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.