Presenting important messages 'to our readers'

Written by Adrian Holovaty on September 16, 2002

American syndicated columnist Bob Greene has resigned from the Chicago Tribune "after acknowledging he engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with a teenage girl," an Associated Press article reports.

According to the AP article, the Chicago Tribune printed an editor's note on the front page of Sunday's print edition explaining the resignation. Naturally, I was curious to see how treated the editor's note.

On the site's home page this evening, the only mention of the resignation -- which, again, merited a front-page message from the editor in the print edition -- was a vague link labeled "To our readers" located at the very bottom of the "Other top headlines:" section. Nothing more. Blink your eyes, and you'll miss it.

I'd like to point out a few ways this could have been done better. First, the message could have been set off from the "other top headlines." It gets lost in that bland text list, and besides, it's not really a traditional news headline -- it's an announcement. It deserves special treatment. More people would see it if it were in the "Columnists" list on the right side of the page. Who's to say the people who read Greene's columns regularly also regularly view the top headlines?

Second, the headline tease could have been worded much more clearly. "To our readers" establishes this as an announcement of some sort, but the helpfulness stops there. Is it an announcement about a site redesign? Or are they enacting a new, more intrusive user-registration policy, perhaps? And isn't every piece of content on a news site directed to the readers, anyway? Something like "Editor's note: Columnist Bob Greene resigns" would be immensely more helpful; people who cared would click, and disinterested folk wouldn't have to waste their time. Many users probably skimmed over the current headline.

Third, the Bob Greene archive page (registration required -- or use name: cyberpunk21, password: cyberpunk21) says nothing about the resignation. On this page, the e-mail link still works, the "about" page remains, and Bob still smiles. It's as if nothing ever happened. What of all the people who have bookmarked this page directly? How will they find out the unfortunate news?

In fairness, I didn't check until this evening; perhaps there was a more pronounced message earlier in the day. Also, in the site's credit, it is a weekend, and most staff members are probably not at the office. Still, a situation like this demands better action at a news site. Unlike a print newspaper, putting an announcement on the front page doesn't guarantee most people will read it. The non-linear nature of the Web doesn't only liberate us -- it obligates us to cover our bases in more ways than ever before.

UPDATE, Aug. 16, 12:53 PM EDT: All traces of Greene have been removed from the site, as far as I can tell. His archive page is gone, he's no longer listed on the columnists page, and a search for his name yields only the resignation announcements. They cleaned it all up. I do think they should have left his columnist page up for a few days longer, with a note explaining why his columns will no longer appear, for the sake of those who've bookmarked it directly and haven't heard the news.


Posted by Justin on September 16, 2002, at 9:29 a.m.:

Did you see the front page of the Tribune? Because the headline "To our readers" appears over the actual editor's announcement, I figure that the print edition labeled the note with the same headine. (But I can't be sure because the front-page .pdf is of Saturday's paper.)

Even though it's an obscure headline, "To our readers" would jump at those readers from the front page because there are only a handful of headlines on the page, and their special display font sets them apart from the body copy.

Should paper headlines be written with the Web in mind? Maybe. If not, should headlines be rewritten for Web editions? I think so. I agree that a more specific headline would help. Like you said, many readers probably missed "To our readers" when it was grouped with seven other headlines displayed in the same font-size and color. Worse, the newspaper itself missed a chance to ensure that those readers received the story addressed to them.

Also, what about setting aside a corner or table on a news site for that day's print edition's headlines? Even when online-only breaking news and wire stories appear as the "top headlines," users should be able to locate -- without scrolling -- what the editors thought were the most important stories of the day. The box should appear adjacent to the top headlines or at the top of the Web page.

Posted by Sara on September 16, 2002, at 4:24 p.m.:

Today the Tribune has an actual story about Greene's resignation. "Breach of trust ends Greene's career at Tribune" is the top headline under Local news. It mentions Lipinski's note to the readers. So it's better, but still doesn't quite make up for burying the note yesterday.

And Greene's page with recent columns is still intact with no change or note or anything to indicate his resignation. How long will that be there?

Posted by just some woman out here in cy on September 22, 2002, at 4:59 p.m.:

Dontcha just love it when self-righteous columnists who crow about morals...turn out to be less than the paragons of virtue they "hint" to be? While the press constantly digs for dirt on others, one of their "own" has fallen...well, pride goeth before the fall.

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