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Four major sins of news design

by Lauren M. Rabaino

Let’s be honest: In general, news site design isn’t pretty. I know I’m not the first or last to say it, but I do have a theory about why. It starts off innocently enough — an article, navigation, some ads. But as new tools, gadgets, buttons, widgets, extensions and plugins are introduced to the news consumption scene, that once simple design becomes cluttered with bells and whistles that hold the content hostage.

The plague of news design is upon us and although the average news organization has dozens of corporate hoops to jump before being able to implement a full design overall, these are four simple starting points.

Sin No. 1: The swamp of “share” buttons.

Like this on Facebook. Tweet it. Stumble it. Digg it. Bookmark it to Delicious. Who can blame a news org? Although those options should be easily accessible, they shouldn’t detract from what’s important: the content. We want our content to be shareable across multiple platforms. But there’s a nice way to do it. Take a look at this article page from my local TV news station:

There has to be a better way. Share icons should be integrated into the design of the site as a native functionality, rather than as buttons plopped into a template.

LA Times’ Hero Complex blog takes an interesting (but imperfect) approach at integrating social media icons, although the use of Comic Sans is highly unfavorable. My favorite integration is The New York Times, which presents the icons very subtle and unobtrusively:

Sin No. 2: Layers and layers of navigation

You have the typical print sections (news, arts, sports, etc). Then you have the money-making sections: jobs, real estate, classifieds, cars. Then you have the subscription options: sign in, subscribe, register, Facebook connect. Not to mention the ever-growing trend of displaying hot or trending topics beneath the nav and subnav (see the LA Times or Washington Post). When did navigating a news site get so complicated and how can we tone it down?

Let’s take a lesson from one of my favorite news navigation designs, the Spokesman Review. Instead of forcing the user to navigate based on a print-centric system of topics, the user can navigate in a way more usable to the web: by time, location, or media type.

Another idea for simplifying news navigation can be stolen from Recovery.gov, which has a “looking for?” button that allows users to choose either who they are or the type of information they are seeking.

If we were to use this in new design, the “Who are you?” could be broken down by profession:

  • Working Professional
  • Student – College
  • Student K-12
  • Parent
  • Retired

Choosing one of the options would filter the news down to what’s relevant to that particular age group.

You could also do the “What are you looking for?” concept, which for news could be something like:

  • Events
  • Data
  • An overview of today’s news
  • Editors’ picks
  • Set your own topic filters (which would allow for customizability).

Sin No. 3: Cluttered sidebars, embedded divs

I don’t want my reading experience to be disrupted by boxes of related stories, forcing my content into a little sliver of a column. And I’m not alone. This reason is why people use Instapaper and RSS to read the news. Extra context is good (related stories), but not when it makes for a disjointed reading experience.

This is where news sites can learn from blogs. For example, I stumbled upon this post the other day (which is a good read for anyone in the business of agile development), and was in awe at how clean and readable the content was:

Imagine if this design was applied to a news-intensive website (of course, a news site is inundated with ads, but as design gets cleaner and more usable, perhaps ad quantity and pricing can be rethought too):

Sin No. 4: Avalanche of links on the homepage

Every single new article on a news site doesn’t need to appear on a homepage. Every section and microsite doesn’t need to have a subhead seven scrolls down the page.

The fix? Put less stuff on your homepage. Simple enough, but also easier said than done.

A quote from a former colleague and recently hired Washington Post content producer Greg Linch comes to mind: “Context isn’t just about providing information, it’s about how you present it.”
I like Greg’s point. Throwing a bunch of facts together into a story with no organization and no clear path to understanding would be poor journalistic practice; news design functions in the same way. It should provide a clear path to understandability by being digestible.

Will Davis, web editor of the Bangor Daily News, elaborated in a separate conversation by explaining the purpose of homepage design: “Really what you need is to make it easy for people to make decisions: What is the story I need to know right now? Don’t show me a story that’s five hours old if it hasn’t changed and I’ve already read it, or if I’ve visited the site five times since it’s been up and I haven’t clicked on it.”

In my mind, what Will describes would look something like a mesh between Twitter’s “unread” count and Gmail’s ability to “mark this as read” after you’ve either clicked an email or chosen not to read it.

If you have a favorite site or fresh idea for news, please share in the comments.

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