My 2008 media website wishlist

Lots of people are talking about what changes we’re going to see for big media news websites in 2008:

Having been a consumer of online journalism for quite a while now, I’ve become an expert — no, a god — in how these websites should be run. So below, in no particular order, are some of my suggestions to newspaper and other big media news websites on how to improve for 2008:

Clean up your layouts

Check out this Ottawa Sun article page. Almost 200kB of data for about 20kB of actual story information (more than half of which is the photo).

Same deal with this Gazette page. Here, the page clocks in at over 500kB for a 4kB story and 8kB photo.

Having a 10:1 ratio of junk to story is ridiculous on an article page, and is encouraging bloggers and others to link to “print-friendly” versions of articles instead to avoid all the internal-link cruft and giant, resource-abusing Flash ads.

Not only do these throw-everything-out-there website layouts make it impossible to navigate, it turns off web surfers by putting barriers between them and their information.

It’s gotten to the point now where I have to be careful how many newspaper articles I have open at the same time in my browser. One too many and the simultaneous animated ads will be enough to crash the browser on my laptop, if not just grinding it to a crawl.

Website owners are starting to realize this problem thanks to the growth of mobile browsing. But instead of fixing their 800×600 (or 1024×768) websites to focus on structure instead of pixel-level element arrangement, they start separate “mobile-friendly” websites. Now instead of just having one simple page that can work on three platforms (screen, mobile and 8.5×11 paper), they have their computers spit out three different pages and marvel at their brilliance.

Use video right

Video use is exploding in newsrooms as editors are scrambling to add the format to their websites. Big features have to have video components. But now we’re left wondering how much video is too much.

The problem is that there’s a lot of junk that gets uploaded that newspaper editors think is cool but really isn’t. Videos of talking reporter heads monotonously paraphrasing their stories. Shaky clips with bad audio. Clips that are way too long and desperately need editing.

First of all, video should be used only where it’s useful. Anything that can be communicated just as well in audio or in text should use those formats.

Second, video should be subjected to a minimum of editing. Cut out long pauses, add text to explain what’s going on, have reporters do voice-overs.

Finally, editors should recognize that video takes time, and good video takes a whackload of time. For that reason, they should resist the urge to force reporters to take video in addition to their normal duties without additional time to do it right. Splitting their time between formats will cause them to do neither very well, and readers will see you as the two-bit operation you are.

Fortunately, some editors are starting to realize that. They’re bringing in people specifically to do online video, and having them work alongside reporters. Some intrepid photographers are doing double-duty as videographers, which doesn’t present as much of a problem (provided it isn’t a sporting event or other high-pressure situation where you’d want the same moment captured in two different formats).

For their Frozen in Time ice storm 10th anniversary section, The Gazette uploaded clips of Global Quebec news reports from 10 years ago (back when Global Quebec itself was just starting out). News reports routinely include links to Global newscast stories. That ensures that the video content is professional (it also has the added benefit of being free), but it’s not being produced by the paper, and it tends to repeat things already in the story.

On the other hand, Canadian Press has been pushing video content to its members. (You can see some examples on Yahoo News.) The videos, produced by CP reporters on cheap consumer cameras, leave a bit to be desired in terms of quality. They rely too heavily on reporter voice-overs (some have no other audio at all), have bad editing and in general don’t offer much that a regular story and a couple of still photos couldn’t show you just as well.

If video is necessary or useful in understanding a story better, by all means use it. Otherwise, focus on the formats you’re successful with.

User-generated content isn’t a magic solution

Everyone’s gotten on the user-generated content bandwagon. Not content with simply rebroadcasting viewer letters and emails, now they’re asking for content — any content — related to news events (or even not). In a lot of cases, users are pointed to blank forms with no instruction on exactly what they should upload (and a lot of instruction on the rights they’re relinquishing by doing so). So newspapers get a lot of junk.

In OJR’s five lessons, that I linked to above, one of the lessons is that media outlets should be asking for information, not articles, from its readers. Eye-witness accounts, amateur photography and video, story ideas, corrections, comments, and all the other stuff that help reporters do their jobs.

Tell them what you want and they’ll give it to you. Tell them to do freelance journalism for free and they’ll quickly realize they can start a personal blog where they control the distribution of their content.

Setup RSS feeds. Lots of them.

If you haven’t discovered the greatness that is feeds, you’re missing out on a lot. Basically, instead of going to your favourite websites to see what’s new, you subscribe to an RSS feed through a feed reader which presents blog posts or news stories to you like emails. You don’t read the same story twice, and you get all your news from one location.

Most news sources big and small have realized the value of this and provide, at minimum, two-sentence fragments or summaries of each news article in a feed.

But more should be done to give readers more choice:

  • Feeds for each section. Le Devoir offers only a single catch-all feed of everything from letters to arts stories. Over 60 articles a day, six days a week. It doesn’t take long for someone who’s only interested in local news to tire of that and unsubscribe.
  • Original content feeds. I subscribe to different sources: The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, CBC and a bunch of Montreal papers. I don’t want to read the same Canadian Press wire story four times over. I subscribe to get original news and feature content. Media outlets should at minimum provide a feed for exclusive stories you won’t find anywhere else, and preferably for all stories written in-house.
  • Feeds for each author. Especially columnists and other name stars. Some people read the paper for a specific columnist. It stands to reason some people would be interested in subscribing to a feed just to read that columnist’s stories too.

