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Study TIME: What makes a good news website

The biggest challenge for the producers of online news is winning the attentions of potential readers and to keep them coming back for more. This is a particularly difficult task since the competition in the online news industry is so cutthroat, that news websites are pressured to strike the perfect blend of credibility, accuracy, and entertainment in order to gain subscribers.  

While relevance and content are news values that every traditional news organization must take good note of, online journalism requires them to put as much effort in improving the design of their websites and the discoverability of their articles. Most of all, they must take into account the interactivity that online journalism allows, therefore pushing news producers to consider the social and community aspects of their websites.

The question is: what makes a good news website?

DESIGN:

Readability is key. Studies have shown that a high contrast between foreground and background colors (that is, between text and background) makes a webpage more readable.[1] The researchers discovered that readers consider the following as true: 1) their preferred color combination is black and white; 2) color combinations which include black are generally more readable than those that don’t; and 3) darker text on lighter backgrounds are more readable compared to lighter text on darker backgrounds. However, font size and font style are two factors that can easily disprove the aforementioned findings. Unfortunately, a study on font size and style in connection to color combination has yet to be conducted.

The same researchers tried to find out if color combination also affects retention. Again, participants of the study rated black text against a white background as more readable that other combinations. They also pointed out that black against white is the most professional-looking.

More than just black and white. Color combination, however, should be the least of news website’s worries.[2] Content, which is basically the lifeblood of these websites, must be organized in a way that won’t put off readers. (A site with a too elaborate design and cramped content takes a longer time to load than one which uses a simple, cleaner layout.)  Some news sites produce an average of one hundred stories every day, therefore, making organization of articles a real challenge. Basically, the content that a news site produces would be useless if readers are not visually pleased by how it is organized.[3]

Besides following the eye-tracking principles of web design, an effective remedy to this problem is literally keeping tabs on information. News websites must have a menu of article topics—world news, health, politics, lifestyle, etc.—at the top of their pages to make navigation easier. A menu also archives information more efficiently.

More links, more URLs, more money. Devoting a page to each section means that the reader of a news site would have to click some links before getting to the article he or she wants to read. A specific URL for each page is an effective strategy for news sites that earn money through pay-per-click advertising (PPC)[4]. The picture below (from http://www.bashbosh.com/ad-design-placement/) shows the different areas where ads can generate the most views in a webpage. Darker colors indicate the strongest points.

First impressions.If layout artists of newspapers put a lot of work on the front page, web layout artists should work just as hard on designing the homepage. The biggest news stories are typically what readers want to read first. They should easily be spotted in the home page. Most news websites use a slideshow to showcase their biggest stories in order to save space and to attract readers. The homepage should be simple; compact but not cramped. It should be compatible with different web browsers as well.[5]



DISCOVERABILITY

Tabs and tags. The beauty of news websites is that it allows readers to search for articles that have long been published. Search bars (Search Engine Optimization or SEO) are essential to any website.[6] A good SEO can be achieved by doing the following[7]:

  1.     Get inbound links and link out as well.
  2.     Headlines and title tags should have key words up front.
  3.     Web addresses for your blog posts or articles should include key words.
  4.     Page descriptions should be unique or eliminated.
  5.     Highlight your best content on every page.
  6.     Create theme or category pages, and run more special series.
  7.     Limit tags and categories to the most important ones.
  8.     Create a Google News [sic] site map and optimize images.
  9.     Get into offline conversations as well as online ones.

Aside from the menu of topics that organizes content, tags can also be used to increase the discoverability of articles. The choice of keywords should be given much thought if owners of news websites want their articles to be found easily. Linking related articles also offers a broader context to a particular story.  

CONTENT AND RELEVANCE

Less is more. It’s true that online space is virtually unlimited but it doesn’t mean online journalists should write long articles. Web news writers must always remember that the attention spans of online readers are more fickle than readers of print.  The average attention span of an online reader lasts less than 60 seconds. Prolonged internet browsing shortens attention span (BBC reports that from 60 seconds, it can dwindle to 9 seconds).[8] Therefore, articles should be short, simple, and broken down into sections for easy reading.[9] An ideal paragraph is made up of only 5 sentences.

