Learning from old media
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Grig Davidovitz, a journalism and new media consultant and lecturer, is the former editor in chief of Haaretz newspaper websites. In this article, he explains why news sites should learn to embrace news design principles developed by the old media to better meet their customers' needs. Moving the template from the site level to the article level is a start.
In the beginning, newspapers looked like books. That was all people knew about print in those days. The information was published in a book-size format: a short headline followed by text. (At left: Johann Carolus' “Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien,” published in 1605 in Strassburg.)
In the beginning, television news looked like radio. That was all people knew about broadcasting in those days. The anchor sat in the studio, reading the news, and sometimes video footage appeared while he was heard in voice-over.
When a new media technology emerges, a professional process of adaptation begins, developing the best usage for the new platform. Newspapers today don't look like books, and TV news shows don't resemble radio. And Internet sites? More than 10 years after their first appearance, they are far from fulfilling the platform's potential, far from meeting the customers' needs.
The development process of newspapers and TV news offers many clues to the changes needed for Internet sites. Both media branches developed according to principles that reflect the customers' needs. The principles are the same, but their expression differs sometimes according to the platform.
In order to determine what should change in news sites today, one should start from the beginning: define the customers' needs. One way to do this is by interviewing customers.
But customers don't always know how to articulate their needs, especially in a new platform that is still in many ways terra incognita.
A better way to understand the customers' needs is to analyse the old media, determine its basic principles, understand what needs they reflect – and develop online solutions. This will be the methodology of this article.
Principle 1: Create Drama when needed
After the “book stage,” newspapers' format changed dramatically. They grew bigger, and each page, including the first one, was loaded with lots of tiny bits of information, sometimes carrying dozens of articles.
But what do you do when big news occurs? People love drama, and when they read “the first draft of history” they want to feel it, as it happens. Placing a small headline in the format shown above, saying that a World War had ended, seems ridiculous.
So special formats started to emerge. This, for instance, is the front page of the New York Times, 11 November 1918. Most of the page looks pretty much the same, but a
huge headline declares that something extraordinary has happened. The reader feels that he is holding a piece of history in his hands, and he understands that today's headline is much more important than the average headline.
For a news Internet site, these events are a special opportunity. A news site is just a click away, and people looking for information have a greater chance of getting into the site during such an event. Indeed, it's common for Internet news sites to gain new audiences during big news events.
How do they cover drama? A superficial meeting between journalists and programmers created most of the sites in a strict template, which is very hard to change. Many sites look the same every day, and all the editor has to do is decide what goes where.
Take a look at The Guardian. This is its basic structure.
It is a very good structure indeed, but it looks the same every day! And when big news happens, The Guardian finds it hard to cope. Things are beginning to change. The election of Barack Obama as president of the United States was a rare case of big news that can be predicted ahead of time. Many news sites prepared special templates for the event that reflect the drama of the election of the first black president in the United States.
Take The Guardian, for instance.
But most big events come as a surprise, and there is no time to prepare special templates. There is a need for flexible sites that can easily switch to a dramatic template when needed.
CNN does a good job of this. It can change its homepage, according to the importance of the news.
This is the regular structure of the CNN homepage.
And below is the homepage after an armed attack on a German school.
Even The Guardian is trying to change when needed, although it still adheres to its templates and the changes are very small. Below is the homepage of The Guardian after the plane crash in Amsterdam in early 2009 (the photo moved to the first column, emphasizing the main story).
But there is a need for a much more complex system than a binary one (drama/no drama). Between the 9/11 events and the normal, daily headlines there are many possibilities: a big car accident, the head of the country resigning, a terror bomb that kills 15, etc.
The basic need is for a flexible template that can create different levels of drama, according to the importance of the news. The New York Times has a good solution. Let's look at three different Times homepages:
Here is The New York Times website with its normal structure.
Now here is The New York Times site with a dramatic structure
And here is The New York Times site with a very dramatic structure
The first one is the normal structure, meaning that nothing unusual has happened. The second one is much more dramatic (the headline is bigger and has two lines, the picture belongs to the same article). The third one is really dramatic – sending a clear message to the reader: something extraordinary happened.
Principle 2: Highlight the best elements of the article on the homepage
The template of the article should change not only to reflect the right amount of drama, but also to enable the best elements of the article to be presented on the homepage. Most people consume news sites through their homepages. The stiff templates that are used today by many sites determine how an article looks according to its place on the homepage.
Take the BBC, for example. The template of the article is set by its location
But what if the second story has a very good picture? Or the third one has an amazing video? There is no reason to set the structure of the article according to its location. The best elements must be highlighted on the homepage, which is the display window for the site's content.
The same principle works very well in newspapers. The layout of the pages is greatly influenced by the quality of the pictures or the infographics that come with the story.
The basic structure of Le Figaro (which is used by a few European websites) may be a solution. In such a structure each article can get the best representation, according to its elements: a headline alone, headline with a small picture, headline plus a big picture gallery, headline and video, headline and a live video stream, etc. Theoretically, if you have a story with a great picture but very little news value (the beginning of a bird migration, for instance) you can use a template with a very big picture and a small headline.
For some reason, despite its structure, Le Figaro doesn't use video players on its homepage. Don't make your client enter the article to see “a great video” – present the player on the homepage, near the headline.
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