News site Web design: What works? What doesn't?

[Editor’s note: Today OJR welcomes Nora Paul of the University of Minnesota and Laura Ruel of the University of North Carolina as contributing writers on the site. Each month, Nora and Laura will examine current research on news website user interfaces and storytelling techniques. Their articles will help news site producers and editors pick the best ways to package their information to increase their site’s traffic and influence.]

Goodbye 2006.  The tenth anniversary year of the start of many Web-based news sites was the occasion for reflection about how far (or not) we’ve come and speculation on how best to proceed forward.  Here we are in 2007 and it’s time to do a measured look at where we are right now.

For the past ten years the features on news websites have evolved and expanded.  Thanks to software developments like SoundSlides audio slideshows have proliferated on news sites, expanding experimentation with “multimedia.”  The “We Media” mantra has given rise to collaborative community reported news both within and outside mainstream news organizations. RSS feeds have changed the notion of mass product distribution to personalized news channel delivery.  The aggregation of news stories on a given topic coupled with additional information (along the lines of Seattle P-I’s Transportation page or Lawrence Journal-World’s Legislation page) is moving news websites away from “your daily newspaper on the computer screen” to a valuable aggregation of community information.

Experimentation with individual story forms continues.  The slideshow is getting a remake with the “flipbook” style of choreographed image display set to music (as with the MSNBC “Iraqi Kurdistan” video.)  The packaging of series stories with multiple media elements is getting cleaner and more elegantly designed (the Orphans & Angels piece from Florida Today is a good example.)  Flash and Google maps interfaces are being used to navigate the user through data and information (take a look at AZ Star’s Sealing Our Border interactive map and the Boston Globe campaign contributions map.)

How the success of these experimentations and evolutions are being measured is still an issue.  Page views, time spent on the page, where people enter in from and where they go after can all be measured.  But what do we know about how these news features and forms change attitude toward the news product, or how effective the form is at informing, or if a new design is a more effective way to get people to engage fully with the carefully constructed package?

Research into story design effectiveness is happening in newsrooms and universities.  In the case of newsroom research, the findings are regarded as competitive intelligence and not readily shared with the industry.  In universities, the findings are written in academese and not readily understood by the industry.

In this column, we will ferret out the research and findings about story form effectiveness and profile the people and places who are trying to understand current practices and guide more informed design decisions.  Creating stories that engage, inform, and get people to come back for more must be part of the media’s mix of offerings.  We hope, in the coming months, to engage and inform you about story design research.

(Special thanks to Interactive Narratives for consistently shining a light on story innovation.)

'New News' retrospective: Is online news reaching its potential?

Ten years ago, at the first “New News” seminar held at the Poynter Institute, a group of digital pioneers brainstormed what would be new about online news. They listed what it was that newspapers were not providing that the new digital news space would enable and how the new medium might change news reporting and writing.

Many of the predictions were based on the idea of the “limitless newshole,” an endless space for providing deep context and satisfying the “give me more” that reporters thought news seekers were craving. The promise of hyperlinking and easier communication between readers and reporters were all high on the list of ways this new news space would change news. Creating new expressive forms of reporting, providing better follow-up on reported stories and crafting new relationships between words and graphics were noted as new potentials for online news.

Ten years later, just how far have we come in realizing these predictions? How much have we truly leveraged the possibilities of new forms of news writing and reporting online?

Limitless newshole

The Promise: In the early days of online news it seemed that its greatest attraction would be online availability of all the information reporters gathered but couldn’t fit into available print column inches.

The Reality: Online news is still a downstream product. For the most part, the news text comes to the screen after it has been edited for the print – and that means that the “extra” reporting has been edited out already, although there are sometimes exceptions in newspapers’ news sites.

As Dennis Buster, news editor at Minneapolis-St. Paul’s, commented, “Here at the Strib … I haven’t found that it’s a regular practice to insert into Web stories the stuff that was taken out for the newspaper version. But it does happen occasionally. Where I am most aware of it is in reviews, where it seems to happen most often (though it’s still far from an ‘often” occurrence). A late review comes in and has to be trimmed into a hole that has been left for it in the paper. The reviewer has quite a bit of other good stuff that would be beneficial for readers to have access to, so we sometimes get a request that night or the next morning from our features folks to run a longer version of that story. It has happened a few times with sports stories and metro stories, but that has been a VERY rare happening, in my experience.”

