What’s Wrong With Today’s News Web Sites

By: Steve Outing

It’s that time of year for me again. As one of the 30 judges of
the annual Editor & Publisher EPpy Awards (which honor
the best Web sites of the newspaper and news industries), I’ve
spent a lot of time in the last few weeks poring over newspaper
sites.

In a nutshell, here’s what I’ve noticed: Over the years that I’ve
been volunteering as an EPpy judge, news sites have grown to be
more comprehensive and feature more and better content. But
comprehensive, while an admirable trait, is not always enough to
get users to make visiting and using a site a habit.

Many of the news sites that I reviewed this time around had the
feel of thorough, well researched encyclopedias. They’re chock
full of features and services, they’re useful, but they’re not
particularly engaging or entertaining. Something’s not right at
many sites – even some of the biggest.

Now, I’m not going to get into specifics of sites that I reviewed
this year. I’d violate the judging rules if I did, and we can all
wait till the results are announced in late February at the
Interactive Newspapers Conference
in Dallas. (I don’t know the results, either.)

But here are some general impressions, based on an exhaustive
examination of many newspaper Web sites.

What’s your personality?

This year, I saw some really excellent sites. Some of the best
ones now include all the features that writers like me have been
saying they need for years: Community publishing; personalized
home pages; throughout-the-day breaking news; news from regional
local-coverage partners; interactive discussion forums; feedback
mechanisms that append reader comments to articles; interactive
calendar features; etc. As the years go by, news sites have
evolved and improved by adding lots of useful new components
(often made possible via partnerships with Internet vendor
companies).

But what I found consistently was a lack of “personality.” Here’s
an example of what I mean.

In one of the “overall best site” categories that I judged, I ran
across a newspaper site that has just about everything I thought
it should have. I rated it highly, because it is such a useful
and efficiently designed site. It is simple to find what you
want. It allows customization of how the site is viewed and
content received for each user. It publishes breaking local news
as it happens, throughout the day. It features e-mail
subscriptions to selected content. This site is not only a good
source of news, but an excellent information resource for its
community. It is great for looking up a movie time, or finding a
meeting, or directions to a store, etc.

But overall, the site lacks character. Despite its slick
features and wealth of information, it is dull and lifeless for
the most part, with a bland design. As an information
resource, I could not fault this site. I envision it being a
widely used tool for regional residents when they seek to find or
learn something. But as a daily draw for a news consumer, in my
view it fails; its parent print newspaper is by far better as a
vehicle for attracting loyal, repeat usage.

The problem with this site – and through my judging
experience I looked at many others that suffered the same malaise
– is that it lacks a discernable personality. Most print
newspapers exhibit more interesting personality than does this
site – and newspapers of the last couple decades have been
criticized for becoming too bland and “corporate.”

So, here are my recommendations to those news sites that suffer
from bland personalities:

Enliven your design. I saw too many sites that
looked like directories. If your site features little more than
long lists of headline links, think about adding some pizzazz.
Don’t let your news site look like a directory site. In my
judging, I saw many that did.

Feature something daily; something interesting. A
fault I saw with a good number of newspaper sites is the failure
to highlight something special and something different each day.
I noticed too many sites that feature a list of headlines as the
central page element. Rather, select a feature of the day (or the
hour, for that matter, if a site is updated frequently) to be a
central page element. Give the casual visitor – the one who
has not arrived at your home page with a specific information-
seeking task in mind – some prominent suggestions for
where to click.

Develop innovative, exclusive content. Many entrants
in the EPpy contest point out special online content they’ve
created in the past. These tend to be “enterprise” or
investigative reporting, or big packages offering lots of deep
coverage on major news events. It’s great stuff – but it’s
typically a one-shot deal, which might be featured on a site
prominently for only a day or several days.

As an alternative, I’d like to see more projects that are drawn
out over a longer time period, and are strong enough editorially
that they’ll attract loyal readership. As examples, we can look
to newspapers of many decades ago. Think in terms of projects
like Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City
of the 1970s, which started out as a daily fictionalized serial
running in the San Francisco Chronicle. (Tales became
a hit and later evolved into books and a television series.)

