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The LaLa Times

Evolution of a News Satire Site

FEATURES | DEC. 12, 2005

In 2002, I moved with my family down to L.A. from Seattle. California was a trip, and Los Angeles was the epicenter of absurdity. But nobody was seriously making fun of California; something wasn't right in Lalaland. So I took it upon myself to fill the void. (I never intended to run a satire site. Does anyone?)

I waded into the murky waters of web design, and promptly proceeded to drown. Fortunately, my comely, closet-geek wife took pity on me, jumped into the fray and The LaLa Times got off the ground. Collectively, we were naive enough to figure: Why shouldn't we be able to do this web site thing ourselves? After all, we had no qualms about blindly jumping into marriage and child-rearing.

I wrote content and got familiar with the myriad details of putting the issues together, continuing to hone the site design after my wife burnt out on it. The overhead was cheap (url name registration and web hosting) but the toll was high (time and energy).

At a certain point, you have to take a leap of faith and treat the site as a viable business.

Tip: Spend the time to research and get the appropriate software to build your site; after all, you'll be spending more time than you can imagine with it, so it'd better be a good fit. Or hire someone from the get-go who knows what they're doing; there's wisdom to knowing what you can't do as well as what you can do. Without knowing it, however, our initial choices led us down a dead-end street.

The site's size was rendering it unmanageable. If I wanted to add something to the site, or make changes (i.e. a color or element in the design), I'd have to make that change on every single page. That, in and of itself, is enough to make a person sorry they ever embarked upon the static path. At the same time, our group email lists had grown to the point where mailings were regularly timing out and crashing. We needed to make all aspects of the site easier to create and deliver.

Then there was the sense that we weren't taking advantage of what the online medium had to offer. Flash ads, polls, animated comic strips, short film clips, and refreshing content were all things we weren't doing. We were a print version of a publication that happened to be online. With piecemeal changes here and there, the site was looking unprofessional around the edges: if we wanted to be taken more seriously, we'd have to make a significant adjustment. At a certain point, you have to take a leap of faith and treat the site as a viable business. We felt that the site needed a facelift.

Tip: Find a niche. It makes it harder in some ways, because it limits your content; it makes it and easier in other ways - by limiting your content, you gain focus. There are now plenty of satire sites out there. What can you add to that universe that's unique?

We conceded that the wisest thing to do was to commit some money toward redesigning the site. But how much? And where to find the right people to do the job?

I posted an ad on Craigslist and the floodgates opened.

We found a graphic designer who connected with what we did and was willing to cut her rates because the project was a refreshing change from her normal work. In addition, she was willing to put an intern on the task of generating the regular pictures to go with the articles (which I've always felt was important). In return, we offered a flat fee (in the upper hundreds of dollars), and I also offered my writing services for her general business and copywriting needs. We also found a programmer who seemed competent and agreed to do his part of the job for just a straight flat fee.

Tip: You often have services to offer that you don't necessarily realize are assets. For instance, even though everyone learns to write, not everyone is a writer. In fact, a lot of people are bored to tears or scared to death with words.

At that time we were starting to get some wonderful exposure with a public radio feature and an article in The Los Angeles Times. We held meetings about business development, getting an online store going, and did long-term planning in order to turn the website into an actual business.

At this point, it was approaching two years of doing the site, on and off, in fits and starts, low-key, grass-roots and word of mouth for very little in return apart from the satisfaction of making a name, expressing myself and staking out this bizarre little niche of regional satire.

The arrangement with the designer has turned out to be a long-term gig, which has, by and large, been great. But the time it took to get the final designs was about four months, much more than we'd anticipated. At any rate, the final deliverables were passed on to the programmer to work on the "backend" - or so we were told.

Tip: Beggars can't be choosers, but it still behooves them to commit expectations and time schedules to writing. Getting Screwed, and Getting Over It

Months passed and scarce little was coming from the programmer. Firm deadlines passed with excuses and angry rants. We were reluctant to pull the plug on the work he'd supposedly done up to that point; but eventually, unwilling or unable to complete the job, he simply ran off with some money that we fronted him. Ugh!

