Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Newspaper websites need a UX fix

As a young copy editor in the days when newspaper articles clattered off Linotypes, I sometimes went to the composing room to trim stories into the spaces allotted to them.
This involved “editing” 14 inches of hot type into a seven-inch hole by scanning a slug of slugs – reading upside down and backwards – to find a seemly place to end a story, usually by throwing away the balance of news that wouldn’t fit in print. In the haste of deadline, the editing was not notably sensitive, resulting in the time – and I am not making this up – that the last line of a story appearing in the newspaper said in its entirety:  “Needless to say,”.
This anecdote illustrates a fundamental difference between print and digital publishing: Print permits only so much information to be squeezed into a prescribed number of pages, requiring thoughtful and disciplined use of the space. When it comes to digital publishing, however, space is limitless and cheap, setting a trap for the sort of self-indulgence and sloth that can turn off readers and advertisers.
And it is a trap, unfortunately, that most newspapers have fallen into.  Although newspapers typically put together attractive and easy-to-navigate printed pages, their web incarnations for the most part are awful. In the interests of fixing this, it’s time to talk about what techies call the user experience, or UX.   
Quality UX matters, because it is what attracts people to a website or mobile app, keeps them engaged in the content and then encourages them to do whatever the publisher has in mind. 
In the case of Google, a single box on its pristine home page invites visitors to launch a query of any sort. Through the magic of its technology, Google generally delivers in nanoseconds not just what you want to know but also approximates who you are, where you are and what sort of ad to serve you.
While the pages at Amazon are a lot busier than those at Google, the UX on every one is carefully designed to get you to do just one thing: “Buy now with one click.” The page is scrubbed of anything that would distract a visitor from that goal.
By contrast, most newspaper websites are messes of wretched excess. It takes five to seven “page-down” clicks on a standard computer screen to get from the top to the bottom of the typical newspaper home page. With layers of news, advertising, promotions and whatnot, the array is so dense and disorganized that you don’t know where to look, what to do and – if you happen to click off the page – where to go next.
Gazing at the typical home page, you can readily imagine the committee meetings that produced them: “Tout classifieds!”  “Add video!” “Create more ad units!” “Add weather!” “Push daily deals!” “Add a Twitter feed!” “Promote the Sunday paper!”  And so on.  
With all the fuss over the home page, here’s the part most newsfolk forget:  At the typical paper, only about a third of the traffic comes through the home page. On average, another third of the traffic comes from search engines and the final third comes from referrals via email, third-party websites, Facebook and other social media.
As editors and publishers focus on cramming 15 pounds of potatoes into the five-pound sack represented by the home page, scant attention is paid to the rest of the site – where two-thirds of the traffic is coming and going without ever transiting the home page. By neglecting their “inside” webpages, newspapers squander the opportunity to build readership by furthering engagement with the fly-by readers who typically generate more than half of their page views.  
While these factors were problems before pay walls, the opportunity to recruit long-lasting interest from occasional readers is further complicated when access to non-subscribers is limited or prohibited by pay systems.
Notwithstanding this latest self-imposed barrier to audience growth and diversification, publishers seeking to get the most out of their online audiences would be wise to take a (web)page from Reuters, which is beta-testing a smart, new concept here.
The new Reuters website insightfully treats every article as a reader’s first point of entry, seeking to entice further engagement by pointing to additional articles relevant to the story that first brought the reader to the site.  Rather than standing alone, each article is embedded in a flow of stories, making it easy and enticing to sample the site’s other offerings. Although the Reuters design is rich with additional reading prospects for visitors, the navigation cues, while obvious, are low-key and uncluttered.
In other words the new site is a great example of how a thoughtful UX can capture a reader’s attention – and, one hopes, keep her coming back for more.  Check it out. 
© 2013 Editor & Publisher


Blogger Stephan said...

Only the non-US Reuters website seems to fit your argument. The US (ie main) website has tons of informations on its home page.

9:18 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I always enjoy your columns and I wholeheartedly agree with the thrust of this piece, but I think you missed a little history here. The real reason newspaper websites got this way initially was the dial up modem. As a fellow "old timer," you can remember that in the early days of the web, loading a page could take forever. So the last thing you wanted to do was have to go to another page. Newspapers (and everyone else) put lots of stuff on the home page because, while it took forever to load, you could then browse everything until you found what you wanted. You then clicked on that item and had time to get another cup of coffee while that page loaded.

Most other businesses adjusted to high speed internet and their home pages evolved, but newspapers – again – got stuck in the past. Long, scrolling pages with hundreds of links became the "standard" that every newspaper had to have.

At Creative Circle Media Solutions, we have advocated since the early 2000s that newspaper sites should have a compact, non-scrolling home page. Your Google example, along with sites like Southwest and Apple – just three examples of sites that revolutionized entire industries – all did it with such non-scrolling home pages. Few of the top commercial sites have more than a couple dozen links on their home page.

They look great on tablets and even cell phones, eliminating the need for multiple platforms. And they load lightning fast.

But the biggest advantage of the home page concepts we advocate is that I can get you to the content you want faster with 30 links than any site with 500 on the home page.

The home page isn't for showcasing all your stuff anymore. In a high-speed, give-it-to-me-fast world, it's a page that welcomes you, expresses the brand, shows a few highlights and "sorts" you more directly into the content you want. Speed is everything on the web.

Few papers have been willing to stray from the "norm" of cluttered home pages and the few that followed our advice eventually succumb to managers who can't resist putting more crap on their pages, quickly spoiling the concept. But every one that has tried it found that users loved it, traffic increased and time on site and engagement improved.

It's hard to love newspapers the way both of us do. They can be so dumb and have so much trouble separating from the herd.

I have to disagree with your Reuters example, however. Way too cluttered still. Our most recent expression of our philosophy was not for a newspaper (no surprise), but for the Southern Newspaper Press Association at We're hoping some of their members get the idea.

10:01 AM  
Blogger palmer said...

I agree that they need a fix... desperately. Most newspaper UI's are centered around legacy newspaper practices and mindset.

I would go further to say that less than 15% of newspaper publisher/editor/web manager/advertising director/etc. - whoever is responsible for the website could explain their pathing norms, audience segments, or in/out of market splits. Let alone have sensible Content and Advertising KPI's.

If a newspaper websites (Market 25 and smaller) direct audience is only 30% they need to do some serious restructuring and take a hard look at their brand. That number should be no less than 50% with a target over 60%.

8:23 AM  

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