Text-only news sites are slowly making a comeback. Here's why.

A few days before Hurricane Irma hit South Florida, I received a query on Twitter from a graphic designer named Eric Bailey.

“Has anyone researched news sites capability to provide low-bandwidth communication of critical info during crisis situations?” he asked.

The question was timely — two days later, CNN announced that they created a text-only version of their site with no ads or videos.

The same week, NPR began promoting its text-only site, text.npr.org on social media as a way for people with limited Internet connectivity during Hurricane Irma to receive updated information.

Related Training: Investigative Reporting in the Wake of a Disaster

These text-only sites — which used to be more popular in the early days of the Internet, when networks were slower and bandwidth was at a premium – are incredibly useful, and not just during natural disasters. They load much faster, don’t contain any pop-ups or ads or autoplay videos, and help people with low bandwidth or limited Internet access. They’re also beneficial for people with visual impairments who use screen readers to navigate the Internet. (Related: Designing Journalism Products for Accessibility.)

And they were incredibly well received:

NPR’s text.npr.org is likely the oldest example of a working text-only news site that’s still in existence. It originally launched as thin.npr.org back in June 2005, in response to the September 11th attacks — when many news sites struggled to stay online amidst record traffic numbers — and also to help people who were navigating to npr.org back in 2005 on handheld mobile devices like Blackberries.

Earlier this month, a number of improvements were made to the site (which redirects to thin.npr.org) aimed specifically at low-bandwidth users. 

“More recently, our full site [npr.org] has made major accessibility gains,” write Patrick Cooper, NPR’s director of web and engagement, and Sara Goo, the managing editor of digital news. “But as accessible or as fast as you can make your full site —and speed is critical for us — low-bandwidth situations are a different challenge. [Our] improvements focused on those users in particular.”

Text.npr.org’s improvements included  “adding a caching layer to greatly improve speed and adding code to make the site display well on phones,” write Cooper and Goo. “We also increase[d] the number of stories on the [text.npr.org] homepage, made the homepage use the story ordering from our full site, updated the navigation links, removed an interim page in each story that showed only the first paragraph (something that was more valuable before we improved the page speed), and created an easier to remember “text.npr.org” redirect for the site.”

In recent months, Twitter, Facebook, and Google News have also published their own versions of stripped-down sites that use less bandwidth, mainly aimed at users in emerging markets who might not have access to faster network connections. Earlier this week, Twitter announced that it was now experimenting with an Android app designed to use less data for people with limited connectivity.

Yet most news organizations — aside from CNN, NPR, and The Age in Australia — don’t have low-bandwidth sites versions of their sites.

There are many ways that news organizations can improve the ways they serve both low-bandwidth users and people with visual impairments by stripping out unnecessary elements and optimizing different parts of a website. To learn more, I reached out to front-end website designer J. Albert Bowden, who frequently tweets about accessibility and web design standards, to ask a few questions about how we might approach building text-only sites to help end users.

Kramer: I’m curious. What kinds of things can be stripped from sites for low-bandwidth users and people with visual impairments?

Bowden: Those are two very distinct user groups but some of the approaches bleed over and can be applied together.

For low-bandwidth users: Cut the fluff. No pictures, no video, no ads or tracking. Text files are good enough here. Anything else is just fluff.

For visually impaired users: I’m going to just talk about a11y [which is a shorthand way of referring to computer accessibility] here.

A11y is best addressed in the foundation of a website, in the CSS, HTML, and JavaScript. There are other ways to go about doing it, but they are much more resource intensive and therefore are never going to be default for mainstream.

Typical user agents for those with visual impairments are screen readers, which rely on the foundation (literally HTML) of a website to interpret its content and regurgitate it back to the user.

Kramer: Is text-only the way to go? Are there ways to think about preloading images and/or other methods that might help these users?

Bowden: Text in HTML is the way to go here; you cover accessibility issues and SEO bots, while simultaneously also being usable on the maximum number of devices possible. HTML and CSS are forgiving in the sense that you can make mistakes in them, and something will still be rendered to the user. Browsers are built with backwards compatibility, so combining them all grants you the extended coverage. Meaning that basic sites will work on nearly any phone. Any computer. Any browser.

Once you deviate from this path, all bets are off. Some are solid, no doubt, but most are shaky at least, and downright broken at worst. JavaScript is the bee’s knees and you can do anything in the world with it ... but if you make certain mistakes, your web page will not render in the browser; the browser will choke to death.

There are a plethora of best practices that can be utilized today that would make all of this much less painful. Lazy loading images/resources is one way, pre-caching resources is another,

There are actually so many different things you can do here I won’t list them out. A better way to say this is: Every process in the chain can be optimized. You have to want it. You have to have resources to do it. You have to institutional support. Without these, you can still do a lot, but in the end you won’t ever get the best optimization because somewhere along the line will be an obstacle you won’t have the authority to remove.

Kramer: A lot of the conversations taking place now around low-bandwidth news sites are focused on natural disasters, but I suspect these sites would also help people in news deserts or places where Internet access isn't as robust as on the coasts. Any other use cases?

Bowden: Even in cities [it would be useful]. The Metro suuuuuuuuuuuuucks for this; I don’t even try to click links on it; I actually have a routine where I either get what I want to load before I get on the train, or move to stored content/text on my phone. There’s no point in even trying.

Are you familiar with a different low-bandwidth news sites that’s not listed here? Please let me know. I’d love to make a more comprehensive list for a future column. Please email me: melodykramer@gmail.com

Update: Sara Goo is now managing editor of digital news at NPR. A previous version of this story had an older title for her.

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    Melody Kramer

    Mel leads audience growth and development for the Wikimedia Foundation and frequently works with journalism organizations on projects related to audience development, engagement, and analytics.

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