5.1: Give shape and meaning to your site

Newspapers readers understand why news is arranged as it is, and they know how to navigate the page from long experience. For them, the newspaper page is a cultural map, a set of signs that guides them along the way. The sections of a newspaper translate easily into web navigation (below).

When people first began designing Web sites, they had no long tradition of page design like newspapers; no division of content into front, middle and back of the book, like magazines; no conventions for dividing the frame, like television and movies.

The early Web designers looked for metaphors from other media as models for organization and appearance. They made use of the existing cultural maps present in other media.

Metaphors for presenting content

Web pages often borrow from other media as a model for organization, appearance and even navigation. Newspaper sites, strangely enough, often try not to look like a newspaper. The movement over the past few years has been toward a Web identity separate from the print product. Some believe this is a mistake because the newspaper brand still has credibility with the public.

In a small sample of newspaper sites, the Portland Oregonian and The New York Times maintained the newspaper brand through use of the newspaper name plate. The Star Tribune of Minneapolis retained the newspaper name but in a less distinctive way. The St. Paul Pioneer Press called its Web site something else entirely: twincities.com.

All of these sites retain newspaper conventions of hierarchy (headlines, placement, space) and organization (columns, teasers, ads). But newspaper sites are different from the print versions in many ways. The limitations of the browser window force a less emphatic hierarchy: smaller headlines throughout and fewer headline sizes, and smaller and fewer pictures on one page.

The most pronounced changes are front pages dominated by advertising and video or multimedia. USA Today does more with pictures and stories together than many other papers. But then, USA Today has always sought a more visual approach to news.

In trying to become profitable, newspapers have turned heavily to interactive content such as blogs and reader comments in threaded messages. A common practice is to link stories to sites where readers share news such as Chime In, Yahoo Buzz, Digg, Newsvine, Reddit, Twitter and of course Facebook.

The screen on the screen

Many broadcast netword sites present innovative and content-rich pages, but they rely heavily on plugins and other special software such as Flash.

ESPN’s site is a good example. The site takes content from ESPN’s cable TV channels, and adds in content from ESPN the Magazine, from ESPN Radio and from its own stable of writers, many of them former newspaper writers like Jim Caple, who once worked at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. ESPN also offers podcasts, up-to-date scores, TV listings and gamecasts, graphic representations of games in progress.

Television networks such as ABC build their sites around a TV-set metaphor and allow viewers to watch past episodes of their favorite shows. This is possible because the cost of providing online video has gone down as advertising revenue has gone up.

Multimedia sites seek their own identity

About 15 years ago, in an effort to break the mold, The Chicago Tribune experimented with special reports designed for the Web. The company that developed their first piece on Great Lakes shipping, MediaVia of Traverse City, Mich., pioneered innovative journalistic pieces for the Web. MediaVia turned out pieces that combined audio, video, photos and text, such as With These Hands, sponsored by the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy of Michigan.

J. Carl Ganter, who founded MediaVia with his wife, Eileen, is now director of an innovative multimedia site named Circle of Blue. This is an information site sponsored by the Pacific Institute, “an independent, nonpartisan think-tank studying issues at the intersection of development, environment, and security.”

Multimedia sites strive to blend audio, images, video and text together seamlessly. Circle of Blue does this with a short video piece to introduce itself when the home page first loads.

You will notice that some of Circle of Blue’s video pieces are loaded on YouTube and then re-embedded on Circle of Blue’s pages. This is in keeping with the philosophy of Brian Storm, a member of Circle of Blue’s board of directors. Storm, president of MediaStorm, calls himself a journalism entrepreneur. He believes that journalists must be capable of producing all types of media, and that they must be open to selling that media across a variety of platforms. YouTube is one way to do that. You can listen to Brian Storm discuss his approach on YouTube:

The magazine offers a strong metaphor

When magazines build Web sites, they are more likely to borrow from their own metaphor. What’s interesting is that the first page you reach at many magazine Web sites do not mimic the cover of the magazine but instead look like a table of contents page.

For the magazine designer, the cover is all important in attracting readers on the news stand. But on the Web, we can assume that the user has decided what magazine to read simply by being at the Web site. The designer, then, can dispense with the cover and get right down to content, eliminating a click-through for the reader.

As with newspapers, magazines are trying to enrich the Web experience with added features, including multimedia. Often these take the form of chats, blogs or interviews by the authors, photos beyond what appears in the print edition, punditry or daily updated content. Many of these things help the magazine to become something that a reader might visit more than once a month, overcoming a major problem for a weekly or monthy magazine on the Web. In this up-to-date content, the magazine tries to preserve its slant, that particular point of view and writing style that separates it from other magazines.

Time magazine, like many magazines, patterns its website (right) on the table of contents of the print edition.

Most traditional magazines strive to protect the print edition, something newspapers are beginning to move past. The shift is from thinking of the Web as a way to distribute or sell the print edition to where the online edition becomes the main edition. In other words, for most magazines, the print edition is parent to the Web edition; slowly publishers are moving toward making the Web edition the parent of the print edition.

A parallel example would be ESPN the Magazine. The broadcast operation is the parent to the magazine, and it is parent to its Web site.

For a magazine to preserve the print edition, it must in turn protect the long-form narrative style that is at the heart of magazine writing. But this style is not well-suited to the Web. Long-form narratives require linear reading, usually on long pages that require scrolling. Mindy McAdams, an influential teacher of Web journalism, wrote eight years ago that the narrative writing style needs an overhaul for online presentation.

Curiously, magazines that have published only on the Web often take the same approach as print magazines. Salon, for example, has never been anything but an online magazine, but it differs little from magazines such as The New Yorker in its presentation of long-form narratives, as this article demonstrates. The same holds true for Slant, a Webzine of film and music reviews. Check out this lengthy review.