Tip: If you discover you're working with a psychopath, cut your losses and move on. And next time, go with personal recommendations. I eventually found a kindly, talented programmer via the designer, and he's turned out to be great. Again, I had to resort to a combination of flat fee plus bartered services. He had need for writing services for an on-the-side business.

The transfer from static site to dynamic site involves a whole lot of cutting and pasting from which everyone will flee. If you find yourself in this position, there's no way out of it but to slog through it. Some of the old site's content transferred fairly easily, but a lot didn't. The old site contained 200+ pages, each of which needed to be plugged into a new software interface. It's a pain in the ass.

The programmer essentially built a customized content management system (CMS) that publishes new articles much easier, manages the overall site better and allows for a more responsive, refreshed site. It saves on migraine medication. Then again, there are the added hassles of learning new software (such as a group email list program), and there's a to-do list of items that never seems to get shorter, only more nuanced. Switching the basic site structure and file names also created some enigmatic irregularities in traffic that we're still attempting to fix.

The Tally and the Toll

At last, the site's content is indeed much easier to manage. And the look and feel of the site is and more visually coherent as a whole. Having content pulled automatically from various database-like sources is nearly magical (for a non-technical person like myself). Everything is more automated.

In the end, was it a success? As with most things, there are no absolutes. The basic article content aside, the design isn't as funny as I imagined it would be. But that's partly a matter of budgetary restraints. With a staff of flash animators, illustrators and innovative programmers, much more could be done. There would be more movement, for instance, more of a humorous treat for the eye. I wish it were more responsive and unpredictable in all aspects. There are still some imagined but incomplete aspects of the new site (e.g. a section called Horrorscopes, a regionalized spoof of horoscopes), for which I still haven't found anyone to do the programming work. We have a store, but it could already stand yet another re-vamp itself. I wish we'd put an ad banner program in place along with the launch of the new site - as it is, that's just now starting to fall into place.

It took nearly a year to get the new site up. I did a soft launch in September 2005, with the intent to tweak it further as we began using it. All in all, it cost about $3,000, with some outstanding favors still owed. And then there's the human toll of stress and energy - tally that up as you will. For me, I don't doubt that re-designing the site was the right thing to do, even though I know I didn't always make the right decisions.

Even with a new site, I still get the urge to change things - the urge will usually pass if I let it; if it lingers, that's a sign that it should be addressed. This is the maintenance phase. The will to improve the site is a good one; there's also something to be said for the old adage of not "fixing" something if it isn't broken.

Tip: Learn to say, "This works. It's enough... for now."

You might be able to design (or redesign) a website yourself. You might save a bunch of money by doing it that way. It depends on a lot of factors that probably only you can answer. By not doing it yourself, you give up some control; you also gain from other people's specialized skills - that is, if you find good people. You always have to do what's within your budget, but you should take comfort in the many options available at all levels. I'm thankful to have survived the redesign and hopeful that it has brought the site to a new level. Survival, in and of itself, is no small feat; in fact, Darwin would say that's what it's all about.

Change can be tough, but in this case I think it's a good impulse to follow. Change, too, cuts to the core of evolution. In fact, it's been said that every cell in the human body quite literally changes over the course of seven years. On the Net, where time is even more compressed, there's a similarly periodic need to reinvent yourself.

I encourage you to shed that old skin and evolve away.

In hindsight...

  • I'd follow the old architectural adage that: Form follows function. That is, know what you want the site to do, then make it pretty.
  • I'd get everything in writing - not even so much for legal reasons as simply having a common reference map.
  • I wouldn't backtrack on the design once it's decided upon. You can add new stuff later.
  • I'd stipulate timelines in all contracts, with penalties for not meeting them.
  • I'd go through personal recommendations, whenever possible, instead of posting general help notices for personnel.
  • I wouldn't be so polite when it comes to approving work. It's okay to say: "Sorry, but this still just isn't what I was looking for."
  • I wouldn't plan new parts of the site that I couldn't fulfill. You can always expand or embellish the site in the future.
  • I wouldn't do it all myself. Unless you're particularly anti-social, part of the fun is working with a team of people. I would've put less time into putting out new articles and issues and more time into finding ways to partner and serve other people's needs as I'm getting my own needs met.