News Orgs Make Gradual Progress in Site Navigation, Use of Social Networks
Ask any news Web site manager about their site's current design (and state of continual redesign) and the desire to "simplify" is likely high on the wish list. Also near the top: making better use of social networking tools.
Several recently unveiled redesigns show progress in both areas. First, though, a look at two of the more vexing problems.
Even the best designed newspaper Web site home pages suffer from what I call "linkorrhea." With so many newsroom constituencies to serve, designers typically end up linking to several stories from every section of the printed paper, as well as linking to Web-original content such as blogs, slideshows and videos. Add in multiple ad spots and the home page looks more like Times Square than, say, Google, the epitome of simplicity.
Another problem is that news managers still think in terms of their sites being end destinations. But the more people share interesting links through social networking, the more they'll bounce around the Web based on the trusted recommendations of friends, rather than settling on one local source for news and information. The appearance of social networking "share" tools on Web sites, then, is a move in the right direction.
The most dramatic improvements are evident in the redesigns at TheStar.com (the Toronto Star's Web site) and Spokesman.com (the Web site of my old paper, The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash.) First, though, some improvements around the edges:
WashingtonPost.com has unveiled a beta version of a local news home page for the relatively small percentage of readers who live in and around Washington, D.C. This alternate home page still has dozens of links, but has a much more narrow focus. And there's a prominent link urging people to "join in Local News on Facebook."
Jonathan Krim, assistant managing editor at the Post, explains many of the new design features in a thorough blog post "tour." (Launching in beta and encouraging user feedback is standard Web development protocol but still seems somewhat counterintuitive for "get-it-right-the-first-time" print newspaper types.)
Scripps Interactive News Group designers recently unveiled a new look for their newspaper sites, including CommercialAppeal.com, the Web site of the Memphis newspaper. Although the home page design still is organized by section, it appears to have fewer links than most sites and uses larger type sizes and spaces between links so the page doesn't look overcrowded.
"We think it's vital that our Web site be, above all else, two things: useful and easy to navigate," editor Chris Peck said in an article outlining the changes. E-mail and social networking share tools are featured prominently on story pages, between the byline and the lead paragraph of the story.
Peck and I worked together in Spokane for 20 years and were both gone long before spokesman.com Senior editor Ryan Pitts and his staff built a site with a unique navigation structure that relies heavily on tagging content and search.
The spokesman.com home page still has lots of links based on traditional content. But gone is the horizontal navigation bar that exists on virtually all newspaper Web sites. In its place is a simple list of content by type: "topics, time, places, media." What's the thinking behind this revolutionary navigation structure?
"Ours is really an outgrowth of the three main ways people go looking for information -- by what it's about, where it happened, and/or when it happened," Pitts wrote in an email about the site design. "Our fourth category, Media, is an extra entry point for readers who really are looking specifically for visuals, or documents, or whatever."
Judges in the Online Journalism Awards, an annual contest of the Online News Association, thought enough of spokesman.com to make it one of four finalists in the general excellence category this year. (The awards were announced Oct. 3, and LasVegasSun.com was the winner in that category.)
"Honestly, I still have some concerns of not having a couple of those traditional 'newspaper site' categories represented in the top-level nav," Pitts wrote. "I really do like the flexibility that Topics/Times/Places gives us in providing many paths to any given piece of content no matter how a reader is thinking when they start looking for it. I think that's better than relying just on what we think is the ideal path to a story."
I asked Pitts to talk about what's in the works.
"Our Places section isn't really built out the way I want it to be," Pitts said. "It's getting closer, but the ultimate realization will take advantage of geo-targeting -- pages that know the boundaries of cities and neighborhoods -- and collect everything going on inside them. (Ideally this will take a lot of manual production off our plate because a piece of content can get geocoded at the start, and the smart map pages will collect everything they need automatically.) And of course a user will be able to store an address with his or her profile and get a feed of everything that's truly local to them."
He added that making better use of social networking is another important strategy for spokesman.com, which has prominent "Join us on Twitter" and "Find us on Facebook" links above the fold.
TheStar.com expands functionality in at least two significant ways: giving users the ability to view the site in four completely different ways and giving them the ability to sign in using Facebook Connect.
In addition to the "standard view," users can choose "visual news," "time line view" and "grid view." Visual news gives users a tour of photos and videos, searchable by day. The time line view is a highly browsable, blog-like headline list with the newest links at the top. The grid view displays stories by topic area, in a well-organized template.
In the aforementioned e-mail to Tidbits contributors, Johnson talked about the Star's new homepage viewing option.
"I talk about this subject all the time when teaching taxonomy and information architecture: content by subject and content by type/platform," Johnson wrote. "The big question is if we are self-defining the priority of typing content because journalists feel the pressure to be all things multimedia suddenly (thanks largely to people like us), or if we are taking a measured approach to find that users are actually actively seeking multimedia over other content. Or is it that we put so much into creating multimedia that we want it to stand out? What's the real motivator and incentive in this?"
With so much to ponder in TheStar.com redesign, we shouldn't lose sight of the signal the site has sent by enabling Facebook Connect. At the very least, it's recognition that ease of use is top-of-mind. But it also signals a greater concept: that TheStar.com is a small part of a bigger Web, not an end destination.
Very few news sites can survive as end destinations. For the rest, "dead end" is a more accurate description.