Monday, August 8, 2011

Twin major stories present problems for news websites locked into a standard layout design

How many years now have we been distributing news via the worldwide web? The Wayback Machine has its oldest snapshot of the New York Times website as November 1996.

But here we are, some 15 years later, and most news organizations have the same issue with their web home pages – how to cover two stories at the same time. Both the NYT and The Guardian face this issue today when trying to balance news of the stock market crash with news of the London riots, today in their third night.

For the NYT the decision is probably easiest: the fall of the Dow and other markets is a local story, and so the stock market, along with a follow-up on S&P leads. News from London is a tiny headline far down the page.

For The Guardian, too, one of these stories is local and so it is leading with news of the continuing riots in London. But its story of the fall of the markets follows the story of the riots – but because of its page design the story falls off the first "page" and the reader must scroll down to see it.

This is an issue of page design for the web, one that many designers are all too aware of. While print editions have almost infinite variability, websites are still locked in. Often the biggest area of flexibility is in the area of advertising, where a large creative ad can sometimes be popped onto a page without much trouble, but rearranging the news is difficult or impossible.
Of course, the problem of inflexible web design doesn't just come into play were there are two big stories that need to be played up, but also when there is one huge story. One could argue that the web design seen here at the NYT and Guardian is insufficient on those occasions when there is only one big story, but the page design just doesn't convey the importance of that story.

This can be seen on the home page of the Washington Post, where there is a simple headline followed by only two lines of text allowed by the design. The reader could be excused for just glancing past the story since this is the same look the website has when the lead story is far less important.

I'm not a web designer, I'm a publisher and editor, so I don't have an easy answer to propose other than to continue to express my dissatisfaction with the way websites are designed.

When leading the web redesign of a group of B2B magazine a couple of years ago I remember talking to the head of the development team about flexibility. Almost any request was answered with the stock answer "the system doesn't allow that". It was incredibly frustrating that after so many years of web publishing that it felt like we were still in the dark ages. And I suppose we still are.