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…

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22 thoughts on “Why Haven’t Online Newspapers Gotten it Right?

  1. If the IHT is too expensive, subscribe to the digital edition of the Washington
    Post. It’s US$9.95 a month, or US$108.00/year. This gets you an electronic
    version with the same layout as the dead tree edition.

    An alternative to the WashPost homepage is the follow the "Print Edition" link in
    the masthead. This takes you to a set of pages that contain the day’s stories
    arranged roughly the same way as the paper version. This doesn’t fix the ad-
    blitz, but it at least makes it a bit more sane.

    • But the WP electronic edition is a hack – it has the weaknesses of the paper
      edition, and none of the advantages (such as having articles all on one page) of
      HTML.

  2. Interesting piece. I’d say on the practical level, your solution is RSS (providing your newspaper offers them – but only using ones that offer RSS is the best way to make sure others do). Using RSS, you can set up your own headline index, often section by section and replicate the kind of browsing experience you’re after.

    And in general, newspaper sites are really bad. Personally, as someone who used to be a print journalist and jumped to "Internet Professional" by way of a newspaper-bred site, I think the newspaper industry has really strugged with the online model primarily since it turned its focus around 180 degrees.

    Print newspapers are the least measurable of all media. Papers cite "circulation" figures, which are inexact at best, but even those numbers say little about what’s actually being read in each edition. That ignorance made it necessary for editors to simply guess at what the paper’s readers wanted to read. Maybe driven somewhat by bias, they often guessed wrong, and circulation suffered in many markets where urbanization gave way to suburbanization.

    But online, papers get to see what people are reading, which was a pretty big shock for editorial and opinion writers – who suddenly realized how little people really care about what they think. Eventually, the online site and its logs become a driver what what ends up dominating the paper.

    As for the design tendencies, that’s just a poor understanding of the medium as you mentioned. Paper people are used to being limited by space, so a big open page makes them go link crazy. Again, bypassing the site and going RSS solves that.

    I think it’ll be a tough thing for newspapers to remain relevant.

    • I do use RSS, as I point out. But, for many newspaper sites, RSS can be even
      worse. For example, the NYT includes articles in many feeds – I guess it might
      make sense for articles that could interest different readers – but for me, it’s
      annoying. Also, they limit the number of articles they include.

      And when you get to the page, you still have the bad layout, links and ads…

  3. I read "Why Haven’t Online Newspapers Gotten it Right?" at http://www.kirkville.com/index.php. You may not realize the issues you are nudging against apply to a broader scope than newspapers, and have frustrated me in other ways. Most recently, I am trading in my Palm Pilot for an old breast-pocket leather bound calendar date-keeper. Why? In this format, it’s difficult to introduce my thoughts and explain the connection, but I’ll try. Here are two case studies; see if they hit the same nerves:

    ONE

    I used to be able to walk into a post office and ask about the cost of mailing a package in multiple ways, with various types of return receipt and insurance. Each class of mail has capricious rules to be followed, but once understood, they’re not difficult rules. I used to be able to capture in my brain the ~algorithm~ of determining postage. Now, the shipping clerk doesn’t even know the rules. The only answer available is, "put it on the scale and I’ll tell you the options." This process totally deprives me of knowledge such as "If you reduce the weight by 1 oz, it can ship first class and get there 4 days earlier for a cheaper price." This situation deprives me of a priori knowledge for smart shipping with the postal office. And makes comparative shopping between companies nigh impossible since it’s unreasonable to drive the same package to 3 different offices and check prices.

    Your pining for the paper copy begs of perspective and scope. You don’t want the serial stream of "read this", but rather a parallel access to multiple options, scanned, skimmed, and possible read in depth. That’s the same way I want to engage with shipping options. Some combinations are obviously bad and waste money. That’s like skimming. Other times, the last 0.5 oz will change the price significantly, so when mailing many copies of a document, it’s worth it printing double sided. Sometimes I want scanning of headlines and topic sentences to get a feel for what’s going on. Sometimes I want the details of an algorithm.

