Guest post: Future of news design is behind the times

Students in my Advanced Editing course are contributors to The Editor’s Desk this semester. They are free to write about whatever they wish, provided that the topic fits the theme for this blog: “thoughts on editing for print and online media.”

This is the second of these guest posts. Phillip Crook, a UNC-Chapel Hill senior majoring in journalism, aspires to three life goals: to work in arts journalism, to live in Paris and to amass a notable sweater collection.

Whether you’re breezing through the pages of a newspaper or settling in for a thorough read, your experience is governed by a carefully refined set of rules; hierarchy, readability, modular organization — all familiar elements in the production of the foldable, transportable, clip-friendly newspaper we know and (although, in decreasing numbers) love.

But, thanks to the digital age, this thing of beauty has an ugly fraternal twin.

Newspaper Web site design sacrifices many of the aesthetic conventions of its print sibling on the alter of unlimited space. The efficient communication style of print papers works within the confines and consistency of a single page. But online, that same content enjoys the freedom of an endless capacity for extended coverage and additional visual elements … often to the content’s detriment.

To be fair, Web editions undertake functions that print papers do not, such as navigating the entire paper from a single page, embedding links and offering space for reader comments. However, the lesson Web design has yet to learn is that throwing so much content at a reader’s eye at once simply causes sensory overload. Online editions may offer the convenience of information at the click of a mouse, but a messy and confusing Web page doesn’t compel loyal readership.

Clutter kills: The Chicago Sun-Times main page is dominated by an oppressive band of ads spanning the top third of the site. Adding to the visual chaos, the vast majority of news content is presented here on a non-hierarchical grid, which confuses visitors about where to find important information.

Emphasize individuality: While less overbearing to navigate than the previous example, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s site makes a weak visual statement by creating too much white space and by not asserting the paper’s personality. Few visual elements on this page speak to an Atlanta audience or even do much to identify site as a major news source.

The right balance: The Los Angeles Times is a good example of where cohesive, simplistic design meets the right amount personality. Ads don’t obstruct the header, varying headline type size creates a clear news hierarchy, and the paper’s professional but approachable personality comes across to readers.

Logical layout: Like the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times site is easy to navigate. Both papers use a sidebar of navigation, directing a reader to the paper’s different sections and categories of interest. Placing the menu to the left of the page as opposed to a horizontal band beneath the header allows readers to quickly scan the menu in list format.

It is essential to recognize that newspaper Web site design must negotiate a complex web of functions. But the attributes of effective, stimulating traditional print design shouldn’t be abandoned in favor of jamming as much content on a screen as possible. The print layout we see today is the product of decades of helpful modification. If it’s true that online news will make the print edition obsolete, Web presentation would be well served to look to its print companion in becoming a more streamlined information conduit.

One thought on “Guest post: Future of news design is behind the times

  1. If we are to take the time-honed presentational traditions of print as a good example to follow, then we should all hope that multi-column formatting is formally adopted as part of CSS 3 — and the sooner, the better.

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