By: Alan D. Mutter
As a young copy editor in the days when newspaper articles clattered off Linotypes, I sometimes went to the composing room to trim stories into the spaces allotted to them.
This involved “editing” 14 inches of hot type into a seven-inch hole by scanning a slug of slugs — reading upside down and backwards — to find a seemly place to end a story, usually by throwing away the balance of news that wouldn’t fit in print. In the haste of deadline, the editing was not notably sensitive, resulting in the time — and I am not making this up — that the last line of a story appearing in the newspaper said in its entirety: “Needless to say,”.
This anecdote illustrates a fundamental difference between print and digital publishing: Print permits only so much information to be squeezed into a prescribed number of pages, requiring thoughtful and disciplined use of the space. When it comes to digital publishing, however, space is limitless and cheap, setting a trap for the sort of self-indulgence and sloth that can turn off readers and advertisers.
And it is a trap, unfortunately, that most newspapers have fallen into. Although newspapers typically put together attractive and easy-to-navigate printed pages, their Web incarnations for the most part are awful. In the interests of fixing this, it’s time to talk about what techies call the user experience, or UX.
Quality UX matters, because it is what attracts people to a website or mobile app, keeps them engaged in the content, and then encourages them to do whatever the publisher has in mind.
In the case of Google, a single box on its pristine home page invites visitors to launch a query of any sort. Through the magic of its technology, Google generally delivers in nanoseconds not just what you want to know, but also approximates who you are, where you are, and what sort of ad to serve you.
While the pages at Amazon are a lot busier than those at Google, the UX on every one is carefully designed to get you to do just one thing: “Buy now with one click.” The page is scrubbed of anything that would distract a visitor from that goal.
By contrast, most newspaper websites are messes of wretched excess. It takes five to seven “page-down” clicks on a standard computer screen to get from the top to the bottom of the typical newspaper home page. With layers of news, advertising, promotions, and whatnot, the array is so dense and disorganized that you don’t know where to look, what to do, and — if you happen to click off the page — where to go next.
Gazing at the typical home page, you can readily imagine the committee meetings that produced them: “Tout classifieds!” “Add video!” “Create more ad units!” “Add weather!” “Push daily deals!” “Add a Twitter feed!” “Promote the Sunday paper!” And so on.
With all the fuss over the home page, here’s the part most newsfolk forget: At the typical paper, only about a third of the traffic comes through the home page. On average, another third of the traffic comes from search engines, and the final third comes from referrals via email, third-party websites, Facebook, and other social media.
As editors and publishers focus on cramming 15 pounds of potatoes into the five-pound sack represented by the home page, scant attention is paid to the rest of the site — where two-thirds of the traffic is coming and going without ever transiting the home page. By neglecting their “inside” webpages, newspapers squander the opportunity to build readership by furthering engagement with the fly-by readers who typically generate more than half of their pageviews.
While these factors were problems before paywalls, the opportunity to recruit long-lasting interest from occasional readers is further complicated when access to non-subscribers is limited or prohibited by pay systems.
Notwithstanding this latest self-imposed barrier to audience growth and diversification, publishers seeking to get the most out of their online audiences would be wise to take a (web)page from Reuters, which at press time was beta-testing a smart, new concept at preview.reuters.com.
The new Reuters website insightfully treats every article as a reader’s first point of entry, seeking to entice further engagement by pointing to additional articles relevant to the story that first brought the reader to the site. Rather than standing alone, each article is embedded in a flow of stories, making it easy and enticing to sample the site’s other offerings. Although the Reuters design is rich with additional reading prospects for visitors, the navigation cues, while obvious, are low-key and uncluttered.
In other words the new site is a great example of how a thoughtful UX can capture a reader’s attention and, one hopes, keep her coming back for more. Check it out.
Alan D. Mutter is a former newspaper editor and Silicon Valley CEO who today consults with media companies about technology and organizational change. He blogs at Reflections of a Newsosaur (newsosaur.blogspot.com).