    TWO

    You can probably see the second issue already: an issue of zoomability, i.e., with what granularity do you care about a topic? Given the same topic, different people care about different granularity. You might care only ~that~ 55 new mutual fund managers have been indicted. A mutual fund manager might care about the nuances of what charges are levied for what offense. You can get your news from the same paper as the fund manager by simply using it differently. A paper newspaper can be used differently by different people. A push-fed internet feed is only a serial stream of information that you cannot bypass, sidestep, or condense. There is no way to "zoom out" and ask "What is happening today, overall?". You’re pounded with minutia that you have to process, if only to find the click link to move on. With a paper copy, disinterest almost instinctively yields a page flip with no intellectual engagement with the page. A web page *makes* you look closely to do simply navigation tasks, even if the material is of no interest to you.

    I understand your frustration. All the best to you and yours.

    (P.S. time stamp on the preview of this post is 6:47 pm at 1:47 pm EST. What’s up?)

    • I agree with much of what you say. I never got used to using a Palm for
      contact info, appointments and the rest, and now use pencil and paper much
      more often. You don’t have to back up a pad.

      Same gripe about the post office. I live in France, and my wife has printed out
      all the rate info from the post office web site, because the people who serve
      don’t know it. We always find cheaper ways to send things, and even bought a
      scale to do so. (I send copies of my books to people, and sell many used
      books on Amazon.)

      Re the time… Again, I’m in France. Maybe the server is showing the local time
      setting, rather than your physical time? Dunno…

  4. You might want to check out the Wall Street Journal’s online edition. It might be
    closer to what you’re looking for, though it still has the issue of constantly
    updating.

    Kevin

    • Yes, several people have suggested this. But it has too much of a business
      focus, and not enough other news. And it’s $100 a year. And the editorials are,
      as someone on Slashdot said, "to the right of Atilla the Hun". :-)

      But I agree that its layout is better than the NYT and WP…

  5. I just started this fall working for a newspaper, the afternoon paper as the web manager and I am grappling with the exact comments you make in your article, so believe me when I say, online newspaper navigation and presentation are the top priorities on my list.

    My managing editors get it though; they don’t know how to do it so they have hired me to do it. They know about the presentation, the ad space, the content and the need to provide an online paper that works for web readers.

    I am open to ways that better present the immense amount of content that is produced everyday in the paper to online (sports drives our stats). So just as you say in your thoughts you don’t have any ideas, try digging your way out of a ton of them to make them work. With they web, there isn’t just one answer, but I’m working on some of them: RSS, date display, headline, abstract, full content display, navigation, organization, visual cues: links to related stories, mulitmedia, photo, etc. – all of this while trying to establish our brand and not loose it at the same time.

    • It is indeed complicated. All the strategies that readers have developed over the
      years to read newspapers and magazines are lost on the web. You might want to
      read up on reading – there is a lot of research on how people read, skim, scan
      etc.

      I think the key is making something that is visibly enticing – enough white
      space, but not too much. Not too many links without contextual info (either text
      or photos). And several navigational paths.

      Do let me know if you come up with anything original.

  6. Kirk,

    I really enjoyed reading your article, though I found it rather unfulfilling as it is sans a real solution. From my perspective the real issue is rather McLuhanish in that modern newspaper sites have clearly mixed up the medium with the message. They just don’t get it. I’m an avid reader as well and I’ve had to suffer through the many design attempts of various newspapers to become truly electronic repositories.

    Some newspapers have attempted a visual replication of the visceral experience of reading one’s favourite broadsheet – only to remove it when readership declined due to nobody wanting to-wait-for-the-dumb-graphical-page-to-finally-turn! To Clintonize McLuhan; “It is the medium, stupid!” The struggle that is happening is somewhat akin to the attempts by American newspapers in the 1930s to distribute articles via radio signals to early fax machines. These devices, while purchased by geeks and early-adopters, failed to really catch on because they only printed at 150 words an hour, and hey it was the height of the depression. They were expensive (for both transmitter and reader), slow and had no advertising basis for financial support. A business MUST make money in order to live, it is its food. Any enterprise that doesn’t ‘eat’ dies. Radio-based faxes died from starvation.

    Newspapers are NOT Internet sites, and they shouldn’t attempt to be what they are not. The real challenge that they face is the ever-declining readership and print-levels of the paper editions. This is the biggest threat to newspapers, but hopefully this will be the real pain point that drives them to innovate in to the 21st Century.

