Some rather big news in the U.S. this morning -- at least, in my neck of the woods -- was the detainment of three students on a Florida highway who were suspected to be involved in terrorist activity.
I was interested in this story and, as I often do, decided to visit a few local news sites of the area in question. In theory, news sites in Florida should do a better job of covering Florida news than more national sites such as The New York Times or CNN.
The coverage itself was somewhat impressive, but I was struck by several examples of poor usability.
As of this posting, there is no mention of this story in the Tampa Tribune's list of top news items. The only home-page mention of this story is deep on the page, under "News from AP," which I assume is an automated feed.
However, I spotted a "Breaking News" link in the left navigation and was taken to Tampa Bay Online, which did indeed feature the terrorism threat story in its lead position.
- As someone who does not use the Tampa Tribune site regularly, I assumed the site would display its latest breaking news up front and center; this is the convention most major news sites follow. Thus, when I didn't see the terrorism story up front and center, I assumed the Tampa Tribune was slacking in its coverage. Of course, that's not an impression news sites should want to make. I was a second away from leaving the site entirely when...
- ...I noticed a link to a separate "Breaking News" section. When I clicked it, I was taken to a completely different site -- tbo.com. It was disorienting, especially because the site had a different look, and the navigational options had changed. I had to spend a few seconds figuring out what had just took place. (I happen to know the Tampa Tribune is associated with tbo.com because I follow the online journalism industry, but this isn't something non-journalism-dorks would know, or particularly care about. Think of how jarring this might be to them.) This is a fundamental problem with content-sharing that nobody, really, has solved. Two better ways to do it: Give both sites the same "look and feel" and navigation, or reproduce all content on both tbo.com and tampatribune.com so users don't have to flip-flop between the two.
Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel
The Sun-Sentinel featured the story prominently on its home page. It had a main story, a sound clip and a related story.
- The audio link had this text: "Eunice Stone, the witness who reported the three men to police." It was next to a traditional sound clip icon, which was a helpful hint that this link somehow led to audio. But there was no explanation of whether the link would bring up a new page or immediately pop-up an audio player. It also didn't specify which format this audio was in, which is an important consideration for me, because my browser supports Windows Media Player but doesn't have RealPlayer installed. I clicked on the link blindly and found out the hard way that this was a RealAudio file. It would have saved me some time and hassle if the site had given more details about what lurked behind this link.
- The other story, a sidebar, was written by someone listed as "Tribune staff reporter." On a news site called the Sun-Sentinel, you'd think writers would be "Sun-Sentinel staff reporters." In this case, though, the Sun-Sentinel borrowed some content from one of its sister papers, the Chicago Tribune, without explicitly explaining the arrangement. (Again, this partnership is something not many people would know, or particularly care about, except journalists.) Solving this tiny problem would be as easy as changing it to "Chicago Tribune staff reporter" -- that clears up any confusion. Or, as the Los Angeles Times does, they could print "From the Chicago Tribune" above the story.
Miami.com featured the story in its lead position and had several links to additional content.
- There's a link to "VIDEO: From our partners at NBC6.net", which is a nice example of cross-promotion, but the link points to the NBC6.net home page. I clicked the link and had to scan through the resulting page all over again to find what that video, which turned out to be behind yet another page. I felt as if I asked directions at a gas station and was told, "Oh, it's over in that general direction." There's no reason to make users take more steps than necessary. A better way to do it: Link directly to NBC6's story.