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New name, look for online news

Our Web site gets a makeover Thursday and a new address:

Rick Thames
Rick Thames
Rick Thames leads The Observer's newsgathering operations and has worked as a journalist for 27 years.

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  • The Observer's director of interactive media, Jason Silverstein, explains some of the improvements to the new site.

    New design. Visual elements – design, color, graphics – present a fresher, crisper appearance.

    Faster uploads. Depending on the content, the new site will load in one-fourth to one-third the time of the current site.

    Easier navigation. See all sections available to you with the touch of one navigation bar at the top of the home page.

    Bigger images. Larger, faster slideshows. Video is bigger, too.

    Improved search. A more comprehensive site search also includes indicators for the type of content you find (text, video, slideshow).

    Smoother shopping. Need a place to live? A new car? We've added more categories to make it easier to find what you want. CareerBuilder ads for jobs, some now with video, are easier to search.

    More interaction. Our comment feature will appear on more stories. The forums have been rebuilt, and the staff blogs will be consistent in design and display. Users will find the most popular stories, most recommended stories, most-commented-on stories at a glance. You can create a “persona” page that aggregates your own site comments, forum postings and blog.

    Better weather package. Check out the higher-resolution graphics and larger text.

    Red is hot. Red text indicates that the content has been published within the past two hours.

    Easier on the eyes. Larger text and more white space make for easier reading. The site allows you to change text size, using default browser controls.

    Easy access to print edition. You can review the past seven days of print editions, indexed by section and page.

    More clarity in section names. All sections will carry easy-to-follow URLs. Example:

    May we help you? Contact us by task, not by department. This makes more sense when you need help.

    One-stop columnists. All columnists have their own page and distinct address. Their columns, blogs and stories are in one place.

    Multimedia menu. We've designed a multimedia bar that features video, photos, puzzles and games from a variety of sources.

More than 2 million people visit every month. Never been? Better hurry.

On Thursday, the Observer's Web site converts to a completely new format. The new site will be faster, easier to use and more responsive to all that you need to live well in our region.

If I may say so, it's also a visual knockout – a cleaner design, more logical format, bigger type, crisper graphics, larger photos and a fuller screen for video.

I know some of you are saying, “It's about time.” While we have dramatically improved the site's features and content over the years, its basic look and feel have changed only slightly since the birth of in 1996.

These days, our newspaper is as much a digital experience as it is newsprint. Our site, in fact, is the No. 1 Web site in North Carolina for local news and information.

Our new site will offer more breaking news updates, video and reader-comment features that aren't possible in print.

To underscore our evolving nature, we are also giving a new name:

For now, either address will get you to our digital Observer. At a future date, we plan to relaunch as a distinctively separate site with an exciting mission all its own. More on that as it develops.

For the big leap forward Thursday, we enlisted the help of Navigation Arts, one of the nation's premier Web design firms. Based in Washington, D.C., it has designed Web sites for brand names as diverse as National Geographic, Marriott, PBS, the American Red Cross, Discovery Channel and The Washington Post.

Navigation Arts CEO Leo Mullen likes to say that his firm's approach centers on “an almost pathological focus on the needs of the site's users.”

In other words, it only works well if it works for you.

Mullen and his staff spent time getting to know the Charlotte region, its residents and the Observer. They analyzed user traffic to understand how you use the existing site. They reviewed future plans for content and services to make sure that the site will keep meeting your needs.

Through it all, this team gained new respect for the enduring qualities of the Observer brand, now more than 120 years old.

“Ultimately, the design was not about trying to change the look and feel of The Charlotte Observer,” Mullen said, “but to allow the real essence of the Observer to shine through in as clean and unfiltered a way as possible.”

One way you do that is by designing a site that quickly loads onto your computer. will load in one-fourth to one-third the time it takes to load our current site.

That's just one of many advantages. A list of new features (at right) was compiled by Jason Silverstein, director of the Observer's Interactive Division.

“The new site was built from the ground up,” said Silverstein, whose teams customized and reconstructed the site based on the new design. “At first, visitors will notice the big changes like colors and layout. In the long run, it's the little things that will add up to make the largest impact.”

Dave Enna is on the team of online editors and producers that has been putting the site through its test runs for the past month. Enna has been with throughout its 12 years.

Will longtime users of the present site like the new one?

It might be a bit of a jolt at first, simply because it is quite different, Enna said. “But for readers, the site is an improvement in every way. I predict readers will love it. This is an exciting change.”

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