    At this moment, I feel that newspapers are dead. They may still be breathing, but they are in a coma – on life support and are simply hanging on due to pure inertia from a long established history. (Just so you know, I love my newspaper, I’ve been a subscriber all my adult life, I even had two physical subscriptions while I was single. Today I also have 26 magazine / periodical subscriptions as well, so it isn’t like I hate the medium, but I do see it mostly dying out in the next two decades.) The ‘cure’ isn’t in broadband or pure graphical equivalencies of the physical medium, rather it will be found in the successful development of something better and easier than what exists today. You’ve correctly identified one of the biggest problems with current website iterations; too many links. It isn’t easy navigating most news-based websites today. I really wonder how what percentage of people simply don’t bother to scroll down or look around too much beyond the headlines because it simply is too mentally taxing to do so. It takes a huge amount of thinking effort to transfer text into comprehension and contextualization. The puking up of a million links to a billion different parts of a modern newspaper’s contents on the home page is a guarantee that only a small percentage of hard-core users will slog in through the maze.

    The key is to be able to organize and hide all of the complexity from the visitor. Google aced this when it first arrived – presenting a single function interface that did an excellent, singular job. Today’s Google, while still spartan compared to something like Yahoo, is far more noisy and will likely only continue down this path to muck as it grows into Microsoft 2.0. When you pick up the paper from your front porch in the morning, it isn’t complicated. It is just a pile of paper with some colours on it. It doesn’t begin to present any complexity until you decide to open it and dig around. Even when you scan the front page, usually only the various daily sections (Editorial, Business, Sports, Entertainment, Classified, Obit, etc.) are indexed, not individual stories. You need to take the effort to grab the fourth section to find out more information about the latest developments in the Enron legal process. It is expected that there will be some effort involved in finding a story or to peruse a subject in your favourite daily. This fact of newspapers runs directly against the ‘information at your finger tips’ reality of the Internet via Google. The experiences don’t exist well together, hence the frustration that you and everyone else out there who enjoys sitting down with a favourite newspaper has experienced in the online interaction with a ‘newspaper’ site.

    Your lament about the temporal nature of electronic postings vs. a daily fixed printed version is one that I share as well. So, having said all this, do I have a suggestion for Newspaper owners as to what they should do in order to survive to 2020? Perhaps, though it has yet to be done and proven. Here are the design features and capabilities I believe that newspapers must incorporate in any website if they want success in surviving in an electronic information world:

    1) Embrace the gestalt of the Internet. Put aside any desire to turn the Internet into an electronic newspaper and instead work to truly understand and leverage what the Internet medium is vs. what the newspaper medium is.

    2) Play to your strengths. If you are a local / regional newspaper (The Calgary Herald, Toronto Star, Chicago Tribune) then ensure that your website is THE place to go for information on local news and information. If you are a ‘record’ newspaper (The Globe and Mail, NYT, WSJ, Le Monde) then ensure that you present the world to your readers and reflect back to the world your perspective of it. (ie. If I want to know the American perspective on a significant event in Australia, then I check out the story’s coverage in the NYT.)

    3) Remember. This is a change from the temporal nature of newspapers, but it is critical in terms of what the ‘net is all about. If you fail to provide your readers with a full and comprehensive archive of ALL of your past content, you will be failing at step 1. The Internet is an archive.

    4) Expound. The real physical limits of newsprint no longer apply. Offer your readers the experience of being able to learn more on a topic. Consider the different types of newspapers; tabloids (not much more than ads and headlines), broadsheets (larger articles, less ad % per page), paper of record (in-depth, multi-day articles, few ads, little colour). Perhaps embracing each general style option for your readers all within a single destination – with presentation and content formatted to an individual reader’s preference. Communicate with each audience (a single reader) in a manner that the audience prefers (a complete reversal of a newspaper’s one-size-fits-all mode).

    5) Entice. Human beings love to be enticed. When something is attractive, we are capable of investing almost anything, even our lives for it! Make what you present sexy. Apple knows this secret. Google began with it. Make your online content easy on the eyes (your medium’s presentation doesn’t have to be complex; a bikini is simple, and simply irresistible to look at!) What is in the bikini is complex…but by the time that I’m interactive with her, the effort to get to know her isn’t work, it is pleasure. Entice me in to your website and I’ll enjoy getting to know you better because I will be enjoying myself.

