Behind the scenes of Alley’s redesign and replatforming the Bay Area News Group sites

By Megan McCarthy
October 6th, 2016, 1:30 pm

In early September, Alley launched three sites for Digital First Media properties in Northern California, known collectively as the Bay Area News Group. The redesigned MercuryNews.com represents the long-standing paper of record covering the San Jose and South Bay area, while EastBayTimes.com and SiliconValley.com focus on the East Bay and the tech industry, respectively. Together with DFM, Alley designed the three sites, migrated archival content to WordPress, and created a syndication mechanism to seamlessly publish articles from one site to the others.

Design

Alley creative director Christa Field took elements from the geography of Northern California as inspiration for the visual direction of the new sites. “Diversity is a persistent theme throughout the Bay Area. This theme encompasses the readers who call it home, the microclimates of each town, and the landscapes themselves,” she says. “Our challenge was to make the experience of each site feel local while acknowledging those characteristics that make the area unique. We opted to adopt some diverse aspects as part of the design. For example, we know elevation can change in a matter of minutes as you drive from town to town. We translated this into the site with a ‘card’ design pattern. You can see this represented in details such as having headlines float above lines and section dividers.

“The color palette also carries a lot of meaning for local readers. Rather than relying on an neutral color palette that uses cooler grays as commonly seen across the web, we incorporated warmer grays with strong red and yellow undertones,” Field explains. “Beiges and tans unify Northern California, while a range of colors acknowledges the diversity that comprises the Bay Area.”

Replatforming

All three sites’ archives were moved off of a proprietary legacy CMS onto WordPress.com VIP. We also integrated WordPress with the newspaper’s print CMS, providing the ability to edit stories for both print and online within the same edit screen. A new drag-and-drop interface makes homepage curation far simpler than the site’s previous workflow, giving producers and editors a way to easily add news or move stories around the page.

Syndication

Because the Bay Area News Group includes multiple properties, story syndication was a high priority for launch. Principal software developer Jared Cobb created a system that syndicates any story with a simple checkbox. Editorial teams can also set up automatic syndication for stories matching criteria of their choice. This allows a reporter to file to one site and the story appear on another site, while keeping canonical links intact for beneficial SEO. For instance, a business story filed to SiliconValley.com can be sent to the business section of the EastBayTimes.com, or a Golden State Warriors piece from the EastBayTimes.com can also be automatically published to MercuryNews.com. As Jared explains, “The WordPress REST API was instrumental in solving the complicated challenges that come along with content syndication. We were able to quickly and securely set up custom endpoints, leveraging core WordPress technology, which shortened the development time dramatically.”

In addition, the new sites implemented Alley’s open-source Ad Layers plugin for the BANG advertising team. Using this plugin, each site can customize the layout of advertisements on the site directly from WordPress, without using an external ad-management application or requiring extensive developer involvement. The plugin also improves ad viewability in accordance with industry best practices.