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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

“a rather unexpected start”: Alice Northover on the OUPblog

On the tenth anniversary of OUPblog, we’ve asked past editors to reflect on their experiences and favorite memories. Today we speak to Alice Northover, our current blog editor who joined in 2012.

I had a rather unexpected start for the OUPblog.

I spent my first day getting to grips with all the customizations and plugins of the blogging platform. I was armed with quite possibly the most amazing exit memo ever written (thank you Lauren). I was fully confident that a smooth transition was underway.

On the second day I found out that my official introduction to the blog wouldn’t be happening as Kirsty was going on maternity leave immediately. I was left to run the blog without any official handover. What three editors and two UK editors had spent six and half years building was left in my hands. I was directionless, overwhelmed, and alone (not really; Nicola Burton was on board as UK editor).

I did have a vague idea of the OUPblog ethos. I’d known the blog by reputation for some time (making the rounds in publishing circles). I’d read the odd article here and there. It was one of the things that made me so excited to join Oxford University Press.

As I skimmed through the archives and reviewed incoming blog posts, I learned who the regular contributors were and what topics were typically covered. Beyond the usual spelling and grammar, I picked through each author’s approach, what had intrigued them and would ultimately intrigue our readers. I girded myself for the painful process of rejecting work that was not fit for the blog, either in terms of quality or placement.

While gradually cultivating the tone and tenor of the blog, I searched for ways to reach new audiences. My predecessors had built this amazing blog; more people should be reading it.

First, I looked to increase the breadth (and consequently volume) of our publishing. Moving from origins in the US Publicity team and the gradual inclusion of the UK with Kirsty, our new focus was bringing all of our academic publishing, in one form or another, into the OUPblog. Not just books, but journals, online reference, printed music, higher education, and dictionaries (which had previously only made the occasional appearance) would now be part of our regular editorial content. An OUPblog Editorial Board was formed with representatives from different departments to generate ideas and commission content. People who would normally never work with each other were soon chatting about what possible nerdy tie-ins we had for new movies over the phone every month.

Second, I looked to overhaul our technology and technical practices. Six years is a long time in technology and much of the blog was dragging behind despite periodic updates and redesigns. Titles, urls, and site structure needed work. Users were visiting an online magazine, but our navigation didn’t make it easy. Excess code and plugins dragged down our page load time. Our mobile site was functional but boring, and clearly wasn’t attracting the desirable wasting-time-on-my-iPhone audience. We had difficulty integrating with other OUP websites, and moving from one to the other was far from seamless. Google and other sites clearly saw the value in our content, but we needed a better way of presenting it.

After a series of small fixes, we began work in earnest on the next major redesign of the OUPblog, our most ambitious to date, in 2014. I consulted with staff across the Press. I drew up a lists of wants and needs, problems and glitches, for our developer. I put together a ‘look book’ of OUP websites, competitor websites, and those which we desired to emulate. Most importantly, we made the investment to switch to responsive design, giving us a beautiful, consistent experience across phones, tablets, and desktops. After months of work, in August 2014, our updated site launched and our traffic skyrocketed. The appetite for smart blogging is there, and growing, given the right balance and technical proficiency.

Not only has our blog prospered over the last ten years, but our once small blogosphere has flourished. Other university presses, such as Yale, Princeton, and Columbia (to name a few), have built up their blogs from small operations to substantial, regularly updated sites. New online magazines, such as Aeon, Berfrois, The Conversation, and Pacific Standard, specialize in approachable academia. JSTOR Daily recently won an award as the new kid on the block. It’s great to see so many seeking and sharing academic insights for the thinking world.

Featured image: Phone By Thom. CC0 via Unsplash.

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