Newspaper Web Design Is Seriously Flawed

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By: Steve Outing

The home pages of most news Web sites are too cluttered and suffer from link and content overload. Nearly all handle photography poorly. Page designs are the same day after day. There’s not enough hierarchy in story placement. Home page links are repetitive. Online classifieds design is often awful, making it difficult for consumers to find what they want. Advertising is handled so poorly that it’s not effective.

These are some strong opinions. They’re the view of an outspoken Virginia newspaper and Web designer, who believes that a decade into the online news revolution, the majority of newspapers have got their Web design fundamentally wrong. It’s time to think about the “next generation” of newspaper Web design.

The designer is Alan Jacobson, president and CEO of Norfolk-based Brass Tacks Design, and he’s not someone to pull punches.

A little day-to-day variety is called for

Perhaps the most glaring flaw at many Web sites is that they look the same day after day. While a print edition adjusts the layout of its front page to the news of the day, many newspaper home pages do not. They’re stuck with a set template, complains Jacobson, and the daily news is crammed into it — whether this is a day with a huge story (Saddam captured) or a slow news day (the local St. Patrick’s Day parade). Headlines are all the same size, not adjusted to infer news value.

It’s easy to find examples of this. Knight Ridder’s newspaper sites provide an obvious example. Each site is published with the same basic template, and the sites will look pretty much the same on a heavy or light news day. (Examples: The Miami Herald’s Miami.com and the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News’ MercuryNews.com.)

If you buy Jacobson’s line of thinking, this flaw extends throughout the newspaper industry, from sites small to large. NYTimes.com, certainly one of the best Web news operations in the world, sticks to a stiff template — a left column of headlines and blurbs, plus a 2 by 2-1/2 inch photo in the upper right. Only on rare occasions does this home-page design vary, when there’s news of considerable impact.

In Jacobson’s ideal world, home-page designers would craft a new layout every day, tailored to the news of the moment. Of course, Web-publishing reality gets in the way. Content management systems often dictate a more structured approach; they accept a basic home-page template that can be tweaked only modestly from day to day. Rare is the CMS that can support the kind of daily changes that a print-edition front-page designer can make.

How do we get past this? The industry needs to demand that CMS developers build better flexibility into the systems used by the news industry, for one thing.

A shorter term solution is one Jacobson uses with some of his newspaper Web clients. He provides them with at least a half dozen basic templates for different situations — one with a single story and piece of art for the big-news days, and various forms for other situations, varying headline and photo counts.

Photo usage is out of focus

Photos are a particular sore point with Jacobson. He argues — rightfully so in my view — that rigid templates often make it impossible to treat photos appropriately. The there’s-always-one-photo-on-the-home-page template is just silly when you have days that warrant running three photos. It’s denigrating editors’ news judgment when the only option is to stuff a photo into a locked-size template slot, no matter how important or unimportant a shot may be.

All on one screen

The Jacobson recommendations above pull some practice from print newspapering. (It’s not always a bad idea for online to mimic print media.) But now we start to diverge. The ideal home page, he suggests, would be confined to the limits of the size of a computer screen. That’s right, no scrolling. And the same goes for inside or article-level pages.

This is something you don’t find much in the Web news world. Such practice is commonplace in the marketing and retailing worlds (e.g., Eddie Bauer), and Jacobson suggests that there are some compelling reasons to think that this might work better in the online news world, where overloaded sites are so common now.

But how the heck are we going to fit all of the content of our home pages, especially, onto one screen, you ask? Simple: dynamic HTML (DHTML). Jacobson believes that the current generation of bloated news-site home pages will die off as more sites use DHTML techniques to hide content and links under expanding navigation elements that become visible as the user’s mouse is moved over a nav element.

An interesting example of this is CJOnline.com, the Web site of The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal. That site uses DHTML mouseover techniques to fit lots of content on a fairly compact home page (though not quite compact enough to fit on a single screen) — not only in the left-side navigation, which is a common approach, but also in the main content region of the page.

Jacobson points out that in usability studies done for one of his clients, Stateline.org, users almost universally preferred a compact DHTML page over a busier non-dynamic page.

And what about keeping inside pages compact? That’s not a new idea; IHT.com, Web site of the International Herald Tribune in Paris, pioneered the one-screen article page several years ago. Its articles are presented in 3-column format, with page tabs to click through (with no discernable delay) to further pages of text. Jacobson thinks that’s the best way to go, but he’s puzzled that so few news sites have copied it.

