Newspaper Pros Critique Recent Web Site Redesigns

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By: Jay DeFoore

A week ago, after noticing a number of newspaper Web sites entering 2006 with snazzy redesigns, we decided to ask E&P readers to offer their constructive criticism on a number of new-look news sites.

Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, we called this endeavor “E&P’s Web Site Redesign Contest,” before flatly stating that there’s no real contest and no real prize for the winner.

The point of the exercise was to draw on the expertise of our readers to assess what works and what doesn’t as news sites smartly develop new features such as user-generated comments and photo submissions, customization and RSS feeds, and multi-media storytelling.

Although we didn’t get as many critiques as we would have liked — we’re still accepting e-mails folks, so get to work — two industry professionals stepped up to the plate. Jay Small, the director of online content and operations at E.W. Scripps Newspapers, offered his take, and Jeff Johns, the online producer at the Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) Web site, MCall.com, offers up his views.

We present their findings together below, but first, Johns ticks off his “personal thoughts about newspaper.com and just web sites in general.”

1. Make the user feel like they are part of the experience, they know what they want and how they want it. Let them customize, customize, customize. The more interaction in my eyes the better.

2. Step away from packing as much info on one page as possible; you have an entire site to use. Put your main “HOT” topics up front, rail items you want to promote, some user features, and you’re done. Let the user see enough to get interested and be intrigued to find more throughout the site. You can pack a lot of cool links in one rail item as long as your present it correctly.

3. Have an RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed for everything. Whether you think people will use them or not, having a feed for all possible news on your site will never hurt you. Even if people are leeching it on their site, the user will still end up back on your homepage once they click the link. It’s a great way to reach more people.

4. Integrate more interactive/flash type projects. Build stuff people want to use or play with, which will also bring them back.

5. Hire the right people. I see a lot of places where people are not in the correct positions. Every newspaper.com Web site should have Web developers, not just graphic designers. Graphic designers are needed but not as much as Web developers.

Here’s How They Fared…



BostonPhoenix.com(Phoenix Media)

Johns: Not a good first impression. The main page looks extremely tight. Even though the ad rail would have been further in, it might have served to put the ads where the side rail is, this way it would have split up your eye content wise making it easier to view.

Story Pages: I like the story pages, very neat and clean.

Section Pages: Same as the homepage; my eye needs something to separate the content. There’s too much in a row here. Also the padding/spacing between images/text is really tight.

Small: Too much tiny type and too many thumbnail photos, all jammed together.


Chron.com(Hearst)

Johns: I like this site. The content is nicely divided by different colors and flows pretty well. I was not overwhelmed upon entering the site.

Story Page: Nice and formatted, I think they can handle the image at the top better. Also it would be nice to be able to change the text size of the article when reading or printing.

Section Page: Pretty good to me. A nice mixture of content and images.

They could use more community features and interactivity. Newspaper sites have to stop thinking about just presenting the news and how they can keep users longer.

Small: Big improvement in the first screen, but as people remarked when I first wrote about this redesign, the home page design seems to come apart downpage. Articles are nice and big and easy to read.


HamptonRoads.tv(Virginian-Pilot)

Johns: Nice and organized. I could have done without the iframes with scrollers, as I’m not a big fan of multiple scrollbars. Other than that the site looks good. They might want a preloader on the flash player. It started to play for me then just stopped, started, stopped … could get annoying to users, but this type of flash integration is awesome in my eyes. We need more of this.

Small: User interface (UI) is easy to figure out, though scrolling inline frames cause me a bit of heartburn. Glad they resisted the temptation to repeat a bunch of links from the newspaper.com site here.


StarTribune.com(McClatchy)

Small: Given the sheer number of things the Strib is trying to promote from its high-level pages, these guys do a good job of keeping it clean and organized. Articles are easier to read than most. Also, they’ve done some clever and (as far as I can tell) smooth-operating things with mouseover effects.


KnoxNews.com(Scripps)

Johns: Probably my favorite. Love the colors, love the design, love the integration of flash into the site. The only drawback is the required registration to read articles. Even working at a newspaper.com, I hate this. When this happens I typically leave. I can find what I am looking for somewhere else. I am not into the numbers game, but that is just me.


MCall.com(Tribune)

Ed’s Note: Johns was the lead designer/developer on the recent MCall.com redesign. Small refrained from commenting on Scripps’ sites.

Johns: This is the site I redesigned. I did most of the design and programming. It was a large task in a short period of time. We still have things to work on and things to do but who doesn’t? With this redesign we really tried to play up our biggest user feature, comments. We display them on our homepage, in rails, and in stories. Comments have been a huge success from the beginning when I wrote it about a year and half ago.

We really tried to go in another direction and see what happens. We tried to step out of the “norm” newspaper site and use some lighter colors, a softer approach. As with any redesign, die-hard users were stunned. It has been up for about 1.5 months now and I think people are starting to get used to the flow. We really tried to organize the site more and make is visually more appealing. We now have user photo galleries, Google maps integrated directly into articles, and RSS feeds for just about everything we offer. I still think we can do better, but I always think we can.

Our site has a lot of user-rich features, probably more than any other Tribune market. We take upon ourselves to try and innovate. What can go wrong? Not much, just try again. I would love to see more newspaper sites become more community/user driven. Treat is more like a web site than a newspaper.

Small: Lots of small text, densely packed. The first screen seems to emphasize navigation trees over content.


NaplesNews.com (Scripps)

Johns: Not a fan of left navigation. It makes the user scroll down the page every time to find something. Too much time wasted. Although not overly impressed by the design, I love that they used a tableless design. Looks like mostly if not all CSS. This is a hard thing to do.

Story pages: I liked the story pages more than the homepage and they have comments. That is a huge plus.


Statesman.com and Austin360.com(Cox Newspapers)

Small: These sites were already pretty good looking before redesigns. Graphics and typography in the new sites are strong. One oddity: When my colleagues and I first saw the new 360, several of us made the same mistake: thinking the guitar fretboard ghosted into the header was a picture of a building!


News.com

Johns: I like this site. There is a ton of info but it is easy to look at and easy to find. They have an organized and well thought out site.

Story Page: Very nice. A wealth of info, organized so a user can find and read it. Good job.

Section: Don’t like the “what’s hot widget.” I’m not a fan of this new trend of putting what is hot in larger text and “colder” links in smaller text. From a design standpoint I personally think it hurts. You could just as easily number them from 1 to whatever and fade them out.

Small: Among the C|Net redesigns, I much prefer the logic and beauty of Download.com — but I’ll give them credit for reasonably clear visual order and unobtrusive, intuitive navigation.


Topix.net

Johns: The site looks a thousand times better than their first version. I give congrats for that. They offer comments as well, which is great to see. I think their site flows very well.

Small: Bigger, lighter, more professional looking than the old. The real improvement for Topix, though, was the addition of many new content sources.


RegisterGuard.com(Eugene, Ore.)

Small: Clean layout, pleasant color palette, but again, full of small text.

Note: Johns viewed the sites using Firefox 1.5 on Windows 2000 SP4.

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