Content. A good news site, according to the editor of Time.com Janice Castro, is “a mix of newness and the brand (i.e., sites with print counterparts) that subscribers have come to know.”[10] Online news articles should be as original as possible, but readers still express interest toward stories that are otherwise available in print. Therefore, the issue of shovelware (recycled print material published online) doesn’t matter. The editor of The Wall Street Journal said that the more important thing is that they are relaying valuable information to their subscribers. However, Castro warns that not everything that works for print, works for online news.

Multimedia. Though articles should be kept short, online news can be just as in-depth as print news. Using pictures—videos and podcasts, too—can give more depth and provide a clearer context to a story. Pictures, after all, can paint a thousand words. Websites use photo essays to showcase the highlights of a news story. There are also news sites that accompany their text with videos. What these multimedia innovations provide is a wider range of interaction between information and the readers. Online journalism, in a sense, gives readers a different reading experience.[11] On the other hand, traditional news platforms exemplify a one-way communication model.

Given all these points, a good news website is one that maximizes multimedia to tell a story. Unlike in the early 1990’s, when media organizations specialized in one area (i.e. video/audio for broadcast media), news producers today have come to accept that “they have to offer a range of information on their site in the mix of formats that people want.”[12] Online news writers should be careful though, because mixing a number of different formats might overwhelm readers.

SOCIAL

A good news website should take advantage of the benefits of social media. The benefits of Twitter include: breaking news, expanding networks, reading interesting conversations between interesting people, and getting story ideas.[13] Trending topics or hashtags tell journalists what people are interested in. Hashtags are also useful in sorting and organizing news content.[14]

A journalist talks about the advantages of Twitter: 

Twitter and other social networking sites give ordinary people the chance to voice out their opinions publicly.

News websites must also use Facebook to their advantage. In this video, “The Facebook Effect” author David Kirkpatrick asserts that the Facebook Newsfeed is a new form of journalism. He says that using Facebook to disseminate news expands readership to Generation X.

COMMUNITY

Perhaps one of the biggest advantages of online journalism vs. traditional journalism is the interaction between readers and information. With the convergence of different forms of media in online news, the audience’s desire for news is easily met since they are free to get information from the platform they prefer. Some like watching videos, others like viewing photo essays.    

Janice Castro of Time.com said that in online news, recognizing that “interactive and community [aspects] are so important.[15]  She suggested that news organizations should invite their subscribers to their virtual newsrooms. After all, writers could learn from their readers’ feedback. They could find out what readers would want to learn about most.

Fostering good communication between editors/writers and their subscribers is a must-do for any news website. This can easily be done if readers are allowed to post comments on articles and if the editors quickly respond to these comments. Also, to create a good relationship with readers, producers of online news must “always be on their toes.”[16] Online readers expect news and information to be updated in just a matter of seconds.

____________________________________________________________________

Aside from checking updates on social networking sites, my daily online habit consists of scouring the internet for articles that pique my interest. I usually go to Time.com to read international news and feature stories.  

What I like About Time

Design-wise, I think Time.com meets most of the standards mentioned above. It looks professional because of its clean layout. The website even uses Time’s trademark red border. Time follows the basic black text-against-white background format, thus making their articles readable.

In terms of social media, I have to say that Time maximizes the use of Twitter well. At the bottom of their headlines, readers could easily share, like, or tweet the stories they like. Actually, I wouldn’t be checking out Time.com if it wasn’t for Twitter. I noticed that there’s quite a number of people, including celebrities, who like retweeting Time articles. I eventually followed the Time.com account and found out that they regularly post links to their stories. Since I spend most of my time online on Twitter, I keep tabs on Time’s updates through my newsfeed. Social media really is an effective way of directing traffic to news websites.

I found out that Time.com is hosted by Wordpress. Instead of merely providing links, bloggers can reblog entire articles and share them with the subscribers of their respective blogs.

Readers are allowed to leave comments on each article. Some of the comments I’ve read are very substantial. This is proof that web interactivity can be advantageous to editors and writers if readers do their fair share of constructively discussing the articles.

There are links to related stories at the end of every article. This entails more clicks and more views.

What I really like about Time is the way they write their articles. Since Time is a news magazine, they write their articles in a creative manner. When you’re reading a Time article, it’s like you’re reading a good piece of fiction. They can make news about the stock market sound interesting.

