Why Haven’t Online Newspapers Gotten it Right?

Like most Internet users, I get a lot of news from web sites: whether newspapers, magazines or TV channels, the main purveyors of information are the leading media brands. I read the New York Times, the Washington Post, Le Monde, along with other media web sites, and subscribe to RSS feeds for dozens of others. (And that’s just for “hard” news, not for tech-related subjects.)

I’ve watched, over the years (I’ve been using the Internet since 1995), as these media have first staked out their territory, then expanded their presence, then attempted to develop their online offerings to compete with others. Yet throughout these ten years, and through the many variations in web sites, I don’t understand why online newspapers can’t get it right.I’m a reader–I read lots of books, subscribe to many magazines, and read a lot on the web. I’m also a follower of news–local and international, partly because, as a lapsed American living in France, US news is for me, by its very nature, international. But I’m also very interested in history and politics, and find it essential to keep up-to-date with the major issues and conflicts occurring around the world.

While much of my reading is done on dead-tree media (books and magazines), it is too onerous for me to subscribe to a newspaper (on paper): the only solution I would have, at least for an English-language source, is the International Herald Tribune (owned by the New York Times), which, at €355 a year, is out of my league. Yet I would like to have a paper newspaper to read each day, because online newspapers just don’t cut it.

The advantages to online media are many: their ability to be up-to-the-minute, their flexibility, and their customizability are all prime reasons to use them. But these same features are their downfall: readers of online media don’t all see the same news, since they can customize what they want to see, and since many newspaper web sites display stories according to what readers have seen before; stories may change from hour to hour, even from minute to minute, so different readers will see different versions of stories. (The advantage to this is that online newspapers can update stories for breaking news and changes, as well as corrections, but since, for most stories, such updates are not necessary, this is a moot point.) This means that if I read a story this morning, then go back to the web site, that story may no longer be visible, or it may have moved to a place where I cannot locate it. While newspapers (the paper ones) offer a fixed, daily dose of news that everyone shares, online newspapers tend to fragment the news into only what catches the eye.

And that last point is the one that makes online newspapers pale copies of their paper originals. Leafing through a paper newspaper, one sees headlines on each page, and may end up reading stories that would not be likely to show up when customizing a web site by subject and keyword. Instead of receiving a “customized” version of the news, you get all the news that’s fit to print (to coin a phrase). In this time of fragmentation, people tend to seek out media sources that fit their point of view, whereas a paper newspaper, by its very nature as a source of news for all readers, has to include as many viewpoints as possible. Nowhere is this more obvious than on the editorial pages of any paper.

When you read a newspaper, you use special strategies called “skimming” and “scanning” to navigate the pages. Skimming means you glance over pages until you find things you want to look at more closely, reacting to certain words or photos, and scanning is taking a closer look, reading for gist, or reading introductions and conclusions that give you more information and often help you decide whether you want to read an entire article. With online newspapers, however, you don’t have this option. You only see headlines–and they are often clipped to fit in a limited amount of space (the front page of the Washington Post is a good example of this: scroll down and see how short the headlines are under the different “sections”. The New York Times does this better, as their “headlines” can be longer, even covering several lines, but the fact remains that one only sees the headline, not an introduction, photo or other information. Also, both these newspapers seem to be obsessed by threes; they each show exactly three stories, no more, no fewer, under each section header. If there is more news, they’ll still show only three stories.

This is the case for all major online newspapers: with a goal of fitting as much “information” as possible on their main pages, they skimp and shut out their readers. They don’t realize that less can be more, nor do they think in terms of the way people read newspapers. Sure, reading the news on a web site is different from reading a newspaper, but not by much. Which is why the auto-generated Google News does it better; their stories show introductions, the first few dozen words of stories, allowing readers to have more context. However, the very nature of Google News, with its selection of stories by “computer algorithms, without human intervention” is the antithesis of any newspaper. Sure, Google claims that “news sources are selected without regard to political viewpoint or ideology, enabling you to see how different organizations are reporting the same story,” but rarely do opinion pieces show up on its pages, and only the most reported news appears. Quantity rules chez Google.

A newspaper is an institution that has a social contract to fulfill. In part, it must entertain and inform, but it must also provide a unity of the news it prints. For this reason, paper newspapers (or their brands) have a long future ahead of them. However, they need to rethink the way they present news and the navigational tools they provide to their readers. I don’t have any answer to this conundrum, I don’t know the best way to do this, but I do know that no newspaper I’ve read online gets things right. I want to be able to read the important news and the editorials, but also discover the stories that stay under the radar. I don’t want to only read those stories that I have selected, nor those that a newspaper has selected for me–I want to be able to see the full range of stories the newspaper publishes, and decide for myself.

But today’s newspaper web sites have too many links, too many stories, too much information (and way too many ads, including animated ads that make it all but impossible to read the text which is the essence of a newspaper) all on one page, with the idea that more is better. They can’t understand that there could be other ways of attracting readers to the diverse content they offer. While most of the newspapers do this very badly, I give my special bad layout award not to a newspaper, but to a magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, which I read on paper, for the way they seem to just dump so much on their main page. This site is horrendous, and looks as though it was designed by a committee.

But look at the New York Times or Washington Post, to cite only two “newspapers of record”. Their main pages are also a cacophony of links; hundreds of them, to stories, columns, sections, ads and more. It is virtually impossible to navigate any of these pages. For a really bad layout, see Le Monde, one of France’s newspapers of record: even if you read French, there is little hope that you’ll be attracted to anything in their miasma of links.

Why can’t newspapers do better? Part of this could be because of the way a newspaper itself is laid out: the goal is to squeeze as much as possible into a page, compromising the content (the news) to fit around the ads. On the web, this is less of a problem, but it is likely the same designers who don’t understand usability and don’t know how to envisage a web page as a visual unit. Salon, which was never a newspaper, does much better than any of the larger media because their designers are not of the column-inch breed. However, their layout is good only when you click a link to read an article; their main page is as hard to navigate as any newspaper’s.

What is needed is some way to approximate the leafing-through of pages that one does with a newspaper; to allow the serendipity of discovering a story you might otherwise have missed, and to see, at a glance, the scope of what has happened during a 24-hour period. Web sites should not simply replicate their paper cousins, but use today’s technology to improve upon the tradition of the print press.

As newspapers dumb down their presentation in order to fight the clickitis of modern readers, they do themselves a disservice, and end up killing off many of their potential readers. In addition, they fill their pages with annoying flashing, moving ads, which will scare off ever more readers, at least those who don’t use ad-blocking software. I don’t see the ads they expect me to blindly click on to pay for their services–I use software to block ads–and I don’t feel bad that I deprive newspapers of any such revenue, because those ads are so badly designed as to prevent reading. However, give me a good online newspaper, and I’ll be happy to pay for it. As long as there are no ads…