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Part 2: Learning from old media

Fri, 2009-06-12 15:12 — Brian Veseling

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Principle 3: Keep it simple (and hierarchical)

In December 2008, the Columbia Journalism Review published a study conducted for AP that examined news consumption by young adults around the world

The main finding was that many young consumers craved more in-depth news but were unable or unwilling to get it.

“The abundance of news and ubiquity of choice do not necessarily translate into a better news environment for consumers,” concluded the researchers in their final report. “Participants in this study showed signs of news fatigue; that is, they appeared debilitated by information overload and unsatisfying news experiences.... Ultimately news fatigue brought many of the participants to a learned helplessness response. The more overwhelmed or unsatisfied they were, the less effort they were willing to put in."

Indeed, many news sites think that more is better. From the news-design perspective, they are stuck in the paradigm of the first newspapers, those that had dozens of articles on the front page. No hierarchy, no simplicity, just a mess of headlines and information. No wonder that even young adults are showing signs of news fatigue.

The front page of the print version of The New York Times has about seven stories.

The homepage of The New York Times – which is built only of headlines and section names – has more than 2,000 words! Who can read all this?

The main problem is not the quantity of information, but its density. As I mentioned above, people consume news sites through the homepage, and articles that are not represented there are not seen by the site consumers (they can be still reached sometimes through Google). But when you put many headlines in a very small area, you are creating a very unfriendly site.

This is The New York Times site below the first two-three screens. You will need a very strong will to be able to scan this, not to mention really reading it.

The solution is to dramatically decrease the information density. It must be very clear what the main headline, the secondary headlines, and the other headlines are.

The Huffington Post site has a completely different approach: it shows only one article on the first screen. Indeed, such a radical design may be too “undensified,” but the effect is amazing. It clearly states what the main story is and makes some order in the information mess available online.

(Several months ago, The Huffington Post was posting two stories in the upper part of the site, and it may be that a single story is too dramatic for a normal day).

Principle 4: Create packages of information to present news in context

Some of the stories, especially the most interesting or important, are covered by a package of information rather than a single article: the main story, analysis, an interview, etc. This package of information is important to readers because it enables them to quickly understand the spectrum of coverage on the issue.

In a newspaper, the information packages will be spread on the page or double-spread. Online, most sites today find it difficult to create such packages. Those who manage to do so have a poor representation of the related stories. Take for instance the BBC.

The stories that are related to the main story look small and insignificant – they don't really invite you to read them.

The New York Times does a much better job at this (see below). All the articles connected to Obama's first day in office form a block. The surfer can easily see the different articles, pictures, videos, etc. that make up the coverage.

The Solution: Moving the template to the article level creates a show

The news business is a show, it is definitely not the “executive summary” business.

The headlines, the text, the pictures, the infographics in a newspaper are meant to “shoot” the information toward the reader, to make him take the newspaper in his hands and keep reading it.

The same principle is applicable to television news as well: the studio, the anchors, the reports, the music, the graphics – it's all about a show. The problem with most Internet sites these days is that they are very much about information and very little about a show.

Exactly as in a newspaper, the graphics of a site must live in a paradox: the site's appearance changes, while maintaining a very clear graphic language that preserves its identity.

The basic solution to all the problems stated above is to move the template from the site level to the article level. Every article has a different look adding up to a unique look of the entire site, within a stable graphic language. When each article can be presented in a few templates you can easily:

  • Create drama by using a dramatic template with a big headline and big pictures as the first article.
  • Create different levels of drama by preparing several kinds of dramatic templates. When the stock exchange plunges, when the U.S. attacks Iraq, or when the main story is just a new legislative initiative – the news site must look very different.
  • Highlight the best elements of the article, by using the template that fits it best: a headline and a video player, a headline and a small picture, etc.
  • Create information packages by using templates that are related and create a block.

There are many more customer needs, not related to the article template, that are not answered in most of today's news sites. But dealing with the needs stated above can create a simple, hierarchical, intuitive site – a site that “throws” the information toward the reader, instead of giving him the feeling that he has to dig for it.

Do you have an opinion on this expert view? If so, please send it by e-mail to Contributions do not necessarily express the opinions of IFRA.



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