Tale of 2 Designs: Monitor Goes Back to the Future

By: Steve Outing (This is part 2 of a 2-part column about the Web site redesigns recently announced by the Chicago Tribune and Christian Science Monitor. To see part 1, about the Tribune's Web redesign, go to the bottom of this column and click on "Previous column.")

In my last column, I discussed the controversial redesign of the Chicago Tribune's Web site. Like it or hate it, this is a Web interface that looks to the future. It's what the Tribune's designers believe future online users will want and require in a high-bandwidth Internet environment.

In stark contrast is an upcoming redesign of the Christian Science Monitor's Web site. Next month, the site will take its news sections -- which include content repurposed from the newspaper -- and begin using a presentation system from UK-based Infosis. (C lick on that link to see a previous column I wrote about the Infosis system.) What's interesting -- and controversial -- about the Infosis Web publishing system is that it replicates printed newspaper pages on the Web.

Here's how the Monitor's news sections will appear online: Within the news sections of the Web site, the screen you see is split into two equal size frames. In one frame is a facsimile image of a newspaper page, plus a navigation menu to display other pages and get to other sections (Business, Sports, etc.). When you click on a headline, a photo or an ad on the facsimile newspaper page, the full text or photo or ad appears in the other frame. For small headlines, passing your cursor over the headline pops up a magnification so you can see what the story is about.

Familiar feeling

The point, obviously, is to recreate on the computer screen the experience of reading a newspaper. And for the Monitor, that's an important thing, says supervising online editor Tom Regan. The Monitor Web site is a "continuation" of the core product, the newspaper. Indeed, some Monitor Web site users don't even realize that there is a newspaper, so this is a means of re-establishing the Monitor brand name as a newspaper in the eyes of those users who only know it from their experience with the Monitor online, Regan says. He also thinks that it will generate additional print subscriptions for the Monitor.

Regan points out that the Infosis newspaper-like design will only be implemented in the "Today's Newspaper" section of the site. The home page will look the same; the online crossword stays the same; the site's interactive forums (which use the Well Engaged online discussion forum system) will continue to sport a less "retro" look. And even those who dislike the newspaper-page metaphor presentation can read the contents of the paper in a mode that merely presents headlines and section headings -- sans the facsimile pages.

Indeed, using the Infosis system to create the news sections of the site is a godsend to the Web site's staff, says Regan, because it automates the production of the news pages so much that more staff time becomes available for doing other Web presentation on the site. The result, he says, will be more time for his staff to be creating online-original content, rather than massaging print content to get it in shape for Web presentation.

Will Web users think kindly of the newspaper-pages-on-a-Web-site presentation? Regan thinks that as the next wave of "newbies" starts using the Internet, these not-so-early adopters will be comforted by the familiar newspaper look that they'll find on the Monitor Web site. When Regan showed the new news site redesign to his retirement-age mother, he says she spent more time browsing the site than previously.

Bandwidth blues

A major difference between the philosophy that's driving the Monitor Web site and that which drives the Tribune's is in approach to bandwidth limitations. The Tribune designers have built for a high-bandwidth environment, with alternative site interfaces available for those not so lucky as to have a T-1 line, cable modem or ADSL fast-access Internet service. By contrast, the Monitor's designers are constructing their site with low-bandwidth users in mind. (Remember, the Monitor, a U.S. paper based in Boston and distributed primarily in North America, seeks an international audience. Hence, online is an important medium for the Monitor; reaching out digitally to other countries where it cannot economically provide print editions is a major part of the company's strategy to expand its reach internationally. In many parts of the world, low-speed access to the Internet is all that's available.)

It's that approach that makes the Monitor Web site text-heavy and graphics-light compared to some other newspaper sites (especially the Tribune). In a presentation at last week's Interactive Newspapers conference in Seattle, Regan said during a news site design session, "The tool of the future is the tool of the past -- text."

The Monitor's experience has been that text matters more than just about anything else when it comes to user interface. Regan says by way of example that an area of the Monitor site was called only "Our Place" on a home page link, but many users didn't know what that meant, so they didn't click on it. When the wording was changed to "Entertainment and Lifestyle in Our Place," traffic to that feature of the site shot up. "You can't be obtuse," he says.

Is this a flashy redesign? Not really; certainly not like the snazzy interface of the new Chicago Tribune Web site. But it serves readers who are more interested in words than flashy graphics or the latest interface innovation.

Contact: Tom Regan, tom@video.csmonitor.com

The wrong way to handle corrections

San Francisco's two alternative newsweeklies are engaging in an online war of words over journalism ethics in the online medium. Specifically, the online editor of the San Francisco Weekly this week editorialized on his Web site about the way the competing San Francisco Bay Guardian handled correcting mistakes in a column posted on the Guardian Web site. (You can read all about it in an editorial called "Journalistically Incorrect" on the SF Weekly Web site, written by online editor Steve Boland. Also found there is a response to the Weekly's criticism by Guardian executive editor Tim Redmond.)

The short version of this story is that the Guardian Web site ran a story by its new columnist, Brooke Shelby Briggs, about some alleged shennanigans at Wired Digital (where Briggs used to work). Wired complained about some inaccuracies in the story, and Redmond took the Briggs piece off the Web site while he investigated. Later, the story was edited and put back up on the Guardian site, with some information that was particularly critical of Wired removed from the story.

Boland complained that the Guardian had violated standard journalistic ethics by not owning up to its mistakes, but merely posting the edited version of the story without ever acknowledging that the story earlier ran with inaccuracies. Redmond responded that he had acted responsibly by making sure that only accurate information was posted to his Web site, and that corrections policies that work in the print world don't necessarily apply to this new online medium.

I think the Guardian is clearly in the wrong in this case. It looks bad to have not acknowledged that at one point during its publishing cycle, the site contained a story with inaccuracies. Here's what the Guardian should have done, in my view:

Taken the story down when it was learned that there might be problems with it, and investigate, which the Guardian did. When the corrected story was put back on the Web site, it should have had attached to it a notice saying something to the effect of, "This story has been changed from its original form as posted on the Guardian Web site. To read an explanation, see our Corrections page." (It is not necessary that the Guardian keep online the original, erroneous version of the story.) On the separate Corrections page, there can be an explanation of the error and why it was corrected. For minor corrections, I don't think this treatment is necessary. But for a significant alteration of a story -- and this qualified as significant -- it's imperative that a news Web site acknowledge and explain its mistakes. Some readers saw the erroneous story, and to act as if the original transgression never occurred is irresponsible, in my view. Not to own up to your mistakes in situations like this damages a publisher's credibility.

For an example of an online-savvy and ethical corrections policy in action (pretty much what I outlined above), see CNET's News.com site.

No column on Monday

Due to the President's Day holiday in the U.S., there will be no Stop The Presses! on Monday, February 16. Next week, the column will be published on Tuesday, the 17th, and Friday, the 20th.


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

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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 steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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