Thursday July 19, 2007

The new Sun-Sentinel website

sun sentinel homepage

A much needed overhaul

The Sun-Sentinel’s website recently went in for a long-due redesign. The new page is much easier on the eyes, with whitespace, gray hairlines between content, and periwinkle headlines. They’ve added some significant features, including modern “article tools” (which allow for resizing text, e-mailing a page, and more), a 5-star system that allows you to “rate” almost everything on the site, and “most viewed/most e-mailed” lists. A handy site index at the bottom of the home page allows quick jumps to any section of the site. The flagship of the re-design is a tabbed box on the home page that allows you to quickly scan headlines from the five most popular sections. To top it off, the design gives a nod to modern design standards; while it doesn’t quite validate, the old table-oriented layout is gone, almost completely replaced with more semantic markup. (If the last sentence made your eyes glaze over, don’t worry, just know that it’s a good thing.) So, the Sentinel gets a pat on the back?

Well, not so fast. When a project of this magnitude comes along, you don’t evaluate it by comparing it to what it replaced — you compare it to what it might have been, to the ideal solution. In some alarming ways, the new redesign is a re-skinning of the old site with a sprinkling of poorly-implemented me-too features cherry-picked from other newspaper sites. On closer inspection: “Most visited/e-mailed” lists are great, but what about “most blogged”? That’s gone over very well on sites such as nytimes.com. The “e-mail” this doesn’t e-mail a copy of a story, just a link to it, so when the story disapears from the website, the e-mail is worthless. And the tabbed “main module” is patched together out of flimsy JavaScript, doesn’t work properly in some versions of Firefox, and doesn’t work at all in non-JavaScript browsers.

But the big deal isn’t what the Sun-Sentinel did wrong, but what they chose not to do at all. What we have here is a content management system that just doesn’t manage the content very well, and doesn’t present it to the user in very helpful ways. Where are the archives? Most of the pages (not all!) display lists of articles only from the present day, but to find something that ran yesterday or a few days ago, you’re relegated to the search function, which, while vastly improved, still often returns way too many results and does not allow the results to be sorted by date. So it’s back to the needle-in-haystack scenario for finding anything but today’s news.

Blogs and archives

Let’s talk about blogs. The Sentinel has about 20, and they’re fine. But the news/blogs dichotomy implies a lack of understanding of what’s happening on the internet. Insofar as this dichotomy exists on almost all newspaper sites, this is a criticism of the industry rather then the Sentinel specifically, but bear with me. Consider that the blogs are the only parts of the Sentinel’s site that get obvious RSS feeds and permanent archives. What could possibly be the rationale, 10 years from now, of making their writers’ fleeting impressions searchable and accessible, while hiding the real news stories behind a paywall? (And no, they don’t get to say that it’s a question of needing to make money.)

The defining characteristic of real-world blogs is their reverse-chronological organization. What newspapers should be doing is to take the aspects of blogs that make them so powerful (in particuar the immediacy) and apply them all their content, not to have two parallel (blog/non-blog) systems. What’s the difference, really, between a short article and a blog entry? In the case of the Sentinel, it’s that the former is gone from the internet after a month, and the latter is permanent and has monthly archives. The Sentinel’s today-only mentality about the news means that even pages that do list older articles, such as Joe Kollin’s column about homeowners’ associations, don’t list the dates for the articles (look at that page and note how many features of a blog it has — does what the Sentinel is doing here really make sense?). Other columnists get a page with dates, but one which seems to observe the one-month rule.

A change in thinking

The problem with most newspaper websites is that the newspapers are trying to make the internet work their way, rather then adapting themselves to how the internet works. Online video on news sites is all well and good (well, actually it’s often terrible), as is PDA/cellphone-friendly content, but what we need is some real thinking about how to use this medium to its best advantage. Adrian Holovaty wrote an excellent article about how he envisions the job that newspapers do shifting in light of the new possibilities of the internet. He pleads for a move away from the “collect information/dump it into a news story” mode of thinking to a way of presenting each set of information in the way most suited to it.

For example, say a newspaper has written a story about a local fire. Being able to read that story on a cell phone is fine and dandy. Hooray, technology! But what I really want to be able to do is explore the raw facts of that story, one by one, with layers of attribution, and an infrastructure for comparing the details of the fire — date, time, place, victims, fire station number, distance from fire department, names and years experience of firemen on the scene, time it took for firemen to arrive — with the details of previous fires. And subsequent fires, whenever they happen.

