Online news audience is stagnant

Written by Adrian Holovaty on July 2, 2002

Editor and Publisher reports the results of a new Pew study that reveals the online news audience isn't growing. Specifically, 25 percent of Americans get news online at least three times a week, as compared to 23 percent two years ago.

Why the stagnation? The article suggests that "we are so drenched in information, that news doesn't even stand out as a category."

That's a valid point. But I think the lull in users might also have something to do with news sites' design. People won't want to get news from a Web site if it's not designed in a logical way, or if it just plain looks too busy. Pew ought to do a study that somehow compares news sites' architecture/design with readership. Something like the Stanford-Poynter EyeTrack Study, with less eye tracking and more habit tracking.


Posted by Chris Heisel on July 3, 2002, at 3:39 p.m.:

Not only are many sites not designed well, or are too busy, but far too many sites - in an effort to automate, template, and stagnate everything -- let their front pages be far too predictable. There are many sites that change their headlines, and maybe a photo, throughout the day - never varying the size of any of the headlines, not deviating from the template whatsoever. This could be a result of the site's content people not know enough HTML to change the design around too much, or if the front page is built with a content system, it probably doesn't offer enough flexability. Imagine if every day you walked past your favorite newspaper's bin, there was the same design, just new words - same placement, same font size, same size photo in the same place, everything's the same. Newspaper designers don't just change the front page design everyday for the hell of it, they do it because the content has changed and the design must reflect the newsworthiness of the new content. News Web sites should be changing their front page designs to reflect the content -- make a story's headline bigger if it deserves it, make it smaller if it deserve's it., make the photo bigger, move it around, etc. That's my $.02

Posted by Rob on July 3, 2002, at 4:25 p.m.:

It seems like this is the eternal struggle between design and development that's happening on the Web, right? Either you are the most automated site around and just plug your headlines and photos into the same design every day, or you toil to create a new facade for the site every morning. There doesn't seem to be too much in-between. Anyway, this begs for communication between design and development -- something I've been trying to convince newspapers to do (through the somewhat questionable method of begging them to hire me for that very purpose). It's all about the two-sport star, right? Whatever happened to Bo Jackson? Argh.

Posted by Adrian Holovaty on July 3, 2002, at 7:38 p.m.:

I agree: It's definitely about the two-sport star. I might add a third party to your "design vs. development" struggle: traditional journalists. Seems to me a lot of old print folk are trying to meddle in Web stuff, and a lot of 'em are misguided. (One example: the papers who are now marketing "electronic editions" -- exact replicas of their print products reproduced electronically on computer screens. This scary phenomenon reminds me of the early days of radio, when people would just read newspaper articles on the air, ignoring the advantages of their new medium.) This might be a whole other animal, but it definitely affects design and development. People stuck in their old ways can screw everything up.

Posted by Adrian Holovaty on July 3, 2002, at 7:48 p.m.:

As for Chris' point about using templates vs. coming up with custom designs for each page -- I think the answer is somewhere in the middle, although slightly nearer the "templates" side of the argument. I think that users of news sites are on individual missions to get the news, and anything that freaks 'em out or confuses them (i.e., anything dramatically different than what they're used to seeing) will throw them for a loop. So I think sites can change things around to a degree. Make things pretty, and unpredictable (as Chris says), but maintain the basic architecture and individual site logic your users have taken the time to learn. I admit I'm a Jakob Nielsen follower (although some of his views are over the top), and one of his big mantras seems to be to make sure you're consistent.

Posted by Rob on July 3, 2002, at 7:58 p.m.:

When I saw that the New York Times was doing the 'electronic edition' crap, I felt like they were saying that the strictly Web edition was inferior to the print product. They're trying to circumvent the inevitable, instead of embracing it. Sad. Regarding the two-sport star theory: what has your experience been in trying to convince traditional print journalists that the Web is important? Also, do you consider yourself more of a journalist who got interested in Web stuff, or the other way around?

Posted by Rob on July 3, 2002, at 8:06 p.m.:

Actually, I was wondering when Jakob Nielsen's much-ballyhoed name would come up on your site. I think some of what he says is very limiting, though I agree he generally has good ideas. Like you, I think he's occasionally too strict about his ideas. I'm more of a fan of balance -- making sure that design and functionality work in concert on a page instead of one dominating the other. It's tough as hell to find a designer who is willing to work with that goal in mind, though (or vice versa). Once again, the two-sport star is a necessary position. Have you heard anything about experience design? It's more of a holistic viewpoint for Web stuff, though there's a point where all-encompassing ideas like that just turn into plain silliness.

Posted by Adrian Holovaty on July 3, 2002, at 9:28 p.m.:

From my experience, convincing traditional journalists of the Web's importance has been kind of a two-tier challenge: (1) Let people know the Web exists, and (2) once they're aware of it, make sure they don't mess it all up! ("Messing it up" could be anything from applying traditional print concepts/models to the Web, to ignoring traditional print concepts on the Web.)

Posted by Adrian Holovaty on July 3, 2002, at 9:34 p.m.:

To answer your other question, I've always had this obsessive-compulsive need to have complete information -- not just factoids, but the whole story. Don't just give me a sound byte; give me a transcript of the whole press conference. Somehow this love for information led me to newspaper reporting. Then it naturally led to the Web. So, basically, I was a journalist who got interested in Web stuff. (But I've always been big into computers, ever since my very first Commodore 64.)

Posted by Adrian Holovaty on July 3, 2002, at 9:39 p.m.:

I hadn't heard of experience design. I'll look at it in more depth later, but at first glance, it looks kind of wacky. But I noticed Derek Powazek left a very positive review of it, so I should probably check it out. Thanks for pointing that out.

Posted by Chris Heisel on July 5, 2002, at 10:50 p.m.:

Just to clarify, when I talk about changing your design around depending on the news I mean: a.) Probably just the front page and maybe (if you have the staff), the section fronts - I certainly wouldn't be redoing every page, all the time. b.) My changing things around I also should have mentioned consistency -- I want the changing around newspapers do with their front pages. The New York Times looks similar every week - same fonts, same column grid, same rules, etc. Yet, every day the front page is different - the stories, their order, placement and size on the page differ from day to day, along with the headlines, their size, and their placement, (same with photos, etc.). Perhaps a better phrase to describe what I'm seeking is to paginate your front differently depending on the news -- not roll out a redesign. P.S. Check back to in a few weeks as I roll out my PHP, MySQL Web standards site - yeah!

Posted by Adrian on July 8, 2002, at 8:34 p.m.:

Chris, can you point out any examples of news sites that do this, if any?

Posted by Chris Heisel on July 11, 2002, at 3:33 p.m.:

I can't of any off the top of my head. But The New York Times, does sometimes strip a banner head across its two content columns when the news is pretty big - but that's pretty rare.

After I get my site back up I'll probably jury-rig a sample front page for a newspaper that demonstrates my design idea.

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