    6) Educate. Far too much content on the Internet and any mass-media is crap. The 500-channel universe is 498 channels of drivel and perhaps 2 with something worthy of my time. More does not mean better if it is simply air-filled information. People read a newspaper because they want to learn. They don’t want to know about the Pythagorean Theorem, but they DO want to know about information that each printed newspaper typically covers day-to-day, year-over-year. Each paper has its own information domain, and it should leverage the power of the Internet to expand beyond what is typically offered in the printed version. Hyperlinks to external information sources are not evil, even if they take a reader away. Again, you gotta get #1 before the rest can work.

    7) Inform. This is not the same as 6. I want to learn (#6), but I also want to know. The difference is in context and content. I may want to learn more about the Air Marshall program on American commercial aircraft. That is an education that I am seeking. I also want to know what play is being offered at my local theatre, and what a reviewer thought of it. The first piece of information is likely something that I will want to remember on a permanent basis. The second is temporary; it helps me determine if I think that the play is worth my effort and money to watch. In a year I won’t likely remember exactly where or when I saw the play or even what the reviewer said, but I’ll probably have a mental note in regards to my response to the play if I actually went to see it.

    Informing is also the role of advertising. While you may hate ads in your online newspaper, they do play a role that is greater than the simple income-level of that site. Advertisers and readers share a common interest in traditional newspapers; it is a consistent and reliable way to communicate. I can name off the regular flyer inserts by day of placement for my local newspaper, and for me it is a service. Every Thursday a new Canadian Tire insert is always there. I rely on seeing it every week, as I know it is an excellent way for me to know what is on sale and if it is worth a trip in the next week. I’ve saved thousands of dollars by utilizing the knowledge of sales and coupons that have come to me via my newspaper on a regular rotation from the retailers that I frequent. Sure there is advertising that I don’t respond to, but this is another strength of the Internet medium, and not a weakness. If you doubt, go back to step #1 and ‘get’ it first, THEN you’ll be ready to design an excellent online newspaper website. If you rush it before you truly get it, you be repeating the sins of the past.

    8) Don’t give up. You MUST continue to work at this problem because all of the current trend numbers clearly point to extinction. The existing infrastructure of modern newspapers is expensive, and it requires a large readership to support. Subscriptions don’t typically pay for the content; they simply try to cover the cost of printing and distribution. The real profit in a newspaper is in the selling of your eyeballs to advertisers; fewer eyeballs mean lower revenue, which leads to quick extinction. Up until the mid 1970s, most Canadian cities had 2 broadsheet newspapers, now most cities are served by a single broadsheet and a ‘Sun’ tabloid. Profits are thin and hence quality is declining. Most of these papers are looking rather emaciated when compared to even the 1980s; the next step is the death of the small-mid market broadsheets. Only innovation in bringing your content to today’s youth (15+) will ensure that you will have an audience in 20 years. Today’s youth are online, NOT in paper.

    I realize that this isn’t a 10-step list. I’d be fluffing up my thoughts if I were to attempt to come up with two more points. (I do think that to re-jig this in to some parallel 12-step program list might work….but that is for another day.) Kirk, I look forward to reading your thoughts on this.

    Ron

    • Ron, I agree with all your points, especially the one about education. One of
      the big problems in the US is the total lack of awareness of the outside world.
      This is, of course, historical (and geographical) – the US has, for most of its
      history, been insular. But local is now global, and people can no longer ignore
      what happens in the world. (Though if they want to disenfranchise themselves
      politically, as recent history has shown, this is the way to go.)

      Education on issues, on history, on politics; all those things should be part of
      a newspaper’s mandate. Todays newspapers should be printing articles
      explaining concepts, not just news, to get their readers more able to
      understand the ramifications of things. (That’s how it works in my main line
      of work – we coumputer authors write lots of simple articles for magazines,
      so our readers can move up and understand the more complex stuff, which is
      either longer articles or books.)

      But there is also a question of national feeling. As long as Americans believe
      that Tom Cruise’s baby or Janet Jackson’s nipple are more important than the
      freezing, starving Pakistanis, or the war-torn poor in Darfur, these things will
      not change. In a way, it’s the sign of ostrich-itis, but it’s also a sign of a true
      belief of superiority.

