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Since the floor has fallen out of print circulations at many newspapers, editors are paying greater attention to the layout of their web sites. What they're finding isn't pretty.

For years if a newspaper had a website, it most likely served as a digital dumping ground for the print product. Design and functionality wasn't a key concern because most readers still got their news in print. Times have changed, but unfortunately many newspapers remain unprepared.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is one of many big city newspapers to go online-only

Larger titles with bigger budgets have begun to turn things around by beefing up their online product. However it's the small-to-midsize titles that are still lagging behind.

It's not an easy thing to do. You've got to hire a web developer to redesign, which costs money. Then you've got to develop a web strategy, which takes knowledge of digital publishing that not many have. And finally you've got to fully understand how this will change the way everyone does ther jobs. Not to mention learning the basics of SEO, multimedia, blogging, social media and content aggregation.

But for those papers finally taking the plunge into the web, they should be advised to learn from the mistakes of others who have come before them. You may have covered your town, city, county or region for a number of years,  but what do you know about how they use the web?

Before you build a web site for your readers, it's important to find out what your readers want from a digital version of their local paper.

In my home state of Michigan, one of the larger cities, Ann Arbor, is about to lose its paper. In its place, AnnArbor.com, a mostly online-only product, is being launched by the same company that owned the newspaper. While that alone isn't noteworthy, the way they're deciding what to cover certainly is.

Visit the placeholder site and you'll see, on the left, readers are asked to vote on what they'd like to see published.

AnnArbor.com's holding page

The site has also been holding town hall-like meetings with citizens to gauge the kind of content that AnnArbor.com should feature.

In America a handful of major cities have lost big daily newspapers. Among them is Seattle, which lost The Seattle Post-Intelligencer earlier this year. It has since gone online-only, slashed the majority of its staff and gone from providing mostly original reporting, to a mix of reporting and content aggregation. The other major daily, The Seattle Times, has continued on.

But what happens when the readers of a big title like the P-I are suddenly without a paper? Do they move to the online version? Today, Editor & Publisher ran an interesting study about this. Here's some key findings from Seattle:

Monthly unique visitors at Seattlepi.com dropped 23% year-over-year to 1.4 million. On the surface, this seemed to suggest that print visibility is critical to the success of the Web site. The Seattle Times, no longer tethered to the P-I in a joint operating agreement, saw its Web site's March unique users spike 70% to 2.2 million."

It does not help that Seattlepi.com's design leaves a lot to be desired. In addition to the 10-point font for stacked hyperlinks to stories, it also uses the three-column design.

It's one of the more popular newspaper web site designs, mostly because it mimics the three-column design of print. However some have bucked that trend, most notably The Daily Telegraph in the UK. Another major daily, The Guardian, has retained a more column-like look. Personally I find the three-column look to be quite tired. It doesn't lend itself well to redesigns or subtle changes in appearance.

But it appears that the masses disagree with me. According to ABCe figures for the month of May, Guardian.co.uk had 27.3 million unique users. Meanwhile, telegraph.co.uk recorded 23.8 million unique users.

The news industry remains in midst of a sort-of death spiral in the United States and, to a lesser extent, in Britain. Meanwhile print ad spend will continue to fall, while online ad spend will slowly track upwards.

It's a race to see who can come out on top with the web. Beyond the major titles, the field is open. Regardless, the digital revolution marches onwards.

Photo credit: amwelles (Autumn Welles) via Flickr

Ben LaMothe

Published 30 June, 2009 by Ben LaMothe

Ben LaMothe is a web & social media strategist with Florida-based advertising and marketing consultancy Renaissance Creative. You can follow him on Twitter.

22 more posts from this author

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Deri Jones, CEO at SciVisum.co.uk

Interesting, we did some work last year with the Abu Dhabi newspaper The National:  as a relative newcomer to online (and pretty new in paper form to compared to the UK and US titles), it was needing help struggling with pressure on user experience due to the growth in usage - web performance issues.

It's a smaller market out there - but less competition too, so wonder how paper vs online newspapers will pan out longer term in the Gulf.

Deri

almost 7 years ago

Ben LaMothe

Ben LaMothe, Web & Social Media Strategist at Renaissance Creative

Thanks for commenting, Deri.

I can't claim any expertise in the ways of media in the Gulf. But there many be a correlation between the print-to-web adoption rate in India, which is somewhat small. If print remains the source for news, then I suspect a more pronounced web presence would be geared more toward expats.

almost 7 years ago

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Edward Vielmetti

Ben -

Thanks for noticing AnnArbor.com.  I just started there on Monday and am happy to have a front row seat to see how things are going to work and to make them better (or learn trying).  My title is "blogging leader" on the community team - some odd balance of roles not in a typical newsroom.  when i figure out exactly what I do, I'll let you know.

Design of these systems gives you the odd balance between ease of use for the regular reader, search engine friendliness for the occasional reader, and attractiveness and appeal for advertisers.  Since "form follows funding" you get a distinct boost in whatever direction the financial expectations send you down the path of, and then you hopefully have enough slack that you can adapt towards actual use and not the dreams you have of what your advertising patrons and subscribers will do.

Equally important, and you didn't touch on this, is ease of use of the system's back end by the reporters, editors, writers, copy editors, contributors, and commenters.  There you really hope to have some workflow that puts the minimum friction between finished story and publication. The pro-blogger web sites have smashed as many obstacles to instant posting as they can with systems optimized for speed and throughput, but alas they don't do any reporting to speak of; there's things to be learned from them.

all in all a good exercise.

go blue,

Ed

almost 7 years ago

Ben LaMothe

Ben LaMothe, Web & Social Media Strategist at Renaissance Creative

Hi Ed:

Thanks for your comment. I think AnnArbor.com could be the definitive "trial run" for other titles like it to pop up. It mixes web with print, but not relying too heavily on the print side. Print has a place, but its implementation and such must be more strategic than it currently is. 

I believe a balance should be struck between the "pro-blogger" sites and the needs of a standard newsroom. It sounds like AnnArbor.com and yourself are actively seeking out that balance. Often times a story gets filed and you have to wait for it to flow through the appropriate back-channels. The "pro-blogger" sites seem to have, if not eliminated the backchannels, at least reduced the need for them. Some of the bigger, more well-known bloggers have self-publishing rights so their copy doesn't need to sit at a copy desk.

I look forward to hearing more about what AnnArbor.com is doing.

-Ben

almost 7 years ago

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website design

It was very nice reading this post.designers just have to their job more seriously.Its a sad state of affairs...do keep me updated on this.

over 6 years ago

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website design

Well core of the issue is when asking for a design keep in mind three things USABILITY content VISIBILITY For a website design these are basic foundations! Good post

over 6 years ago

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