Web Publishist

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The news and online journalism industry through the eyes of a young Web publishist.

For newsapers on the Web, using a corporate template is a step backwards

The worst newspaper sites on the Web today are designed by companies that own numerous titles and distribute a one-size-fits-all template to each of them.

They are failures from the moment they go online.

A recent example of how a terrible Web site design likely contributed to the parent company’s demise is The Journal Register Company, which is a newspaper company that operates largely in the Midwest, East Coast and parts of the south.

They have a strong presence in Michigan. They own at least three papers in Metro Detroit (including my hometown title) in addition to the paper in Mt. Pleasant, the city where Central Michigan University is located. The company had a little over half a billion dollars in debt in 2007 and in April 2008 the company began exploring selling the company’s titles piecemeal. In September the stock price fell to one half of one cent.

I recognize that the poor Web presence was not the sole reason the papers failed, however it did not help their cause.

This failed mentality does not recognize one simple fact: No two publications are the same. Each have different needs, different readers and present different opportunities in terms of design and layout.

Having a single template that can be adjusted is a bad strategy that does more harm than good. In fact, I’d argue that it does no good at all.

This failed strategy also exists at a college media level. There are companies that offer hosting services and give the papers that sign up with them a single, somewhat modifiable template to work with. But if you go down the list of colleges that utilize this company’s Web services, you’ll notice one recurring theme: They all look nearly identical.

I can understand why so many editors across the U.S. and even worldwide are sitting around, collectively scratching their heads over how to make the Web work for their publication. It has changed the way everyone does business — some to the point of no longer doing business. But when you aren’t even trying, I can only muster so much sympathy.

The argument is out there that Web development is expensive. That design is hard and putting together multimedia, at the moment, is outside the paper’s budget.

Newsflash: Paper is becoming more expensive. So is ink.And much fewer people are now buying this product that now costs more to produce than ever before.

It’s when papers are put in a corner that they find a way out. For some, it’s a Third Way uniquely their own. But for others, it’s a For Sale sign. Still, there will be some titles who figure out how to best utilize the Web for their needs and will make it work. But it won’t be without changing how they treate the Web.

It’s no longer the digital dumping ground for your print product, the design of which you’ve taken from a tempate and changed the color scheme of.

In your newsroom, the Web has got to be as important as — if not more important than — the print product. In an environment where your digital product mean as much as your print product, you’re more likely to devote necessary resources to it.

If that’s not your outlook as 2009 begins, you’re already behind.

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Filed under: design, newspaper websites, ,

8 Responses

  1. AGX Hosting says:

    Sensible post. Worth reading. Thanks!

  2. […] Ben LaMothe takes newspaper publishers that impose group-wide templates on web editors to task. “This failed mentality does not recognize one simple fact: No two publications are the same. Each have different needs, different readers and present different opportunities in terms of design and layout,” he writes. Full story… […]

  3. shawn smith says:

    I don’t always like when sites all look the same either, but I have to say, a lot of time and effort goes into usability testing, SEO and coding of those sites. Allowing every news org to create its own design can not only lead to a lot of missteps by local sites but it can ignore or make difficult integration of new tools rolled out by the corporate parent.

    Identity is important to establish online, but development goes way far beyond just knowing how to code CSS and having an idea about design. If I were a corporate parent worried about maximizing traffic and user loyalty, allowing everyone to have their own template wouldn’t be the best choice for my business.

    your point that things need to be web-first is the one I do agree with though. Smart thinking, I just don’t think the template part is the best way to attack the old mindset.

  4. sholin says:

    Ditto what Shawn said, more or less.

    Most papers smaller than your average medium-sized metro don’t have a development, design, and/or support staff that can deal with templating, and even if they do, I’d rather those folks spend their time developing innovative news content and revenue projects, not worrying about / arguing over design and branding choices that are largely invisible to readers unless they’re absolutely hideous.

    • lamot1bj says:

      I agree with some of what you’re saying, Ryan. But I believe that innovative news content and innovative development and design go hand-in-hand on the Web. If you have a great new idea for a story or a recurring piece, but your current Web situation doesn’t let you fully take advantage of that, it means your great story won’t have the same effect on the Web as it would have in a better design environment. You say that design is largely “invisible to readers” unless it’s a truly terrible site design. I’m going to have to disagree with you. The “digital natives” as they — and, I guess me, too — are called, can spot a terrible site design from the moment they land on your site. If they aren’t interested in what your site is doing, or how it looks, they will leave. On the Web, you’re trying to reach the often-elusive 18-30 age range. The same people who stopped picking up newspapers and migrated to the Web. They’re on the Web because it feels young, fresh, and fast. Site design and branding choices are not invisible to readers. Not anymore.

  5. Joey Baker says:

    As a web designer, I’ve gotta say: I think you’re a bit off base here.
    • “No two publications are the same.” Sort of true. Publications that cover different types of niche markets are not the same. For example: The New York Times needs a different template scheme than the ‘Middle-of-nowhere Bi-Weekly News.’
    But, design a good news aggregator, and you’ve designed something that works across all sites. Community newspapers that both cover sub-urban towns, same templates can be used.
    • Templates work. Print designers have used ’em for the longest time, and they continue to exist on the web for good reason: In a deadline environment, where good design is a critical portion of the work, templates provide a good, fast solution that provides more help than hinderance.
    • From a macro perspective/my own crazy idea: Readability. Imagine this: all news websites follow a similar template system. Readers become accustom to this design very quickly and come to expect their news delivered in that format.
    Gone are the days where people miss the ‘related links’ section, etc. ‘News Literacy’ http://www.buzzmachine.com/2008/12/26/what-is-literacy/ rises, as does the effectiveness of the media.

  6. Flexibility and a modularised structure are the key, if not you are constantly working with one arm tied behind your back to show off your best and breaking content on the homepage – I speak from experience.

    But that’s not to say group-wide templates are bad, too much restriction will stifle larger titles within a group where smaller papers would benefit from a tighter construction.

    More content rich sites need space and the tools to break out when the story/event demands, allow them to fully engage the audience and visually capture the essence of the content yet seamlessly flow within a branded layout.

    they key to any template is that the visitors shouldn’t really notice it, letting the brand and content be the prominent elements.

  7. Ryan Sholin says:

    @Ben –

    You’re definitely right about content and presentation going hand-in-hand, but if I have to choose between a great designer and a great content producer, I’m going with content every time. So, when it comes to templating, I’d rather give 120 papers with limited resources the same template and let them worry about creating content for it.

    As far as demographics and design go, I think we walk around with a lot of assumptions that data don’t necessarily back up. On the Web, I’m trying to reach everybody, not just the 18-30s.

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