  7. Kirk –
    I agree with pretty much all of your criticism of what’s wrong with online newspapers. But I think the problem is deeper than presentation. The Internet is a different medium. Radio is different from TV is different from newspapers are different from magazines are different from Internet. One shouldn’t be considered a replacement for another.

    I think the question is not how can an online news outlet provide a product and experience similar to a printed newspaper, but rather what should we expect from an online news site? I find a more focused product works better, there are several good sports sites, weather sites, classified ad sites, etc. But a portal that tries to do it all can’t compete with any of the sites that specialize; and the Internet makes it very easy to jump from site to site so you don’t need a single site the way you need everything in a newspaper. Nobody wants to read dozens of newspapers, but visiting dozens of web sites is common.

    Then there’s the question of how to skim lots of headlines for a story that interests you. Maybe there is no good Internet replacement for skimming a newspaper while eating breakfast; just as there’s no way to skim radio or television news. Perhaps the closest Internet equivalent is an aggregate like Digg, fark, or slashdot; people with interests similar to the reader’s pointing out articles that interested them. I was never convinced that a newspaper editor’s judgment on what I should be reading was in my best interest anyway.

    Regards,
    -Tom

    • The question of specialization, especially for things like sports, is an important
      one. I’ve always wondered, for example, why there is no daily sports newspaper
      in the US, as there is in many European countries, where sports is far less
      "important".

      As for news aggregators, I don’t want "the majority" to decide which news I read.
      That’s what an editor does – make the decisions according to a logic of
      completeness. All those aggregators, such as Google News, just look at either
      the most popular stories (stars, their babies, etc.) or the ones readers "like". I
      don’t think newsworthiness should be determined that way.

      • Immediate disclaimer–I hate my current site design, and am in the throes of
        redesign…BUT: I notice Kirkville has easily a hundred or more links (anyone
        got a link counter out there?) and while there is a strong central well of major
        posts, everything else is small font and equally weighted, so apparently
        equally important or unimportant–no guidance offered to the bewildered
        reader. My point is not to pick on Kirk but to object to Kirk picking on news
        sites, when ALL sites are bad…from his point of view. He wants it all, he says,
        but not to be overwhelmed.

        There is hope: Eyetracking studies (go to
        Poynter.org and search for Eyetrack) have shown where and what people
        focus on, on a site, both news and other types, and knoxville.com is one
        that has tried to apply those lessons.

        Beyond that, however, on our old-fashioned stack ’em up site, people DO
        scroll down, and do click on links (and ads, thank goodness)–we can bury a
        big story at the bottom of the stack and our readers (250,000 uniques/month
        normally, 450,000+ this month because of Letterman and Richardson
        touching Denish stories) find them. So people are willing to do some work.

        For sites with lots of links, look at Amazon, Yahoo, and other non-news sites,
        and note that Yahoo still
        outranks Google in total traffic (email helps a lot, of course.)
        To manage the flood of stories, we tried topics, but now we’re looking at tags
        as a way to help you find all the
        “scandal” stories, or all the “democracy abroad” stories. (Not yet
        implemented.)

        And another thing: as a small-town newspaper we’re “supposed” to
        be hyperlocal–but in fact we get tremendous readership on our wide-
        ranging international news–because Santafeans, like people everywhere,
        have opinions about the rest of the world, and we allow them to express
        them.


        Michael Odza
        Web Publisher
        FreeNewMexican.com
        modza@sfnewmexican.com

        • Now, you’re either exaggerating, or you can’t count. :-) There are nowhere
          near 100 links on my main page… Also, comparing the two is ridiculous –
          when you go to a website that has a limited amount of content that changes,
          you can become familiar which which links are where (in my case, the Topics
          on the left, only 7 or 8 depending on which page you are on, the Sites I Visit
          and my Favorite Things.) Other links are Read More links, in stories, or links
          to my books on the right. All in all, there’s no comparing this with a
          newspaper site with hundreds of links – count the NYT’s main page –
          especially those to stories.

