Reader Dan Collins recently sent me the BIG question.

"In your opinion, what are the best designed news websites?"

I have to say, this is a painful question, because it's so hard to answer.

I don't think there is a "best" out there yet. Some sites do things better than others, but overall we/they are still feeling their way through the dark.

Most news sites have to please so many interests in an effort to try to be profitable that their identity is lost. Who they are, what their mission is, and who their readers are is difficult to distinguish.

Then comes all the questions about usability.

But, I'll tell you my biggest pet peeve (even if you don't want to hear it). It's that dastardly, unbelieveably long, with too many choices that are supposed to be navigation, loaded with things that people don't read, Left Rail!


It's completely overwhelming. I don't want 500 side dishes with the main course. I'd like my world cuisine, local flavors, and healthy slop served on the same plate where I can find them easily. Does this really get past the usabilty tests?

However, I'm very optimistic about the future of design on news sites. I'm a strong believer that good design is good design. The principles of design apply no matter what medium you're working in. Eventually, it will filter through and we will see sites improving (and visual journalists will rule the world! Oops, did I say that out loud?).

Okay, I'll do my best to answer Dan's question with the following categories:

Identity



Without a doubt, these three sites know who they are and reflect their parent products' brands.


Reader-Friendly



I chose these sites for their contents page, like homepages.

The Christian Science Monitor has a very pleasing balance and hierarchy to its design. This comes from the use of space between items, a clear distinction between the main story headline and other story heads, and not using too many icons. This is a great example of why white space aids readability and creates balance. A dedicated section for ads is placed slightly downpage. The ads have a consistent width and enough space between them that they don't get lost.

CNN has a nice short left navigation bar, and picks the top headlines for each section displayed down page. While it has too many doo-dads and logos, it still does a good job of showing you what's "inside."

You'll see The International Herald Tribune listed a few times because it is such an elegant, easy-to-read site. A headline with a short paragraph of text highlights the top stories, while the simple navigation points you to a section or region in an easy-to-use drop-down menu. On story pages, you have the option of adjusting the type size and layout so it is most comfortable for you to read. The one weakness is its obvious lack of photography on stories that need that reference to give the reader a complete picture.


The Beauty Queen



For all the reasons detailed above, and because I love this site's simplicity, and the ability to choose what size type I want and how I want to view a story, I choose The International Herald Tribune


More than just a pretty face



The depth of content of these two sites translates well on their homepages.

The center section of the BBC News site has nice, chunky promos highlighting the day's big stories, and a fairly simple navigation bar on the left. But, the right rail looks like it gets the leftovers thrown at it because of the inconsistencies in color palette and a sea of random images.

What I like so much about the Washington Post site is that it has its own identity apart from the printed edition. It remains to be seen if that is positive or negative, but it does give it its own credibility. Check out the Camera Works section. It's the best photo-driven section on the Web.


Simplicity



Not much needs to be said here. They are just easy to read and navigate.


What people are really reading



I like these because I don't have to do anything.


Other



The Obscure Store is produced by our own MediaNews dude Jim Romenesko. The design is simple but creates a personality to match the name.

Now, I know this isn't a complete list, and some of these sites have problems, but when you come right down to it, it's the best we've got right now.

You can add to this list of sites in the feedback area, or tell me why I'm a hack. No matter what you think, it's important to get your voice heard.