Redesigning the newspaper online

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Check out the New York Times’ prototype for an article skimmer. As this blog post explains—and judging by the reactions of most commenters—with this skimmer The Times has moved that much closer to replicating the best feature of the print newspaper: the ability to scan the display type for a wide range of articles.

One of the key challenges of the newspaper online is that you often get very little context or textual/visual “hooks” to draw you into the story beyond the hyperlinked headline, as Ethan Zuckerman notes (and as Cass Sunstein laments in describing the lack of an “architecture of serendipity” in online news media). Quoting Zuckerman:

Today’s New York Times has six major stories and seven minor stories on the front page. The major stories, which include headlines, large blocks of text and, in two cases, photos or graphics. Those stories include substantial hooks to interest a reader – 200-400 words of text, plus images, designed to convince a reader to a) buy the newspaper and b) read the body of the story. The seven stories at the bottom of the page include 17-48 words of text as hook, and three include pictures. Count every mention of a page inside the edition you could turn to – the paper equivalent of a hyperlink – and there are 23 links a reader can follow from the front page.

The contrast to the online edition of the Times is pretty stark. Just counting possible links (using a search for anchor tags in the source HTML), there are 423 other webpages linked from the front page. A more careful count, ignoring ads, links to RSS feeds and links to account tools for online readers, gives 315 content links, possible stories or sections a reader could explore from the front page. While there are almost 14 times as many pages for a reader to explore, they’ve got much less information on what links to follow: while twelve stories have text hooks, the wordcount ranges between 10 and 26 words. While there’s a good chance one of those stories might convince you to click on it, you won’t start reading it on the front page, the way you might with the 200-400 word stories in the paper edition. (There are lots more images to choose from – 15, one of which is a video – in contrast to the seven images on the paper front page.)

Okay, so the paper gives 7% as many options to the reader that the online edition does, though provides up to 20 times as much text to get a reader invested in a story. So what? And isn’t this just a function of what medium is good at? If the paper edition of the New York Times could support hyperlinks, wouldn’t there be 300 on the front page? (And if computer monitors were as eye-friendly as printed paper, wouldn’t the Times website feature lots more text?)

Newspapers have at least three public-interest functions. They report news, they offer a space for public debate, and they prioritize news for readers. There are powerful online alternatives for those first two functions. I’m starting to get concerned that there’s not much good thinking about that third critical function.

What do you think?

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3 Responses to “Redesigning the newspaper online”


  1. 1 Scott Richert February 19, 2009 at 9:34 am

    This is a very interesting topic and one that I never really thought about. I do believe that the news online is not prioritized quite as well as it is in print format, but I do not necessarily believe that it is a bad thing. Part of the reason people read their news online is because they have the choice to read what they want, when they want. The fact that there is so much more content for the reader to choose from online almost makes up for the lack of pull that each individual story has.

    I also do not believe that it is our duty to prioritize the news for people. People want to read things that interest THEM and not what the paper editors deem important. If someone does not want to read something off the front page, no matter how many photos and textual hooks you offer, they will not read it. As long as we continue to report the news and leave an open forum for public debate, then I think we should forget about the last “vital function” of news media, and just let the people read what they want.

  2. 2 meerarajagopalan February 19, 2009 at 4:17 pm

    I agree with Scott. It’s not our job as journalists to tell the readers what they need to read. They have their choice to read what they want to, just like we have somewhat of a choice to write what we want to. Online search engines allow readers to find all the articles on a subject they want. How do we as journalists know that the same article about peanut better will be relevant to the soccer mom who stocks up and the peanut farmer who makes his own. We don’t. But if that peanut farmer wanted to start selling his own peanuts, he might find the article useful.

    One thing that I think the Times may want to thing about is lessening the amount of links. With that many links on a page, it might distract the reader. The link, for one thing, shouldn’t all be underlined, maybe they should just be “hidden” within the text.

  3. 3 jeffbechdel February 25, 2009 at 9:47 pm

    Something for the above writers to think about:

    Don’t we accept that journalists prioritize the news anyway? Isn’t that why we deem certain stories to be “front page worthy”? This is acceptable to us because 9 times out of 10, they get it right.

    That’s a fraction we have to be okay with, as a society. We may disagree with what journalists choose to prioritize highly or lowly, but that’s part of the process. An underreported story will raise its profile if enough people make it so (or if it gets in the hands of a thoughtful editor). And an overreported story will be ignored or critiqued by readers. We have to trust that smart people are making decisions in newsrooms.

    Why? Because if we, as humans, are presented with 315 content-related links, we’ll choose very few and risk missing out on important information. It’s human nature (like it or not) to only read a few stories (and maybe only parts of them). It’s the journalist’s job to make a strong case regarding which stories those should be.


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