Part one of three: Bring it home
Newspaper websites have a major problem: they’re mostly awful. Online news presentation has barely changed in 10 years, and worse, editors and publishers across the industry think the solution is shoe-horning “web 2.0″ ideas into the existing model, rather than re-thinking what a newspaper website should be.
Nothing demonstrates this problem more than the state of newspaper home page design. This graphic (via The Denver Egotist) illustrates the problem extremely clearly: newspaper home pages are still by and large static extensions of a newspaper front page, instead of dynamic websites. If you don’t believe me, take a look at a few current newspaper home pages, and tell me if any of these look like functioning websites instead of digital stand-ins for their printed cousins:
These sites are all jam-packed with text and photos, all laid out in sections just like a printed front page. If you don’t see a problem with that, you don’t understand the web. This is an age when people use Google as a search engine, spell checker, dictionary, translator, and calculator. They don’t do it because they don’t have other options for all of these things, they do it because they’re lazy, and interacting with a single line of text in a single search bar is easier than pulling out an individual tool for each function.
For instance, searching the word ‘Sanford’ in the top right of my Safari browser instantly turned up the three most popular articles on the embattled South Carolina Governor at the top of the main Google search results page. No scanning was needed. Likewise, searching “200,000 x 150“, “translate journal from french to english“, and “define: newspaper” all return a specific result that I asked for, right at the top of the page. Granted, some memorization is needed to produce each result, but it takes no more time to learn these basic commands than it does to scan through a newspaper webpage to find an article you’re interested in.
By the same token, successful informative websites don’t present the most information, or even the most organized information; they present the most accessible and useful information. When you take the time to read a printed newspaper, it’s because you enjoy the process of scanning headlines and turning pages to find stories that interest you. But when you visit a website, you don’t want to have to go through that. You want the things you like at the top, easily accessible. No newspaper website today provides that information. Instead, they provide a scattered jumble of everything, and I mean everything.
When my father worked at a newspaper, one of the things he often talked about was how editors struggled with how to build an online “community.” Instead of trying to cultivate an active readership by reworking the online product, their ideas frequently boiled down to adding “a comments engine” and “social tools” on top of the existing structure. The problem with this is approach is that newspaper’s online offerings frequently become a weird, useless product that falls somewhere in between a search engine and social bookmarking site.
This middling approach doesn’t serve any reader well. The thing we know from the success of Google is that people often know what they want, but need a reliable tool to help them find it. The thing we know from the success of blogs and social bookmarking sites like Digg and Reddit is that when people don’t know what they want, they turn to others to show them. Newspaper websites don’t do either.
They typically scatter every single bit of their content on the front page, forcing users who know what they want to scan for the articles that interest them. Search features on newspaper websites are often clunky and ineffectual, and more often than not hidden in sidebars or rendered tiny and almost impossible the find among globs of text. In other words, they’re afterthoughts, which, in an age of the instant global desktop search, is inexcusable. I propose a novel solution: every newspaper should put a large search box at the top of the page, above the banner (or, in the ancien lingo, “masthead”), and have a search guru on staff who can either utilize Google custom search to its fullest or design an algorithm specifically for the newspaper that sorts articles by recent relevance and popularity, not solely chronologically.
Moreover, this idea of article popularity should become a central feature of the newspaper site. The reason for this: when people don’t know what they want, or are just browsing, newspaper websites are still largely useless in the internet age. Yes, headlines are categorized into sections and most newspapers have big bold “Breaking News” or “Important Stories” at the top, but these stories are all either organized chronologically or chosen by one web editor who sits at a computer posting what he or she thinks will be big or important.
It’s funny, because editors and reporters often talk about stories “going viral,” but they don’t realize that things “go viral” not because of how they’re promoted, but because when content is accessible and interesting enough, users find and disseminate the content themselves. Instead of actively trying to tease their stories into getting more hits, newspapers should do away with web editors altogether and let users choose the content with Digg/Reddit-style front pages. Seriously.
The newspaper already has a perfect, built-in engine to constantly refresh the top stories, much like Digg’s “Upcoming” and Reddit’s “New” pages: breaking news. Every newspaper front page could essentially be whittled down to two columns, with a simple list of the top twenty or so stories (as voted by registered users) taking up the main column and the latest (or “breaking”) stories in the side column along with the usual assortment of ads, links to the most popular columns, weather, etc.
This would serve many functions. It would dramatically un-clutter the page, simplifying it into one list of top stories from all sections as chosen by the readers of the newspaper, while relegating less-popular sectional headlines to sub-pages that a focused reader can browse to on his or her own. Moreover, all of these sub-pages can be laid out similarly to the main page, keeping the entire site consistent and easy to use.
More importantly, it would actually build a community by encouraging readers to register so they can vote and stay active by giving them a stake in the content. The reason sites like Digg and Reddit are so popular and sustain such a vibrant community is that they give users the feeling that they’re constantly contributing to the content by deciding what gets promoted to the top and what gets relegated to the bottom. In a newspaper setting, this becomes more valuable, because newspapers have unique identities, and the demographics of readers for large dailies are more compact than for global internet sites. Readers of a local newspaper are more likely to be interested in the same topics, especially when there are two or more newspapers in a community whose editorial boards skew to either the right or the left.
This means that given the chance to vote content up or down, users will automatically select the most relevant and appealing stories for the majority of fellow readers. When users enter the main page of the site, instead of scanning through hundreds of headlines that may or may not be appealing, the most interesting stories will always be at the top; and if a user disagrees, they can do so actively by voting a story down.
Moreover, because the content would be dynamic, with breaking news constantly entering the fray and top stories changing ten or more times an hour as users vote, any dissatisfied user would know that he or she can return in a few minutes and probably see something new. Alternatively, a reader could browse to his or her favorite section, where a new dynamic list of the most popular stories inside each section would displayed, or browse through less popular stories on any list to find a more eclectic one that fits his or her taste.
The point of all of this is to focus the newspaper website more on keeping readers engaged in the content and less on simply providing the content in some new, fast, or exciting way. The editorial quality can still be maintained, with professional reporters writing everything and editors verifying every fact; it’s only the presentation that becomes user-controlled, which is exactly the sort of interactivity that the internet can provide and that readers buy into, because it feels like they have a stake in making the website great.
This is important for many reasons…which will be discussed in parts two and three of this, er, essay?
In part two: More on building community with comments, columnists and, gasp, blogs.