Rouda takes score at Farm Journal

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Mitch Rouda joined Farm Journal Media as president-e-media on May 3. A veteran Internet executive, Rouda was the longtime president of Hanley Wood eMedia and still runs an e-media consulting business in addition to his new duties at Farm Journal.

Rouda talked with Digital Directions about his goals at Farm Journal, his approach to rebuilding the company's Web platform and his philosophy about giving editors more power in the daily digital operations.

DD: What has been your initial focus at Farm Journal Media?

Rouda: Farm Journal's Internet business is already quite large. There are 200,000 (monthly) uniques, and there are 4 million page views a month, which is a lot. It's 20 page views a visitor. That's an off-the-charts statistic. It's a big, robust site, but a total mess.

So what they asked me to come do is to provide leadership and structure to grow the business. What I'm here to do is not to redesign the site—but the first thing we did was redesign the site.

Last fall [Farm Journal Media CEO] Andy Weber asked if I could come and do a management retreat that was focused on the Web. At the end of that session, there was a list of about 900 things that we should do, and that's sort of why I'm here.

One of the first things we did after last fall was say none of what we want to accomplish can be accomplished with the current site. We're just wasting time, energy and money trying to operate the thing because it was falling apart. Every time I wanted to do something, it took too much time. Here we have a big, robust audience chomping at the bit for more stuff, and here we are running a jalopy. So what we did was a ground-up rebuild. Every single thing was completely, utterly rebuilt.

DD: How are you going about rebuilding the site?

Rouda: We're using .Net system as an ASP platform. We hired a new vendor [American Eagle], and they're helping us build the site. We're using their tool set, their CMS. A proprietary CMS is not my first choice, but their CMS is great. It's all about that technology, and it's pretty portable. So we started at the very beginning: Like, what should we do?

We had our kickoff meeting the first week in December. We'll go live, I believe, the first week of July. So it's seven months. For a site this large, that's racing.

The first month or month and a half, we did nothing but talk about [the navigation bar]. We did nothing but pay attention to this three-quarters of an inch at the top of the page. And when we did, it had another vendor that I'll always say the nicest things about: Interface Guru. They have a team there of 10 people, all about information architecture. To me, that is about the most important thing about a Web site, the information architecture.

Remember, in most cases 70% of your traffic does not go to your home page. Therefore, your home page is your nav. If they enter on an article page and they wonder what's this site about, your nav is your mini-home page up there.

We have a three-tiered nav. One of them is your typical channel nav. When you hear me recount the story saying we spent a month and a half thinking about our nav and then you see the nav, it's like a big, ‘Duh. What's the big deal?' We've divided the site into news, weather, markets, crops, livestock, business, laughs, multimedia and machinery. It takes a long time to figure out that every bit of content you have or ever could have would fall under those nine things.

The layer above that ... is usually called global nav. It's got search, log in and it's an express line to things that are most attractive on the site, like our discussion groups, our blogs. Even though there might be blogs under each of our nine channels and discussions under each of our nine channels, this is sort of the express way to enter those blogs and discussions.

And then at the very top we have another layer of nav, which is our links to each of our company's properties: AgWeb, Farm Journal and others.

DD: What else are you reworking on the site?

Rouda: We're redoing how we do our content management and our tagging, our SEO and our multimedia. We're also adding in a news feed from LexisNexis so we can aggregate news. We've spent a lot of time thinking about aggregation, because I believe the secret sauce here is editorial. The company has about 35 editors, six of whom are full-time online only. But all 35 have online responsibilities. Every editor gets it.

We're rebuilding the website, but I feel that's not what I'm here to do. I had to rebuild the website so that I can do stuff. I think it was a crying shame that there was so much good stuff on the website that you couldn't find. This company creates a TV show about agriculture every morning. It's a syndicated show, and 300,000 people a day watch the show. But if you got the Farm Journal website, you can't watch the TV show.

DD: You've spoken previously about building the website in modules. Why is that important?

Rouda: One of the nice things about a modular tool set is that we can add the bells and whistles as we go. We're building the site using templates and blocks (or modules). What are the common assets that go on the page? What's the nav? What are the templates? What are the blocks. And then how do those blocks work? Do we want to make those blocks pop up, or scroll, or flash or change?

This Web site is being built in modular ways, like all websites these days. When you build a site like this, you give control of the contents of the page back over to the editors. Because editors, using the content management system, can now build a page themselves.

The tech guys build the poll widget, for instance, but once you have that poll, the editors can decide where to put it. The editors themselves have the ability to change their pages.

That also means when you have a new idea, you don't have to start rebuilding. So we want to have a "corn cam," where people from around the country put cameras in their fields to compare how high the corn is, which is actually not that dumb of an idea. That was our idea this morning, and we'll build a little module that will make that corn cam work and then we can decide where to place it. Once the tech people build the little widget and put it in the drawer, then it's up to us as editors to decide where that's going to go.

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