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