same green, even the logo gets lost in the header. There is also the issue of the numerous icons at the bottom of every post, which could be grouped into one icon. Reducing some of the clutter, fixing the contrast, and putting a bit more design muscle into the site would give it a fresh and clean look.
For the future of this site I think more focus on the mashup feed would propel it further. Possibly rather then the feed mash up, the site could import excerpts of the stories into the sites own content, linking back to the original story, and in the process produce better headline structures then the mash up feed currently offers. Making Blog London, the go to for all of London’s Blogs.
Two sites that didn’t make the list for one reason or another that I thought I’d mention are the London Free Press Blogs and the NortheastEnder.
Dan Brown’s blog at the London Free Press ranked very high in recent surveys, and rightfully so. The content is consistent and interesting, he is very interactive with his audience, and has generated such a loyal following that they have their own get togethers. The only negatives about this blog is the tiny page width and the various, much bemoaned, technical issues with the sites blogging platform.
The Northeastender is worthy of mention partly becuase I was instrumental in getting it funding and developing the concept with David Demitri of the Kipps Lane Community Association. I even did quite a bit of design work for the site that has been recognized by a few sites.
The city paid for the creation of the site under the Creative Cities initiative last September, hoping to create community involvement and promotion of Northeast London events and news. Unfortunately, as a result of the Northeastender, the city has decided it wont be funding any other web based projects. It’s been marred by very little original content, failed to attract contributors, and has been known to delete opposing viewpoints in comments going so far as to delete entire posts to squash any decent from people the site was supposed to be for. Pushing the community apart rather then bringing it together.
The site technically and conceptually is broken, navigation elements move around when you try to select them, the structure of the content is poorly thought out, and the organizational structure is haphazard at best. It’s a shame becuase it had great potential to become a major player in Northeast London with some guidance, but focus shift and the recent fire the site has taken for it’s censorship policies and the cities reaction have made the site a non competitor in the mediascape.
London has over 3,000 blogs, and some of those are hungry to displace the blogs in this list. Maintaining their position as the go to sources for alternative media in London might not be as easy as it has been, which is all the more reason to make some changes and propel themselves forward.
- I am currently a contributor on this site, and will be helping to make some changes in the future. [↩]