News sites (and other content sites, for that matter) could
benefit from resurrecting the old days of the newspaper industry,
where serials kept readers hooked for long periods of time. I’m
talking about the type of content that embodies “personality.”

Inject more people into the mix. Something I noticed
about a lot of the sites I judged is that they downplay the
people who write the content. Want a bland Web site? Then
don’t feature the personalities of your writers.

Let your users know the personalities at your site, by featuring
writers’ photos and biographical information. Have writers and
columnists interact more with readers, by inviting online users
to join in discussion forums with the writers; let them
contribute comments about a writer’s work that is appended to the
article.

Even better, use the multimedia characteristics of the Internet.
A writer’s bio might be a video clip of the individual talking.
Offer audio versions of a columnist’s work, with the writer
reading his work aloud.

Beyond how to make your site more exciting by adding personality,
here are some other things I noticed during this round of
judging.

Why is e-mail so scary to news sites?

If you’ve been reading this column for any length of time, you
know that I’ve long advocated delivering content by e-mail. As I
judged this year’s EPpy entries, I was shocked to find that the
majority of sites still don’t offer much in the way of e-
mail content.

For instance, CNN has a free, bare-bones service that delivers an
e-mail alert whenever a major headline story breaks. It’s an
incredibly useful service to those of us who are online a lot.
Yet very few of the news sites I judged this time around have
anything like it. The ones I did spot tended to be once-a-day
deliveries of section content (“page 1” stories, top sports
stories, etc.).

E-mail services that I did find in my judging travels are not
granular enough. What news sites need to offer is an e-mail
content feed that’s specific enough for an online user to select
exactly what interests him/her. That might be Italian food
recipes, breaking news from a particular city, or news about a
favorite sports team.

PDAs are coming; news sites aren’t ready

I spotted some wireless content services for PDAs (Palm Pilots,
et al) among the sites I judged, but they exist at a minority of
sites. While mobile-devices are not yet widespread, the market
looks to be growing quickly. News publishers need to be working
on wireless content services now, not waiting.

Contests are fun; use them

This is an old idea, but one worth resurrecting. I’d like to see
more sites add some fun by holding daily contests. A good example
is Grab.com, a hugely popular
daily contest site. Grab.com sends out daily e-mails inviting
subscribers to take part in today’s contest. Apply this concept
to a news site and you’ve got a powerful attraction for people to
visit your site regularly – to make it “sticky.”

What’s wrong with interactivity

When I judge news sites, I always look to see how “interactive”
an entrant is – so I look for online discussion forums, live
scheduled online chats, reader comments appended to articles,
etc. Nowadays, most sites have interactive features (though the
latter is still a rare find).

Alas, the majority of forums that I saw on news sites this time
around were scarcely used. Appended reader comments rarely are
added to articles. Is this because online users really aren’t
interested in interacting? You could argue that. My
interpretation is rather that news sites have done a lousy job of
encouraging active participation. Online communities can be
powerful, but it takes work to keep them growing and to retain a
sense of belonging among participants, and marketing to let
people know about the benefits of participating.

It’s a downturn; it’s no time to be boring

I’ll refrain from airing more minor complaints about the news
sites I saw during this year’s EPpy judging. The real problem is
the major one – that the majority of news sites are, to be
blunt, dull.

Here we are in an Internet downturn, where Internet ventures of
all kinds are fighting for their survival. Creating a successful
business based on news and content is one of the most difficult
business challenges of all the Internet. News sites that want to
prosper need to try harder.

Judging by the feature-rich complement of services that are now
on many news sites, it’s obvious that people in this industry
have been working hard. Such sites are a sight to behold. Alas,
all that work counts for little if there’s not some “heart” in a
news site. And that may be the hardest feature to build.

Other recent columns

In case you missed recent Stop The Presses!, here are
links to the last few columns:
o What You Can Charge for on the Internet, Wednesday, January 10
o Online News Advice For 2001, Wednesday, December 27, 2000
o It’s Not Your Father’s Newsroom, Wednesday, December 20
o Archive of columns


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Steve


Got a tip? Let me know about it If you have a newsworthy item
about the online news/interactive news media business, please send me a
note.



This column is written by Steve
Outing for Editor & Publisher Online. Tips, letters and feedback
can be sent to Steve at steve@planetarynews.com


Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.

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