Thursday July 19, 2007
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?
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:
- The top of the page. There’s a weird gap above the masthead, and below the little ad off on the right. Why not close that up?
- The general ad-glut. 5 ad blocks per page isn’t way more then most paper sites, but somehow they manage to be particularly intrusive on the Sentinel. I guess that’s intentional.
- That huge that swings down over the home page. Whoa!
- As Onajídé points out in the comments, a Herald redesign is pending. I hope they do better with this stuff.