Repeat after me: Kill out the duplication

Repetition is a big factor in overloaded home pages. On a site like washingtonpost.com, for example, you can find examples of several links to the same “inside” page. For example, you can find links to the Entertainment section: 1) in the top horizontal navigation bar, 2) in the left-column expanded navigation section, and 3) in the lower right section of the page featuring headlines from various sections.

Why take this approach? One rationale is that with a lot going on on a page, multiple links to the same content ensure (you hope) that people won’t miss the link. Newsday.com recently took this to the extreme, including navigation elements at top, left and right. To Jacobson, that’s three weak links when what you really need is one strong one.

I’m not going to come out and say repetition is the wrong way to do it, but Jacobson points out that what the busy-page sites have done is turn their home pages into “indexes” of their sites, with long lists of sections and headlines. What they should be doing, he says, is making them into attractive and highly functional tables of contents.

Get rid of all that repetition, and use DHTML to hide some of the page elements, and you leave more room for better treatment of photos and artwork. And that’s more compelling than long columns of lists and navigation repeated throughout the page.

Let’s save classifieds

Jacobson is attuned to the money side of newspaper Web sites, and so he’s perhaps most passionate about classifieds. His opinion, as you might already have guessed, is that most of the industry is doing a poor job of directing Web users to this vital revenue source for publishers. Most papers do an inadequate job, he says, of promoting classifieds on their home pages, and a dismal job at pointing online users to classifieds from inside pages.

Because classifieds are so important to the newspaper industry’s survival as a whole, he believes that online-classifieds design warrants special attention. Take designers off special Flash/multimedia projects for six months, he urges, and put them on a special team to fix online classifieds.

He’s got some specific tips. First, include giant — yes, giant — buttons or icons at the top of the home page for the main categories (jobs, autos, real estate). If a newspaper site doesn’t get people to use its classifieds services, it’s doomed — indeed, the whole company is probably doomed. Second, make it super easy for someone looking for a refrigerator, for example, to find one. A good technique is to include a classifieds search field on every single page. Make it easy for a site user to find a refrigerator from anywhere on your site.

Display or banner advertising also needs design work at most newspaper sites, Jacobson says. Large ads jutting into text makes sense, for example, whereas tiny ads stacked on top of each other — a common ad design ploy — are futile. “It’s noise on top of noise,” Jacobson believes.

Is there hope?

Will newspaper sites see Jacobson’s light? The designer points to small degrees of progress. USAToday.com, for example, has been tweaked to be less busy. Washingtonpost.com, one of the busiest of all newspaper home pages, has become better organized — “but it’s doing it too slowly.” That’s his biggest fear: that the industry won’t solve its design flaws in time to save the classifieds franchise from online (and even broadcast) competitors.

Views from the other side

Obviously, Jacobson is just one designer — an outspoken one, but not necessarily someone who’s in agreement with the rest of his profession.

Online-news pioneer Howard Finberg, a faculty member of the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., and author of a textbook on news design, says there are some very effective news site designs out there. He agrees with Jacobson that too many newspaper sites have over-filled their home pages. “I wonder if we have let our desire to get stuff out on the home page hurt usability,” Finberg says.

Still, Finberg is concerned that eliminating navigation duplication on home pages could hurt usability. Recognize that there could be a wide variety of ways that people interact with Web pages and don’t get dogmatic about placing things in only one place, he advises. The design nirvana is to have a page that someone who’s never been to your site before can easily navigate around. Eliminating duplication might run counter to that goal.

Nik Wilets, senior information architect for Morris Digital Works, the online division of Augusta, Ga.-based Morris Communications, agrees that many sites lack a focal point on their home pages. Photos typically run too small, and there’s little indication of the importance of various stories. The Morris philosophy of Web design is that pages should have “hooks”; too often home pages on sites constricted by inflexible CMS’s lack that. The holy grail for news-site design, says Wilets, is to have a flexible page that can be reoriented like a magazine.

Wilets too likes the concept of using DHTML to create hidden/mouse-over navigation, and even to use such techniques for main page content. He points to the home page of Comcast as a good example of rich, hidden, interactive content presentation. On that page, a main image and headline package is put in a rotation with a couple of other packages — and the user can control viewing them.

That Comcast example is a better design (in my humble view) than many of today’s newspaper sites — and fits in with some of Jacobson’s recommendations. The industry needs to spend some extra effort looking at the design track it’s on. Perhaps some changes are in order.

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