More frequently, this bottomless newshole is being used as an endless news stream for television station video reports. Teresa Moore, executive producer of Web content for WTSP-TV Tampa Bay’s 10, reported: “We stream unedited videos along with stories that ran on our air with shorter soundbites. For example, we’ll post whole interviews online or show whole press conferences live that won’t make it on air. When our reporters do live shots for air – we stream them online and keep them talking about stuff they couldn’t cram into 1:30. You can see this in action, go to and you’ll see reporters come and go around show times. This is still in the beta phase. We’re getting ready to roll some more production behind this. We’re going to brand it – but right now we affectionately call it ‘tampabays10 unplugged’ – like VH1.”

Give me more

The Promise: People hungry for context and comprehensiveness would clamor for everything you could package together. The Web would be where people went when they wanted deep content and they would be looking to their news organization to give it to them.

The Reality: The Web has become an alert service, the place for time-starved but news-hungry consumers. As Rusty Coats, formerly of Mori Research cautioned, “Don’t market your site by saying we’ll give you more. People don’t have enough time now. They don’t want more, they want efficiency. How will your site make their life easier?”

When news seekers want comprehensive, in-depth coverage they find it themselves through news site hopping. News aggregators like Google News facilitate this. Are you really interested in Bernard Ebbers’ conviction for WorldCom fraud? Google has pulled together links to 1300+ news stories for you.

Where news sites are taking advantage of the “give me more” nature of the Web is with the packaging of related source materials. Now you can read the transcript or hear the full speech or see the video from the event – these media elements enhance the text story package and provide a sensory “give me more” that was impossible to do with newsprint.

Another problem realizing the potential of the Web for deep reporting on any particular topic is that there are fewer and fewer newsroom resources available for original, in-depth reporting. Look at most online news sites – what percent of the coverage is wire copy? Pack news judgment reigns in most news organizations. No wonder there has been a rise in niche news sites, bloggers who consult esoteric sources and discussion areas where people intensely interested in particular topics can get more and different news than they will from their still geo-focused local newspaper.


The Promise: Hyperlinking was going to be the biggest enhancement to online news. Through links, news producers would be able to send their news audience to related stories on their own site, to important stories offsite and to essential Web sites where more information could be found. This Web of news would provide greater context and allow for news consumers to find in one spot all the information of interest related to the story they are reading.

The Reality: The promise of linking hit the reality of production. Few news sites regularly link to outside Web sites because 1) it takes time to find and verify the authenticity of the sites you send your customers to and 2) who wants to send customers off to another site? As for linking to related stories within the news site, this is more common, but not nearly as routine as it should be. (A recent check of the New York Times Online front pages stories showed no stories with external links and internal links only to “Most E-mailed Stories,” “top articles” or “related stories” – most of which required a payment of $2.95 in order to read.)

The issue is one of time, but also of information management and the packaging of ongoing news coverage. Some news sites have taken routinely covered topics in their region and made them into “story shells” (a term coined by Jane Ellen Stevens – see related OJR story) where current stories sit on top of the other coverage. This requires a rethinking of news divisions on sites that, for the most part, mimic the newsprint sections and a determination of which areas will have ongoing coverage. A micro-site would be designed to hold all the relevant material (more about this below in “Follow-up on stories.”)

Communication between reporter and reader

The Promise: No longer would communication with readers be “us to them” — now we would have two-way communication. This new communication paradigm would democratize news, making the reader the correspondent, inviting in their stories and viewpoints. It would also help inform reporters about the readers’ real world interests and concerns.

The Reality: does, but doesn’t. doesn’t, does. Having bylines linked to e-mail for their reporters is not at all the common practice that was promised, in the early days, as one of the great benefits of online reporting.

Reporters who do make their e-mail addresses available find that this is a powerful way to stay in touch with their readers, to get story tips and to tap into the expertise of their audience. But others still consider it to be a potential time suck and would just as soon keep the communication flow going one way. As for facilitating communication between readers through forums and chat areas online, these continue to be conversational cul-de-sacs, for the most part – dead-ending in the forum. They are not being read by reporters who could use them to cull interesting ideas and people.

