Before CityOnline Magazine went live I decided to test it on a few people. It was a pretty level-one design then (and still is) but it was more or less what the site would look like when it launched.
Each time I would show it, I noticed people would often tell me that the site looked “clean”. That word, “clean”, in terms of Web design, is important because it’s a sort-of loaded term. It also touches on an important issue present in the development of Web sites for print operations.
Pressed further, the consensus on what “clean” meant to them, the response often was that the site was not cluttered and that it appeared easy to navigate. What designer doesn’t want to hear that?
As the print establishment crumbles, beneath the sighs and cries about the death of the once-sacred industry, there’s been a call to action to the Web. It’s the new must-have item: a tricked-out Web site for their readers.
This is a failed strategy.
Here are screen shots of the homepages of a few Web news outlets. Most of them are newspapers. After the image, I’ll explain what I like (and dislike) about the design. My opinion matters insofar as I’m both a journalist and an avid Web user.
Pitchfork Media, based in Chicago, is an online-only news outlet for all things indie rock/pop/hip hop/techno/metal. It’s got a devoted following and has established considerable credibility within the music media industry.
This site is new. Brand new. The design before this wasn’t very old either. Maybe a year and a half. And that design was good, too. What’s different about this one, though, is how clean it is. That was my first thought when I visited the site: There’s a calmness about the design. Everything is where it needs to be, and nothing is fighting for screen space.
Another interesting aspect is that the site guides the reader. A pitfall of many news Web sites is that it throws an incredible amount of content at readers and makes them choose. I say: Give your readers a trail to follow. That’s better than overwhelming them. Or better yet: Know what your reader is interested in. Give them that, and allow them to find the additional stories.
The Irish Times’ Web site has undergone a number of design changes. The design before this was a very newspapery design. Very little interactivity, subscription-based, difficult to read and often difficult to navigate. Obviously this is a huge improvement.
It’s main competitor, The Irish Independent, unveiled a new Web site before The Times did, which caused a bit of a sea-change with the traffic going to each site. Now the new Times site is much, much better than the current Indo site.
Today’s Irish Times site shares some common features with Pitchfork above. Most notably, it’s a clean design. Everything has a place. The design itself isn’t distracting. That’s incredibly important, but also difficult to achieve: Your design needs to be good, easy to navigate, engaging but also clean.
Here’s an example of what not to do. All we have here is a Web site with a ton of text. There’s an anchor image in the middle, but that’s about it. Lots of in-linking to stories in a stacked format, and then on the other side is even smaller text, also stacked. There’s one image to break up the text. This goes on and on.
This is what you get when a newspaper’s strategy remains firmly planted in the print side. Not much thought has been given to what this Web site looks like. It’s a shame because this, for a brief period, was my “home town” newspaper when I lived in Florida.
I’d suggest starting from scrap here. Evaluate the needs of your readers and get yourself a Web strategy. I don’t know the financial status of the paper — they may be circling the drain — but if they intend to go on, they need to change the site ASAP.
For being a “one-newspaper town”, I had some hope that the Seattle Times’ site would be better. Like the News Journal, this design, too, was conceived with print in mind. I understand why it’s this way, but I don’t think it should remain.
Designing your Web presence after your print product says you don’t really have a Web strategy. The print product and the Web product are two completely different things. They’ve always been; it’s just taken people a while to understand it.
Having a larger anchor image is good. But not when it’s your only image. I said it once, and I’ll say it again: People are more drawn to images than they are to headlines.
On the Web you play by the rules of the Web. Just because it makes you feel bad having to sell your stories with art, it doesn’t give you a reason not to do it. Not unless you enjoy it when people don’t read your stuff. In which case, carry on.