Checklist for Building the Ideal News Web Site

By: Steve Outing

If I was CEO of the online-news world (instead of a lowly industry pundit), most news Web sites would look different than they do today.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some excellent news sites out there. It’s just that none (that I’m aware of) bring all the elements together to create the ideal specimen.

Here’s a list of ideas for how news sites could do things differently. Some of these notions are mine (based on years of covering this industry as a journalist, researcher and occasional consultant); others come from top consultants and academics who I’ve enlisted in this advice-fest. (I avoided asking people who currently manage or work at online-news operations; this column is about ideas that are out of the current industry mainstream.)

For the ideas presented here, I’ve credited the sources; if there are none, the concept is mine (though I don’t claim that they are necessarily original to me).

Design Issues



The scroll-less home page

Remember early online services? Everything typically fit on a single screen, with no scrolling required. Today’s typical news home page: Plan on lots of scrolling to take everything in. I’d like to see home pages pared down to a single screen or at least close to that. Consider using the hidden-content approach, where sections are revealed with a click or a mouseover.

Roger Fidler, online newspaper tablet pioneer, has developed a design that’s close to what I’m thinking of: the Kent Format for portable-digital-tablet reading. On a single screen, a newspaper’s “tablet home page” looks a bit like a magazine table of contents, highlighting various top stories with accompanying photos or artwork. There are tabs to reach different sections: Business, Sports, etc. Stories are ranked in a news hierarchy, not dissimilar from print newspaper design. I’d rather see a news home page look like an interesting “table of contents” than a dull “index,” as so many home pages do today.

Another example of this TOC approach is this redesign of Observer-Reporter Online done by the Brass Tacks Design firm.

Get smarter about photos

Let’s also fix Web site photo policies. Start by running photos larger on article pages — big enough that readers can focus on what’s going on. For home pages, where photos typically are smaller, make it a convention that clicking on a photo brings up a large version in a new window. One of my pet peeves is the depressingly common practice of having an enlarged-view photo still be so small that you can’t make out what’s happening in the image. Make your photographers happy — and your readers, too — by increasing photo size. And make use of more audio-narrated photo slide shows. They make a great addition to a news site, and visitors will enjoy hearing the actual voices of the journalists.

Photos also should be available for easy purchase. A simple “Buy This Photo” link for reprints under every image is so simple — an additional revenue stream and a useful customer service.

Get smarter about ads

It’s common knowledge that the classic 468 x 60 pixel banner ad is rarely clicked on; it’s the same for small banners, especially when placed on the right side of the page. Yet a perusal of newspaper Web sites — especially those of smaller publishers — finds that those inefficient banners are commonplace. And ad clutter is a serious problem on many sites.

Let’s get smarter: Use larger-footprint ads, and fewer of them per page. Use behavioral and/or demographic targeting to show ads that are likely to be of interest to the site user. Position ads such that they can’t be overlooked — especially by placing them within the flow of article text. Use text advertising more often; it can be especially successful when combined with targeting methods.

More multimedia

I’m still waiting for more news sites to routinely publish news and information in a multimedia format. Sure, there are some sites that do a great job (MSNBC.com, Sun-Sentinel.com and elmundo.es immediately spring to mind), but most sites don’t put out that kind of effort. Why go to the expense and bother? Answer: Because multimedia storytelling is what makes the Web a unique medium.

Content Issues



Where’s the “Breaking News” page?

Here’s something that every newspaper site should have, yet too many don’t: a Breaking News page that includes local information. Think about the last time something relatively big happened in your community — say, a bad auto accident that seriously tied up traffic, or a spectacular building fire. It’s likely that the only way to find out about an event like that is to wait for the 5 o’clock TV news, wait for the next day’s newspaper, or if you’re lucky wait until the local newspaper Web site posts a story.

Here’s the better way: The local newspaper site has a Breaking News page (or area on its home page) where notice of the bad accident is posted as soon as editors learn of it. It doesn’t have to be a full story, just a brief alert to readers who perhaps got stuck in the traffic jam and want to know what happened. This is a service that’s ideal for the Web, because it has the potential to hook people on a site.

Thanks for this idea to usability expert Steve Krug, who says, “The thing that’s always disappointed me about online news sites is the general failure to post bulletins about breaking news.”

Blog, group, blog!

Consider requiring reporters on a common beat to contribute to a group blog: politics/government reporters; technology writers; all the football beat writers and columnists; at a Detroit newspaper, all the auto reporters. With an edict of “You will write one item a day,” you’ve got an interesting blog (and a Web ad-sales opportunity). There’s nothing wrong with individual Web logs by staff journalists, but group blogs can be interesting and entertaining for your readers — who get the type of short stories and even gossip that doesn’t normally make it to the pages of the newspaper. Create group blogs for all major topic beats.

Reader, blog thyself

This is not a new idea, but it’s caught on at only a handful of news sites: Invite community members to write blogs — and promote the best ones. One of the best examples of this is the collection of community-member blogs at Lawrence.com in Kansas. Those bloggers work for free, but those with longevity (at least two months’ worth) get free home broadband Internet access as payment. The site later this summer will open up blog hosting to anyone, not just the few that editors have approved in the past — with the best ones promoted on Lawrence.com. That’s a great way to get some unusual local voices onto a news site.

Wiki it

Experiment with the wiki concept. A wiki is a collaborative Web site created by users. The content is vetted by an editor and/or by members of the community. A good wiki for a local news site could focus on the history of a town, its neighborhoods, its schools, etc. A news organization could coordinate the project with local schools, which might assign contributions to it as class projects, or with senior groups to get contributions from people who lived the town’s history. The result would be a permanent, but constantly evolving history of a community to which everyone could contribute.