          I took a look at your site – why do you, like most newspapers, not take
          advantage of the width of browser windows? You have your site set up so
          anyone at 800×600 sees the same as anyone with a wide screen. I see your
          main page with about 1/3 empty space on the right side…

          This said, you’ll notice that I didn’t gripe too much about the NYT’s list of
          links on the left; they are static links, just like my left column, and yours too.
          I don’t find that to be a problem. As I said above about my site, these links
          are permanent, so they don’t require you to find them anew each time you
          come to the site.

          Now, getting to the important stuff – the news stories – you’ve got it right.
          While I’d vote down your right-hand column – that fade-to-white is the
          highlight of unusability – the stories in the central column are just as they
          should be: headline, deck, some photos, and white space, a rarity on
          newspaper sites.

          • Kirk, I count 84 links on your home page (you forced me!–doesn’t anyone
            know of a little javascript that would do a count of links on a page?),
            including both rails and the center well, and not counting the multiple links at
            the end of stories (post comment, etc.). I grant you, static "reference" links
            are less offensive…but from a new user point of view, a link is a link…is a
            link. That’s why customization should be an option. Some people want to be
            one click from anything and to see all their choices laid out; other people
            don’t want to see anything but the Google search box, and just hope that
            their search term has been anticipated on the site. (Calling Autonomy.com.)
            And still others want the general high-level taxonomy–local news,
            international, sports, comics, classifieds–the kind of sections newspapers
            have depended on for centuries.

            I actually want to get rid of the right rail, as well as expand to full width, and
            use the space to present stories in parallel down the page. I think the vertical
            stack, for a site with multiple audiences, is very rigid. For instance, we have
            local stories of great local interest above international stories of great local
            (and worldwide) interest. We should have a local column and an international
            column of stories–at least.


            Michael Odza
            Web Publisher
            FreeNewMexican.com
            modza@sfnewmexican.com

            • 58 in the left column, but most of them are non-essential – things I like, etc.
              A dozen in the right column, but each one goes with a book cover and
              description. I won’t count the ones in the stories, because each story that has
              a read more link has enough intro text so readers can see what it’s about.

              My gripe, once again, is more with the headline links on newspaper sites that
              give no context. Count the links on the NYT site – and don’t even bother with
              the left-hand column…

              You say:

              "I actually want to get rid of the right rail, as well as expand to full width, and
              use the space to present stories in parallel down the page. I think the vertical
              stack, for a site with multiple audiences, is very rigid. For instance, we have
              local stories of great local interest above international stories of great local
              (and worldwide) interest. We should have a local column and an international
              column of stories–at least."

              Yes, that would make much more sense. All that wasted space on the right
              detracts from the overall view. And a two-column approach would be a lot
              better. (But don’t go to the extreme like the Atlantic Monthly does…)

  8. I’d like to put this into a broader context. Newspapers haven’t got much of anything right since the 50s/60s, if the measure of “getting it right” is increasing readership. Newspaper companies have proven to be resourceful at increasing operating margins, reducing costs and spinning the market data that drives advertiser decisions, but their grades keep slipping on the one test that ultimately will matter — how many people read the paper, print and pixel?

    For newspapers to get it right on the web, I think they need to rethink what they do on the web. They need to build websites that offer content web readers want, produced and presented in a way that is functional and engaging on the web. What newspapers actually do is repurpose print content in the most cost-effective way possible. It’s a business model that misses the point: What content and what delivery/presentation method provide value in the eyes of the url-clicking public?

    I should confess that I am a lapsed newspaper editor. I left the business eight years ago. When I left, business was booming for readership consultants, design consultants, marketing consultants — any consultant who could suggest ways to stem readership erosion. The relationship between the newspapers and the consultants looked a lot like Jenny Craig and overweight America, with predictable results. I doubt the landscape has changed much, but I would bet there is now a new class of consultant trying to sell newspapers on the idea of blogs!

    For newspapers to get it right on the web, newspapers need to study web readers to see what they read and what they buy, and then newspapers need to put creative, thoughtful people to work building the websites readers will use with frequency. My guess is that won’t happen, that newspapers will continue to shrink, and new, smart (and lucky) media businesses will win market share in both the news and advertising spaces.


    Thomas Osborne

  9. aside from it being uncomfortable to read and i cant cary on my train or bus , online reading is very bad for your eyes !
    N Y Times printed paper newspaper for me always!

    Eye Care Dave

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