Blogs promise to bring in a new wave of communication linkage between reporters and their audiences. Dan Gillmor’s famous statement that “my readers know more than I do” honors this idea that a dialogue rather than a lecture will lead to richer reporting. The Weblog form (see “New expressive reporting styles” below) has hit mainstream newsrooms from the sports desk, to business, to political columnists. But many of them, like Daniel Weintraub’s California Insider, for example,
(user registration required) don’t have comments links – so they are still just one way communications, a new form, yes, but same old flow out only.

The harshest reality that news organizations have to face is that readers are finding each other, cutting out the “middle man.” The lackluster support and catchall nature of news sites’ forum areas have sent most dedicated posters to sites where the community they are seeking is much richer and livelier. Disease sufferers, tropical plant growers, music fans, political polemicists, tree-huggers, and do-it-yourselfers have all found places for conversation, advice, and support — and it isn’t the news site. It has been said that the role of the newspaper is to get a community into conversation with itself. Well, the newspaper’s hoped-for role has been abdicated to any number of online discussion areas.

How I wrote the story

The Promise: This abundant newshole we talked about earlier would also make it possible for news organizations to provide some transparency in their reporting. Reporters would let readers behind the scenes to hear how the news was gathered. Much like the trend that was happening in investigative reporting when the methods for data gathering and analysis became interesting sidebar material, it was felt that the online news space would allow reporters to let people into the news process.

The Reality: Multimedia has helped to make this promise a reality in a lot of online news packages. The growing practice of creating slide shows with audio overlays about the pictures that are being seen, and the story behind them, is bringing a conversational, insider tone to news reports. In some cases it is the photographer who is telling the story behind the pictures, other times it is the reporter telling the story. A mix can be seen at the New York Times Multimedia page. This type of story, often supplementing the regular text style report, brings a more human side to news coverage and lets people feel more involved in the process.

New expressive reporting styles

The Promise: Online reporting would allow reporters to have a new news vernacular, more informal. They would be able to tell stories in new, non-linear ways. The pyramid style report could be blown up.

The Reality: As noted before, most online news content continues to be the same news text from offline displayed online. The same reporting forms. The same AP style. But there are sections of the news site that have supported new expressive forms: blog columns and forums. The blog format being used by some columnists and reporters provides a much more conversational approach to the news, the sort of insider dialogue between cohorts that makes the blog such an appealing form. This more informal style of writing and the openness to sharing of ideas that blogs represent are important steps towards realizing the early promise of new reporting styles. In addition, reading forum areas on news sites certainly takes people away from newspeak into the vernacular.

Follow-up on stories

The Promise: Newsprint reporting is, of necessity, episodic and short-lived. Online reports can be encyclopedic and have a long shelf-life. This was the great promise of the online news site – its archival potential could create evolving news reporting that could keep developments in short-term and longer-range news stories up-to-date.

The Reality: Some news sites are using the archival nature of the Web to create ongoing coverage sites of important news topics. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Traffic site and the Lawrence Journal-World’s Legislature site with its cumulative coverage of legislative issues are good examples of this use of the Web. Even updating individual stories is being done. The Orange Country Register’s “Toxic Treats” series offers updates about more recalls or state-wide actions to curb the distribution of these dangerous candies.

New relationships between words and graphics

The Promise: New storytelling software that would make the merging of words and images easier would change the way stories were packaged and presented.

The Reality: The interest in using Flash and other multimedia software for creating new story forms is growing. News sites from organizations of almost every size are playing with animated slide shows and experimenting with new presentations of news. Multimedia stories with images, sounds, and text (as opposed to multiple media packaging where the various media elements sit next to each other rather than being integrated) are being crafted. The reality, though, is that the time it takes to break out of column inch display of news text into new story forms is time that is hard to find.

People often object to the term “new media” – look, it’s been around for at least a decade. But if you look closely you’ll see that the great promise that was seen for this as a new form of journalism has yet to be fully realized. New methods for crafting and delivering compelling news stories online are still a long way from being fully developed.