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The Independent recently announced that it will be closing its print newspaper titles and putting all efforts into digital.
It spun the move as a positive, proudly declaring that it is the first newspaper to go digital-only, but anyone who has followed Mark Ritson’s posts about this publication will know the move was likely an unavoidable decision.
I applaud The Independent’s bravery in publicly admitting defeat in the print market, but if it thinks it’s going to succeed with its site in its current state it’s dreaming. Drastic changes are needed.
I’ve written about my distain for the Indy’s hideous display ads before, but in this post I’m going to touch upon a number of other issues as well.
The question is whether the brand can actually overcome those issues and succeed.
Judging by his impassioned Twitter speech this morning, its owner Evgeny Lebedev clearly believes so.
He may be right in the long run, and I genuinely hope he is, but right now The Independent needs a serious review of its site if it wants to avoid being shut down completely.
Insane display ads
I’ve mentioned The Independent’s obscene use of display ads before, but the topic deserves a recap for this post, because the site is basically an unintentional and painfully ironic advertisement for ad blocking software.
The first thing to note is the overbearing side-scrolling ads that follow you all the way down the article.
Not only are they incredibly obtrusive, they are such a garish eyesore that you wonder why the Indy bothers having its own brand colours at all.
But it isn’t just the creepy scrolling ads at fault. In the screenshot below you’ll see I’ve highlighted no fewer than five types of display ad.
From left to right:
- Creepy, garish scrolling ad.
- Autoplay video ad halfway through article.
- Very clickbaity suggested posts.
- Reasonably normal banner ad.
- More garishness.
Here are the key points from the Acceptable Ads Manifesto, published last year by AdBlock Plus (yes I know it’s biased but I still agree with it on all fronts).
The screenshot above might tick point number three but it certainly can’t claim any of the others.
The result? People will inevitably use an ad blocker on the site. Why wouldn’t they? Out of loyalty to The Independent? In 2016 when they can get news from a thousand other places? Dream on.
I just don’t like The Independent homepage. Upon viewing it I immediately think, ‘Where am I supposed to look?’
(Apologies for the enormous screenshot).
Perhaps I’m a simpleton who prefers things to be completely devoid of all complication, but so are lots of other internet users.
To be fair, I’m picking on The Independent here but lots of news sites suffer from this problem: an inability to sort content in a way that makes the users’ lives easier.
It’s no easy job, granted. But perhaps at least splitting the homepage into clear categories would be a good start.
Rubbish comments system
The Independent used to use Disqus, which I’m personally a big fan of.
Then it moved to a native comment system, which, while not quite as user-friendly as Disqus, still allowed for some basic functions such as sorting comments by ‘best’ or ‘oldest’ or shrinking comment threads.
But The Independent recently switched to a new comments system that enables absolutely no sorting or customisation of any kind.
This might be fine for smaller publications where you could expect a few dozen comments at most, but on an article with hundreds of comments it means the vast majority are inaccessible unless you’re prepared to spend half an hour clicking ‘show more comments’ and scrolling.
I’m willing to bet that the number of people bothering to leave their thoughts (or even read other people’s) has dramatically declined as a result.
The other point to note about The Independent is how often it blocks comments on articles.
I hate to give it any additional publicity, but the Mail Online, for example, allows comments on every single article unless it is required not to for legal reasons. This is important if you want an engaged community that keeps coming back.
If The Independent wants to compete with other digital publishers, it needs to seriously rethink its commenting system and also stop blocking people from commenting on articles for seemingly arbitrary reasons.
The final point to make is on the quality of the editorial.
The Independent has some fantastic writers, there is absolutely no doubt about that. And to a certain extent I understand how sites like Buzzfeed have forced the hand of mainstream news sites when it comes to collecting pageviews.
But some of the articles on The Independent site are such obvious clickbait nonsense that it’s difficult to retain my sympathy.
Take the below an example:
Or anything under the i100 section:
The point I’m trying to make here is this: sites like the Independent won’t survive by trying to mimic Buzzfeed et al.
The Independent is a traditional, non-tabloid news publication. It built a reputation for high-quality, well-informed editorial. Why does that need to change in the digital version?
It doesn’t, is the answer.
Sites like The Independent have an opportunity to differentiate themselves and be known for producing quality editorial. You know, stuff that actually matters. Personally, I’m all for it.
Conclusion: a massive opportunity it must not waste
I joked at the start of this post that The Independent tried to put a positive spin on the fact its finances forced it to go digital-only. But actually I think there is an opportunity here.
Now it can put all of its time, money, resource and thinking-power into making the website as user-friendly as possible, while ensuring the quality of the content remains high.
It could set an example to other online news sites and become known for providing an exceptional digital news experience.
Or it could carry on the way it is and eventually fade into obscurity and then oblivion.
Honestly, as a long-time but increasingly disillusioned reader, I hope it's the former.