Surprising Trends in News Web Site Design

By: Steve Outing Last April, the popular Web site went through a major redesign. Its opening page previously was a compact design with navigation devices to steer site visitors to the myriad online content offerings of the Boston Globe and dozens of its Web partners. The replacement is a home page that looks more like a traditional news site, with headlines and story summaries linking to various features -- including many news stories -- that change daily. Instead of a compact screen that didn't require scrolling, the new home page is a lengthy page with at least 20 news and feature items to choose. It requires considerable scrolling to see everything offered.'s old home page might best have been described as a "portal" entry vehicle. Its new page is very much news oriented. And thus, is very much part of a worldwide trend by news Web sites back to print roots.

Mario Garcia finds this trend odd. A newspaper design guru and consultant who has worked with more than 300 news organizations on print and now online projects, Garcia has watched as news sites in recent months have made their Web sites revert back to a print-like news focus and design. Rather than creating online sites that define the new medium, he's increasingly seeing publishers define their sites in terms of the past rather than the future. "I don't understand where this is coming from," he says.

Garcia has a worldwide perspective. His Tampa, Fla.-based design firm, Mario Garcia New Media Design International, works with publishing clients around the globe. In Argentina, he notes, some newspaper Web sites have added to their sites facsimile images of the print edition's front page. The same is true at some European sites.

Old-media syndrome

This is not an unheard of phenomenon. Early television consisted primarily of people with radio experience reading in front of a camera instead of a microphone. It took several years before TV broke out of the old (radio) way of doing things, and programming began being created that was appropriate for the new medium rather than the old. Garcia thinks it will take another five or six years before the online medium fully defines itself in a similar way.

In some ways, the public is driving this trend. Boston Globe vice president of new media Lincoln Milstein says that the news-oriented redesign has driven up page views to some parts of substantially. Editorial content was needed to drive traffic to some of the site's features, especially the "yellow pages" directory service on; the directory's page views tripled after the redesign, he says.

Garcia points to a related experience with one of his newspaper clients, Goteborg Posten in Sweden. Garcia did a print redesign and worked with its Web site. Public reaction to a site design that did not emphasize news as the dominant element on the home page was met with fierce criticism, and news was brought back to the forefront.

So, in the summer of 1998, Garcia says he would advise a new news publishing client not yet up on the Web but wanting to create a site to take news seriously. Despite all the talk by publishers -- especially the larger ones -- of becoming "portal" sites to compete with the likes of Yahoo! and Excite, news continues to be what draws people to publishers' Web sites.

But don't lead with the latest on Monica Lewinsky, says Garcia, because the odds are high that your Web visitors will have seen that news from some other source (online or off). Even if the big story of the day in your print edition is "Clinton admits to sex with Lewinsky," lead with local news that Web users haven't read elsewhere. Think local, he says.

Small spaces

Garcia thinks that most Web sites are too complex and chaotic. A news site's home page is actually a "limited canvas"; don't fill it up with too much stuff or Web visitors will simply skip off to other Web sites -- too overwhelmed to spend the time poring over all the elements on your page. Assume that the typical Web surfer who finds your site will spend about 20 seconds on your page before deciding to go elsewhere or click on one of your links. Home pages like's, which have many elements and require scrolling to see everything, violate Garcia's basic Web design tenets.

We're likely to see Web sites return to more simple, compact designs with easy navigation over time, Garcia says. In his recent book, Redesigning Print for the Web (Hayden Books, 1997), Garcia talks about treating information for news Web sites as "baskets." A news site's home page might have four or five well-defined baskets -- news, business, sports, community -- identified on the home page, with sub-baskets of content on inside pages. The key point: Don't let your initial page seen by users get so complex or busy that site visitors can't get a quick read of what's available.

Grabbing a Web visitor's limited attention is what the game is about. "Never has the art of headline writing been so important" as on the Web, Garcia says. In many ways, the medium harks back to the days of tabloid journalism, when competing newspapers barked sensational headlines to get noticed over the competition. Indeed, news Web sites might be well advised to hire people with experience working for tabloid publications. Of course, that doesn't mean hiring editors who will concoct "Elvis is living on Mars" stories; but someone who's worked for the New York Post might have a better grasp at how to grab Web users' attention than someone who's worked at the New York Times.

Garcia also believes that words and writing are at this point in the evolution of the Web more important than images. "I believe that words are what are going to grab you; words will bring you back" to a site, he says. It's ironic that this might be the case in a visual medium like the Web, but today's bandwidth-challenged consumer typically doesn't have the connection speed to be lured by fancy graphics; they're more likely to give up before a large graphic or Java applet can be downloaded fully by their modems.

American style permeates the Web

As someone who works with publishers internationally, Garcia also is an observer of trends among news Web sites from around the world. Alas, much of the design of sites looks similar, no matter where you look. The cultural differences that might be apparant in picking up newspapers from different countries are not so apparent on the Web. Garcia says he would like to see sites better reflect their local cultures; even U.S. sites don't typically reflect the regional cultural differences of the states.

The reason for this? The Web was embraced first and fastest by Americans, and much of the rest of the world has followed -- often mimicking U.S. sites' style. In the coming years, perhaps the Web will better reflect the diversity of the planet.

A couple of Garcia's South American clients offer examples of Web sites that aren't knock-offs of American news sites. La Gaceta, a regional daily in Tucuman, Argentina, features a color scheme that reflects the area for which the site is produced. And Eureka, the Web site for El Tiempo of Bogota, Colombia, was redesigned by Garcia to emphasize community.

Contact: Mario Garcia,


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at

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