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Front page of The Sun newspaper in 1986

Letter To The Editor

This week a re-tweet of a local newspaper editor appeared in my Twitter timeline with the direction: 'Try out the new-look [withheld] website at [withheld] and let me know what you think. Thank you.' So I tried it out and, as requested, here's my thoughts because they simply couldn't be compressed into a 140 character reply.

Newspapers & Me

Now, before I get going let me state for the record that I don't read daily newspapers, I never have; the personal reasons for this conscious choice are best handled in a personal blog and not here. That said, I cannot say that I'll have nothing to do with newspapers - I used to do a paper round as a schoolboy so to do so would be a tad hypocritical. I started my working life as a printer and there is little in life to compare to the sight, sound and feeling of a newspaper press running at full tilt. Newsprint is faced with an unprecedented threat posed by the Web and is struggling to evolve as a viable form of communication. Observing and documenting how the press reacts will undoubtedly stand as a lesson in commercial survival for future generations.

Try out the new-look website!

So, this morning I followed the editor's directions and found the new-look website but instead of being treated to something genuinely new I was simply disappointed because all I saw was a rehash of the same old newspaper website 'jumble of stuff'.

Newspapers still haven't got their 'stuff' together

Newspaper publishers still haven't learnt about what makes for a good website and this is a real pity because for decades newspapers have lead the way in mixing editorial content with paid-for advertising, yet when it comes to applying this unrivaled pedigree to a webpage they seem to have been frightened into thinking that the web is somehow different. It isn't.

What makes newspapers work is their ability to craft and then sell a story to their readers by writing a high-impact and compelling headline, by securing outstanding photography and by journalists writing engaging copy that moves the reader. These are the native skills of a newspaper and anyone tasked with writing a website would do well to learn and adopt the hard-earned skills of the newspaper editor - from knowing how to use the 5Ws & 1H to write a great headline and how to write relevant copy for the reader right through to how to select great photographs.

What, instead, are we given by newspapers?

Instead of a truly great newspaper layout that leads with a couple of major stories - instead of a considered page layout that makes the story easy to read - instead of an easy to navigate format we are given pages that are full of 'jumble of stuff' that resembles a hastily assembled classified ads section. The typical newspaper website page roughly and thoughtlessly mixes editorial and advertising using something that appears to resemble a cement mixer.

Cognitive layout - Today's TV is on page 14

You see, what makes a newspaper easy to read is its cognitive layout. As a reader, you will come to know where the sports pages are, you instinctively know where to thumb-through to find the TV listings, you also know that whatever drops out of the newspaper will be either inserts or supplements and if you're a reader of the Luton News then you'll know that the section printed on pink paper is the title's Business Monthly supplement. In other words you know the order in which a newspaper's 'stuff' appears. But, in stark contrast to its printed sibling, the newspaper website's navigation is completely broken and no amount of hyperlinks to other stories makes it any better. Newspaper websites have no such architecture or logical structure - the individual stories aren't linked intelligently so you can read the 'next' story as you would if you turned a newspaper page - the newspaper website's URL cannot be hacked so that you can get back to the start of the editorial, financial or sports sections.

Crediting the source

We are all able to look at the HTML code that is used to compose each and every webpage you will encounter as you browse the web. In order to learn a little more about this newspaper's home page before writing this blog post I thought it best to view the HTML source of the title's very first page. Unexpectedly, the page was found to be compiled from a huge amount of code (3,516 lines of code or, to put it another way 182KB of HTML) that, when compared to this blog page at the time of publishing (116 lines of code or 19KB) works out to be 9 times larger. I fully accept that a newspaper's remit is larger than that of this webpage but I have saved the best 'til last. When I read through the homepage's HTML code I found there to be over 280 hyperlinks to other websites and webpages. Now this, I have to admit, was a complete surprise but, on reflection, it's hardly surprising given the 'jumble of stuff' approach to assembling a webpage. Imagine how confusing a webpage that offers you 280 things to click is - what are you going to click? More importantly, if and when you do make a click, are you going to be comfortable that it was actually the right link to click given the huge choice that you were presented with?

Mobile websites

Now, to its credit, the newspaper website in question was responsive; in other words it realised that I also looked at it on an iPhone and totally adjusted its layout accordingly so that it presented nicely on a mobile device (something that this website doesn't yet do) and, in so doing, presented a page that was free from spammy ads and a 'jumble of stuff' syndrome. The cause of the 'jumble of stuff' is the fact that newspaper publishers think that they can only compete with the web by publishing content for free, a move supported by the placement of spammy ads. If you're a publisher that thinks about free stuff from the word go then the online version of your newspaper will always suffer as a poor relation to its print counterpart.

Newspaper publishers do recognise that people have changed the way they consume news and a growing number of publishers have reacted by mobilising content. Yet the on-the-go news consumer reading a story on an iPhone will have a different set of requirements from a reader who is sitting at home with a nice hot cuppa reading a news story on a tablet. There's now a real and a very compelling argument for newspaper publishers to move to a subscription model for online publishing so long as they appreciate that print is losing ground rapidly.

It's time for newspaper publishers to stop doing what they're doing and totally rethink their strategy and appreciate that they can and should create great pages, filled with fine words, beautiful typography and stunning photographs once again. Because, contrary to popular belief, many people do wish to spend time reading online.

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