Design View | Design articles and news from Andy Rutledge

01/06/05

Online Newspapers are 99% Bad

Given the fact that online newspapers are supposed to attract huge numbers of readers and ad consumers, why is it that almost all of them are examples of the worst the web has to offer in the way of readability, design, layout, usability and information architecture? Even the best of them are relatively poor examples of these important factors.

UPDATE: Since this article was written, many of the publications mentioned below have undergone redesigns of varying success. This article is, therefore, somewhat dated, but I maintain that the observations, given the context, remain entirely relevant.

I’m not talking about the lesser-known, backwater online publications. I’m talking about the big boys: The NY Times, The LA Times, The Dallas Morning News, Newsday, The Houston Chronicle, The New York Post and countless others. Nearly every one of them is a chaotic and incoherent mess. I’m not kidding when I say that it makes me wonder if there is some conspiracy in place to keep online newspapers awful to look at, to read, and to navigate.

This need not be the case. In fact, if these publications are serious about their futures, it must not be the case. Good layout, design and usability are easy to bring to the web, especially for text content sites. These publications need to clean up their acts if they want to stay competitive in the marketplace.

Let’s start with the bottom line

Newspapers are in business to make money. Period. Sure, they’re in business to keep the world informed, but only as long as they’re profitable. Period. Paragraph.

If your business is concerned with providing text content to readers and attracting eyes to your advertisers’ ads, it makes sense to do it well - in whatever medium you’re operating. With very few exceptions, top-tier newspaper publishers are failing to present quality on the web. In fact, their newspapers are among the least readable publications available on the Web.

Sure, online newspapers do have readership. Lots of readers wade through the horrible websites presented by online newspapers in order to get their news, but why make readers do that? Does that make good business sense? No, it makes bad business sense and it harms these publications and the advertisers who pay for exposure in them.

The diminishing captive audience

I believe that the only reason the big newspapers get away with providing horrible online publications is that most of their readership is used to bad webpage layout, design and information architecture. I think most of their readers don’t know that anything better is available or possible online. But that’s changing.

I know that I’m spoiled because I get my daily info-dose from well–designed weblogs and other publications (on design and marketing – not news, which I still get from television). I know how nice it is to read online content from pages that are designed and laid out well. I simply won’t waste time on sites that make it difficult for me to read or navigate. And every day I’m in larger and larger company in that respect.

Now, if one of these top tier newspapers did adopt a good layout and design, they could massacre their competitors. Presented with a pleasant and interesting online reading experience, readers would likely have a mass migration toward the good stuff. And advertiser revenue would have to follow.

Grading on a curve

Among the top–tier publishers, there are certainly better–designed online newspapers, but none of them are excellent. And that’s a shame because it would be so easy to make them excellent! Among the best of these online publications are The Times (London), San Francisco Chronicle, and Stateline.org. These online publications are far superior to web dogs like The NY Post, Newsday, The Dallas Morning News, LA Times and others.

But even so, these better–designed publications are deficient as compared to really well done publications, like The Morning News (update: Morning News now redesigned with a much poorer design. Ugh) and Boxes and Arrows. Take a look at these gems and you immediately know where their focus lies – on the content and the reader.

Think of the really nicely designed and laid out weblogs you read. Imagine if one of the news giants offered up their online content in as competent a manner. Do you think that would help them garner a huge slice of the online news readership pie? I certainly do.

With respect to the large network media outlets, none of them are doing a good job on the Web either. The better ones are ABC News and MSNBC. Rather ironic is the fact that the more prestigious networks, Fox News and CNN have the worst sites. Is this a case of their resting on their laurels? I’m not sure, but in any case it’s just plain dumb. These guys are supposed to be leading the way toward modern news publication. Instead, they’re way behind the curve with sophomoric efforts.

When evaluating these sites, we have to grade on a curve because even the best of them are still C– to D grade sites (with the possible exception of The Times and Stateline.org).

Compare and Contrast

Here are a few of the better online newspapers as compared to a few of the bigger online newspapers.

Pretty good...

The Times

and pretty bad...

NY Post

Pretty good...

Stateline.org

and pretty bad...

LA Times

Pretty good...

SF Gate

and pretty bad...

Dallas Morning News

I think that these examples make things fairly clear.

Looking again at the images above, can you spot the most glaring non–layout difference between the good and the bad? This telltale difference and most important distinction will likely send chills through the advertising world. The good sites above have little to no advertising on the main page. Gasp.