Basically, what draws me toward this news website isn’t just the content; it’s mostly the way the content is written. Simply put, it all harks back to good writing.

Say, I were the editor

Though I consider Time.com to be a good news website, there’s always room for improvement. If I were Time.com’s editor, I would try doing the following:

·         Simplify the homepage. The layout is clean and the text is readable but if you scroll down the homepage, it appears to have too much content. Time organizes their articles, ads, pictures, and videos into separate boxes but new readers might be overwhelmed when they see the homepage for the first time. There are a lot of links to choose from. I would lessen the number of featured stories on the homepage to fix this problem.

·         Sneak-peaks. In relation to what I said about Time.com having excessive featured content in its homepage, I think that each link to an article should have an accompanying introductory sentence. This would be like a one-sentence gist of the article. Sometimes, just placing the headline isn’t enough to grab the attentions of readers.

·         Bigger space for big stories. Like I pointed out before, Time’s homepage looks cramped. This makes the big stories unnoticeable. The columns (Editor’s Picks and Latest Headlines) at either side of the most important stories should be narrowed to draw readers’ eyes toward the highlights of the homepage.

·         More ads. I noticed that Time.com doesn’t have many advertisements, but the website does follow the proper ad placement strategy shown in the picture above. As a reader, I’m actually pleased that it doesn’t because I find ads distracting. But if the site wants to earn money, I think they should have other web affiliates with links to Time.com. To earn more money and to attract sponsors, they can also try doing my next suggestion.

·         Make noise on Facebook. A 2010 study concludes that Facebook is the second most important driver of traffic to news websites.[i] At the top of the list is Google. The surprising thing is, Twitter “barely registers” as a referring source. The authors of the study note that sharing news through social media might be the most important development of the next decade. I was dismayed when I found out that there are less than 500, 000 people who subscribe to Time in Facebook. This is a small number compared to, let’s say, The New York Times which has about 1.5 million subscribers.

It appears then, that Time’s Twitter feeds only appeal to a very limited number of readers. Another study shows that Twitter isn’t exactly the best driver of traffic to news sites today.[ii]


This problem, therefore, greatly depends on Time readers’ online behaviors. Sharing and liking stories—not just reading them—would help the site  gain more visitors.

·         Keep it short. Most of Time.com’s articles tend to be a bit long. Perhaps this puts off readers who, unlike me, do not have the patience of reading an article from the headline to the last period. Maybe it’s time for the site to divert from the long form which the magazine is known for, and to adapt a style more suited to online readership instead. Preferably, the articles should be succinct—straight-to-the-point but without compromising the creative style which makes Time.com a pleasurable read. 


[1] http://web.mst.edu/~rhall/web_design/color_readability.html

[2] http://www.niemanlab.org/2011/07/designing-a-big-news-site-is-about-more-than-beauty/

[3] http://www.jaankanellis.com/organizing-web-content-catch-readers-eye/

[4] http://www.ojr.org/ojr/wiki/make_money/

[5] http://blt-web.com/articles/Basics_Of_Good_Homepage_Design.php

[6] http://sageconnection.wordpress.com/2011/07/22/the-question-of-discoverability-%E2%80%93-more-than-seo/

[7] http://mindymcadams.com/tojou/2008/better-seo-for-news-sites-blogs/

[8] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/1834682.stm

[9] http://www.sitepronews.com/2011/02/28/how-to-write-effective-articles/

[10] http://www.sree.net/stories/onafree.html

[11] http://online.journalism.utexas.edu/2011/papers/Lee2011.pdf

[12] http://www.mediahelpingmedia.org/training-resources/online-journalism/370-maximising-multimedia-in-online-news-

[13] http://mindymcadams.com/tojou/2011/journalists-how-to-get-started-with-twitter/

[14] http://savethemedia.com/2011/03/04/howtousetwitterhashtag/

[15] http://www.sree.net/stories/onafree.html

[16] http://www.sree.net/stories/onafree.html


[i] http://memeburn.com/2011/05/facebook-trumps-twitter-in-pushing-traffic-to-news-sites/

[ii] http://weblogs.hitwise.com/us-heather-hopkins/2010/03/twitter_and_news_and_media_web.html

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