Thanks for this idea to Paul Grabowicz, director of the new media program at the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

Add interactive, from-the-community content

Even a full decade into the Internet media game, many newspapers still don’t exploit the value of online interactivity and community. Photo galleries collected from local citizens can be a major traffic draw. Solicit readers’ photos from sporting events, concerts, public meetings, etc. We don’t call it “interactive media” for nothing. And think non-traditionally. Obituaries, for instance, are ripe for public contributions — what about photos of the deceased sent in by relatives and friends?

Thanks for this idea to new-media and classifieds consultant Peter M. Zollman.

Business Issues



Kindler, gentler registration

Sure, go ahead and deploy user registration; it’s obviously helpful in giving visitors information and news that’s relevant to their interests, and it’s useful to your advertisers in targeting their messages to prospective customers. But do it kindler and gentler. Make registration voluntary, so that casual site visitors who want to check in on you just once can bypass filling out a long form. Then, give a reason — an enticement — for people to fill out the registration form. Don’t make it just about your Web site’s needs, make it also about the consumer’s. You may have to nag, nag, nag to get people to register — with periodic reminders during browsing sessions — but with some sort of enticement, you’ll get plenty of people to sign up in time. Make the voluntary registration process easy and quick. Do it right and you won’t have to worry much about fake entries in your registration database.

Develop local-search capabilities

Allow visitors to use your site as a gateway to local businesses and to make purchases from them. Get past the outdated notion that media companies just publish advertising and that’s as far as it goes. Let’s face it, Google, Yahoo! and others are devoting serious resources into creating local-search capabilities. In another year, citizens in your community may be using those services to find restaurants, auto-repair shops, hair stylists, etc. They’ll get maps, links to businesses’ Web sites, coupons and more. Local news sites need that kind of functionality, too.

Product and service reviews are an ideal fit for a news site. It should ultimately look like this: A customer is looking for a repair shop that specializes in fixing Toyotas. The news site presents a list of shops; included are phone numbers, maps, special promotions from some of the shops, and consumer-review sections to help the consumer make the decision about which shop to use. To get really fancy, the site could facilitate making an appointment for the customer to bring the car in. That’s the kind of service coming from Google Local and company eventually. Local publishers will need to compete.

Publishing Strategies



Think (and link) outside yourself

I expect to soon see a Google News type service on the local level — an aggregation of local stories and other information by city and town, drawn from multiple sources. Google News is likely to get down to the local level some day. Topix.net already does this (here’s a page for my hometown), though it doesn’t have the high visibility of Google News.

News publishers for the most part remain skittish about linking to competitors. Yet perhaps Google News and Topix have changed the minds of a few. CNET’s News.com now publishes a section called “Extra,” which includes links to News.com articles accompanied by headline links to related stories of non-affiliated sites. It also has been testing a “News Around the Web” page that lists live top headlines from a variety of other Web sites, many of them competitors.

What’s better: Ignoring all but your own content and letting others serve as the gateway to all local news and information? Or serving that role yourself?

RSS feeds — lots of ’em

Offer RSS feeds (a.k.a., Webfeeds), and lots of them — by beat, by author, by region/city, and for any major ongoing story. Allow (and even encourage) free syndication of your headlines. The idea is to allow Webfeeds and syndication to expand your audience — to let placement of your live headlines on other sites and blogs bring you new user traffic.

Thanks for this idea to Amy Gahran, new-media and content consultant and editor of Contentious.

Take a cue from blogs: Permalink

“Permalinks” are a wonderful blog innovation. Every blog item has a permalink that others can use to link to a specific item. Permalinks make it easy for others to link to your content — and thus bring you new readers. News sites don’t need permalinks on stand-alone article, of course. But too many news sites that publish blogs or other articles consisting of several items on a single page don’t deploy permalinks. Use ’em.

Thanks again to Amy Gahran for this tip.

The perfect site?

It’s probably too much to ask, but I’d love to see a news site implement all of the above. Maybe there’s one out there already, and I’ve missed it. Please let me know.




A Threat to Forced User Registration



In my last column, I suggested that forced user registration as now commonly practiced by newspaper Web sites is not the wisest strategy. I got considerable pushback from some site managers who are committed to forced registration — their argument generally being that forced registration only keeps out users that the sites don’t care about (that is, non-local, casual users), and thus is a good thing.

But I also heard from a programmer, who asked to remain anonymous, who plans soon to release a new browser plug-in that will allow users to automatically bypass user-registration screens. Using a distributed network of user log-in databases (to avoid legal efforts that might try to halt the service), the plug-in will automatically fill out a site’s log-in screen so that the prospective site visitor doesn’t have to go through the site’s registration process. (Initially, the plug-in will be only for the Mozilla Firefox browser, not the more widely used Internet Explorer.)

This programmer’s strategy is one step more convenient to Web users than BugMeNot.com, which gives users log-ins to sites in order to skip the registration process. With BugMeNot, you still have to fill out the log-in screen to gain access to a forced-registration site.

This programmer’s actions point to a coming technology arms race over user registration. A community of users and programmers believes that it’s a significant annoyance to log in to free-content sites now that so many sites require it — so they’re working to bypass registration walls.

It well may be that as registration screens proliferate and the Web experience becomes more annoying overall to the web surfer, that forced registration eventually becomes as reviled by online consumers as pop-up ads. Just as pop-up ads are now dying out because pop-up blockers have become widelyused, it too may come to pass that forced registration shifts to a voluntary model as a result of similar pressures. We shall see.

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