Problems and Solutions
Problem 1:

The number one problem with online newspapers is the presence of garish and stylistically inconsistent ads on the main page. Readers don’t visit these sites to be dazzled by frenetic colors and dizzying arrays of ads. Rather, they come to read news and be informed.

These ads distract and they destroy the design and the layout of the pages. The worst offenders are animated ads. Trying to read the headlines with one of these animated ads next to it is like trying to read the headlines of a real newspaper with a child tugging at your sleeve and crying for attention.

Solution:

Advertisers and news publications probably don’t want to believe it, but removing all advertising from the main page of publication websites is the most profitable move for both the publications and the advertisers. Removing advertising from these sites’ main pages would increase readership, market share, mind share and ad success – and eventually, ad revenue for the publications.

It works like this: removing all non–news content from the news publication website main page (as one step in repairing the page design) refocuses the page on the one and only reason readers come to the site – the news content. Remove the ads from the main page and readers can use the main page the way they want to – to make decisions about which reports to read. Once that is accomplished, ads can be better served up to readers once they’re into the content of the site. Get in their way beforehand and they’ll be far less comfortable and far less open to suggestion. Many will simply leave without venturing into the site. That’s a lose–lose (and lose) situation.

The thing is, these publications already realize this in their print channel. Print newspapers are often done very well and have intelligent layout and design. They’re content–focused and reader–friendly …and they usually have no ads on the front page! Why is it so difficult to bring these good practices to the web? I don’t know, but I do know that it means that many people should be fired and a great many competent web designers hired.

Problem 2:

In almost ever case the layout and design of online newspapers sucks. Very few online newspapers employ intelligent use of grid, color and content hierarchy. Most have a flat aspect with no visual clues as to how the page and its information is supposed to be consumed.

Solution:

If you look at a good print newspaper, the most important stories have the biggest headlines. They’re also black text on white backgrounds. Stories of lesser importance have smaller headlines and are often grouped in shaded or colored areas on the margins or down the page. Realizing the value of good print layout and design and not bringing these values to your online outlet is simply a bonehead play – amateur hour in perpetual rotation.

The fact is there are dozens of ways to arrange information on the page and dozens of ways to assign a hierarchy to that information. Publications that are serious about attracting and keeping readers should apply these basic practices to their websites. Otherwise, they should perish in the marketplace and make room for more competent publishers.

Problem 3:

With most online newspapers, the site navigation is horribly confusing and inconsistent. Furthermore, the link text on the page is often disguised, easily confused with non–link text, and provides little or no visual feedback when used.

Solution:

Navigation and links are supposed to be obvious and distinct from non–link text. Navigation and link text should let users know when they’re on the link (with hover behavior). Link text should be colored and decorated consistently throughout the site.

Site navigation should not move around or appear and disappear as one navigates from one page to the next. Newspaper websites are huge, so navigation consistency is vital.

Problem 4:

Online newspapers often have questionable typography and paragraph configuration. Some (like The Wall Street Journal) have quite a horrible mishmash of font styles, coupled with poor font selection. Proper typography is more important in the low–resolution online environment than it is in the high–resolution environment of print. Too often, online newspapers have bad line–height (leading) in their paragraph copy, making it more difficult to read on the monitor (interesting to note that poorly designed LA Times, does this better than most).

Solution:

Newspapers should take a lesson from web usability experts and fix their font and paragraph setting choices. Line heights should be adjusted to make the copy more legible. Fonts should be selected for legibility in low res rather than brand differentiation. Style, even flair, can be added tastefully by contrasting headline and body copy fonts.

In closing

I realize that online newspapers are set with the difficult task of presenting huge volumes of content in a very inconsistent and dynamic environment. But this is no excuse for doing so poorly. News is big business and it is baffling to me that such a big business is treated so casually on the Web. Especially when it is a simple matter to do a good job rather than a bad job.

I don’t know where it lies, but there is a big disconnect somewhere in these large news organizations. If that disconnect is not repaired soon, I believe someone will take advantage of the shoddy efforts of their competitors and make a move to dominate the Web channel. There is great value in being first and being best.

As web designers, we have something of a ripe opportunity here to make wads of cash and provide a desperately needed service to millions of consumers. How do we help these news organizations to realize their predicament and their peril? How do we get them to realize how simple it would be to remedy the situation? I’m hoping that some of you reading this article have an answer. And, by the way, so do millions of news consumers.

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