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.)

About Nora Paul

Director of the Institute for New Media Studies at the University of Minnesota since 2000. Used to work at the Poynter Institute, holding programs in news research, computer assisted reporting, and online news leadership. Also did time at the Miami Herald, running the editorial research department.


  1. I think this is a fantastic concept for a column that I will definitely look forward to reading!

  2. Worst thing about online newspapers is their lack of hyperlinking in editorial. They mention web sites and blogs, but don’t link to them. Relatively unknown companies especially should have links in their names that go to their web site.

    Second worst thing is lack of comments, or shoving the reader input off to some forum that most users don’t know or care much about.

    Blogs are more widely used and understood than forums. Forums, having good qualities, are not suitable to daily editorial postings, but to larger, less time sensitive issues.

    Blogs enable readers to comment right below the post itself. This keeps the reader input connected more closely to the specific editorial content of an article. Often, readers are more interested in how other readers respond to an article than the actual article itself, which may not be unique.

    Blogs have established the new web norms. Journalists and web developers who wish to succeed will assess and incorporate blog functionalities in a manner similar to how the blogs do them.

    This site sets a good example. You even have “Edit” for comments of registered users. That is way cool, innovative, and unique. Some sites, like Digg, allow you to edit a comment or posting, but only in a short time duration.

    Printer friendly version is also extremely smart. I wish I could have that on my Blogger blog, and “Subscribe to Comments” and “Recent Comments”. Very important features for any dynamic content/comments enabled site.

  3. Great idea. I’m looking forward to reading your columns here.

  4. While my newspaper’s online presence is pretty small, I’m always trying to learn about new ideas that may play out for us in the future. I think this column will help out a lot.

    I also wanted to specifically mention the video you linked to. That was great for me personally. I was raised Jewish and it was great to see what these journalists had done to show a people who, like Jews, were persecuted with the intent of extinction. I have no idea how the Kurds would react to me. I’d like to think after all they’d been through, they would be kind enough to accept that I’m a fellow human being and that I accept them as such.

    It is material like this that affirms why I’m in the business — to bring an understanding of what is happening in our community, whether that’s locally or in the wider global community.

    Thanks for what you’ve provided here.

  5. I think boggers could be a mediator between a lay man and a professional.

  6. Still enough, the old line media must deconstruct and quit thinking about broadcasting a “message” and imposing stories on passive audiences.

    Audiences are no longer passive. They want to contribute their opinions, complaints, questions, insights, and praise into the news story itself.

    Looking for more glamor and glitz is the old way that is now discredited.

    The blogospheric values of transparency, interactivity, and user-generated content must be worked into the new journalism, or it’s just business as usual with new tools.

  7. Major Highfield says:

    News site designers — do they really exist or are they simply print journalists thrown into the role?

    I would vote for the latter considering the majority of news sites still subscribe to the notion that the Web’s unlimited amount of space means “pack as much content on the page as possible.” Mix in a lack of usability and total disregard for the customer, and you have the ingredients for the standard newspaper Web site.

    No, I’m not trying to be mean, I’m just stating the facts. And I hope this column will do the same.

  8. Fantastic! I’m looking forward to reading what the two of you come up with for each column. Your concept is on target for those working in newspaper Web departments (designers along with writers, etc.) and teachers of multimedia/convergence at the college level. I’m getting into podcasts and I’ve been into teaching journalists and journalism for years.