What he’s arguing is that data, where applicable, should be stored in a database format that can be re-purposed later with maps, timelines, and other tools not yet envisioned. Write news articles where applicable, but look constantly for more useful ways to present information. Over the years the paper news industry has developed tools that made the most of the newspaper format (including charts, photos, diagrams, and other infographics). It has been painfully slow to do so for the internet. A couple of weeks ago the Sun-Sentinel ran a front-page story about water pumps that had been shut down due to groundwater salt intrusion, accompanied by an interesting diagram. Obviously much more could have been done online, but the website version of the story didn’t even have the diagram!

Other opportunities missed

There is a hostility to the notion of someone getting their news from multiple sources working here which again turns a blind eye to the realities of the internet. Want people to make your page the first place they visit? Why not make it customizable? No need to go as far as iGoogle — how about allowing folks to choose what their favorite sections are and put those on the front page? How about RSS feeds from other news sources? Outlandish? Works pretty good at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: their traffic page is a marvel of maps, live cams, RSS feeds, external links, and articles which — helpfully — have a headline, short summary blurb, and for articles from before today, a date!

So, they changed the layout. Great. Some bloggers do this every few months, to abate boredom. No doubt the Sun-Sentinel spent in the (low) tens of thousands of dollars for their new layout. Is it an improvement over the old site? Well, duh (on a good day, my cat can vomit up an improvement over their old site). But have they addressed any of the challenges facing them and their fellow businesses on today’s internet? No, natch. They’ve dressed a dog up in a slightly more practical and less baroque dress.

Update: I have more nit-pick thoughts that I’ll add as they occur to me:

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  1. Jonathan    Thu Jul 19, 01:09 PM #  

    What he’s arguing is that data, where applicable, should be stored in a database format that can be re-purposed later with maps, timelines, and other tools not yet envisioned.

    That’s it, in a nutshell. Oh, and they should drop their hostility to outside information sources.



  2. Habla Mierda    Thu Jul 19, 01:36 PM #  

    It’s a clusterfuck of an IA job. There’s really only two news stories above the fold. While that’s common in a physical newspaper, it’s almost insulting for a newspaper’s website.

    Something like Newsvine is the future of online news sites.



  3. Onajídé Shabaka    Thu Jul 19, 02:14 PM #  

    I’m really glad you did this piece. I’ve been way too busy to even get to look at much of the site. It is much better than before, however. And, the Miami Herald? We’re still waiting…



  4. dreaming    Fri Jul 20, 11:32 AM #  

    ditto the need for a new herald website.
    but more importantly, you are not wrong about what you suggest. you just dont quite understand the mentality inside the newspaper biz today which is a desperation over how to start making money – sizable profits – like yesteryear while turning their focus to the web where everything is free and users expect it to remain that way.
    thats why you cant freely search news stories. they want you pay for them, as you know. blogs? who cares? give em away for free, is how they think now.
    the industry is in a real quandary. what other one is expected to give its product away for free while still generating 20 percent annual profits? not many.
    online ads are still in their infancy really and not as effective as tv or print. so what to do?
    what newspapers really have to sell, the only thing really, is unique local news. subscriptions, a la the wsj, may become the norm if someone cant think of something better to stop the revenue slide.



  5. alesh    Fri Jul 20, 02:49 PM #  

    dreaming~

    Great comment, thanks.

    I DO understand the mentality of the newspaper industry. What I’m trying to do is cure them of that mentality before it drives them into the ground.

    (By the way, similarly ignorant mentality has just about killed the music industry. Newspapers are worth saving, though, because unlike the record labels, they can continue to contribute something positive to society.)

    The mentality, incidentally, is not shared by everyone in the newspaper industry, but unfortunately it still is by most of the folks at the top. Implementing the stuff I’m talking about would take resources, and there is a sort of fear about doing big untested things like that. Of course “Web 2.0” companies and websites are doing more and more of this stuff, and if the newspapers don’t get on it soon it’ll be too late.

    As far as the archives, I think you’ve correctly described the rationale behind the current system. However, that rationale rests on the belief that the archive fees generate more profits then ad sales would for complete/free/open archives, which the Suck.com article I linked (under “don’t get to say”) above disproves. (That article is almost 10 years old, btw.)

    What I’m saying is that they would INCREASE revenue by opening the archives. Go read that article and see if you’re not convinced.

    The reason online ads are not generating a lot more revenue then they could be is that the newspapers are not particularly pushing them. I work in advertising so I know this from personal experience, and I’m astounded by it all the time.

    I suspect that paid subscriptions on online content will tend to disappear over time. In part I think because ad revenue will turn out to be a better revenue stream then subscription sales, and in part because when your content is behind a paywall, you’re not part of the internet conversation. As more and more discourse moves to the internet, this will start to equal cultural irrelevance. Meg Hourihan expressed this pretty succinctly.