Add tagging and categorization

One of the things that makes a lot of blogs fun to navigate is that each post gets put into a category or two and has tags that lead to related articles. If you click on “newspaper websites” below, you’ll be taken to all the posts on this blog related to that topic.

But newspapers as a whole seem to be missing this. So when I read an article related to the U.S. presidential election, or the war in Iraq, or Kenya, I’m provided with no links to related stories so I can catch up on past articles, features about the topic or even other articles in the same day’s paper that in the print version are printed side-by-side.

This is ludicrous. If I’m reading an article on a subject the chances are pretty darn high I’m interested in that subject and would respond positively to links to related articles. That, in turn, would provide the website with greater ad revenue. Being able to subscribe to future articles about a specific topic would be a logical extension of that, and would be welcomed by readers.

Use larger photos

Your photographers do good work. Embrace them. Too many websites use tiny thumbnails of photos for no good reason. The number of people using dialup is shrinking by the minute. If you’re going to have 500kB pages everywhere, you might as well spend a good chunk of that making a photo 400 or 600 pixels wide instead of 50.

Fix your internal search engines

I’ve given up trying to use those search bars on news websites. They simply don’t work. They either bring up irrelevant content, give results that are nonsensical sentence fragments, or don’t return anything at all. Some have given up and just used Google to do searches for them.

Put a few keywords into your search engine related to recent big stories. If you can’t find those stories on the first page of the results, your search is broken.

Destroy the portals

Does anyone use a portal anymore? That’s so 1999. And yet the big companies want to merge everything together on these mammoth websites: Canada.com, Cyberpresse.ca, Canoe.ca. URLs grow much longer than necessary (making it difficult for newspapers, radio stations and TV shows to point consumers to them), navigation becomes more difficult, and everyone is constantly reminded that their small local media outlet is owned by a giant media conglomerate. Only the upper management of those giant conglomerates think this is an advantage.

Give each major outlet its own website. Keep links to other sister properties small and relevant (do I really need a link to a Toronto radio station from every single page of a Montreal newspaper’s website?). This also brings me to my next point:

Let local outlets have more control over their websites

You don’t know what you’re doing. Why not let your dozens of web properties experiment a bit? They couldn’t possibly do worse. And when they do well, you can share the success stories with others.

I’ve heard local outlets express unending frustration that the head office in Toronto wouldn’t let them do anything with their own websites. That trend is changing slightly, but not enough. The big portals still dominate.

Free yourselves from wire services

Wire stories are useful in newspapers, because people tend to subscribe to just one of them, and they want to be informed about everything. But online, people can pick and choose where they get their content from, and they won’t get wire stories from you if they can get it from the New York Times or Reuters directly. Focus on original content that people won’t find anywhere else. Then Google News and Fark will send traffic your way instead of to their special wire service pages or Yahoo News.

Start up internal blogs

People like to communicate with their media, but they like communication to come back the other way too. They want to know what goes on behind the scenes, why certain decisions are made on what to cover. It also provides free publicity for upcoming ad campaigns, contests, new sections or anything else exciting you’re coming up with and want people to know about. As long as you’re honest with your readers, they’ll probably understand most of the stuff that bloggers badmouth you about on a daily basis.

Start niche blogs and keep them updated

A blog about the local sports team. A blog about city hall. A blog about local television. A blog about the local technology community. A blog about the local transit system. If you’re writing articles about a subject regularly enough to have a beat writer on the subject, you have a golden opportunity to start a niche blog about that subject. Small stories that don’t get in the paper can go there, as can behind-the-scenes stories from the reporter, or special content like video and audio.

Have more static content

The CBC has an “In Depth” section with has a bunch of Wikipedia-like pages that summarize complex issues. Check out this one on the Pickton trial. You can find background, a timeline, news stories and reader comments. It’s like a mini encyclopedia on one topic. It’s the kind of page that Google or a blogger would link to, for web surfers who want to understand it in greater detail.

Avoid article duplication

I’d call this a pet peeve, but there are a lot of pet peeves on this list. When I subscribe to a website’s feed, big stories will appear more than once. It’ll appear when it breaks, again when there’s an update, again when the local reporter adds information, and again after it appears in the paper. In most cases these stories are virtually identical.

The problem, aside from duplication in feeds, is that links to earlier versions of the story don’t get updated with new information. Comments attached to the earlier story aren’t seen by readers of the later ones.

Instead of uploading a new story, update the existing one with new information. I do it quite a bit on this blog.

Stop splitting stories across multiple pages

Once upon a time, when Internet service was very slow, long articles had to be split up into different pages so our poor 14.4kb modems wouldn’t explode under the pressure of having to download all those words.

News flash: That era is over. There is no need to split a 50kB story onto two or more 500kB pages. All it does is force us to load another page. I realize it gives you more ad revenue, but again it causes bloggers to point to “print-friendly” pages where you have no ads anyway.

The same thing goes for photo galleries. I hate websites that have photo galleries that require you to reload a new page and a dozen ads for each photo. We’ll tire quickly and leave while our browser is still “connecting to server” for the 14th time.

That’s my list. What did I forget? What’s your pet peeve about newspaper websites?

UPDATE (Jan. 14): Hugh McGuire compares newspapers to pornographers and says that selection of content, not creation of it, should be the goal of their websites.

2 thoughts on “My 2008 media website wishlist

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