One of the base requirements for information systems like websites and newspapers is that content must be findable. The classic press has developed patterns for that over centuries, e.g. Headline, Byline, Lead, Teaser, Sections, Front Page, Pull-Quote, Insert, Side Columns, Obituary, Classified Ad etc. Some of them seem inherent to or at least afforded by the print medium. Many of them have been carried over to their websites. Not all of them should have. Some new patterns have emerged or adapted to the fluid, interactive medium.
It took, for instance, surprisingly long until newspaper makers realized that letters to the editor could be replaced by article comments. Finally, the first ones now support paragraph-based comments.
Newspapers also traditionally had the role of gatekeepers. They were those who gathered, filtered, selected, processed, reported and thus transformed information into news and public knowledge. Some of that, especially everything happening non-local, they delegated to news agencies which readers had no direct access to. They also included more syndicated content, like comic strips. They became periodical, static content aggregators.
What is the usage scenario today? On the internet, people want a steady, dynamic content aggregator that feeds from many news providers. They also want comments and opinions on facts, at least on some, and background information at a level of their choosing. People find articles in automated newsfeeds, links from friends and search engines. That’s how they get on a newspaper homepage, deep-linked. Once there, the site owner must try everything to keep them reading and watching, so readers are assailed with teasers for somewhat related stories, most-viewed stories etc. – and with ads, because the dual financing of the paper era is gone.
Some people, though, actually use (or try to use) the homepage of “their” newspaper as a starting point for bringing themselves up to date with current news etc., much like they did with the paper version. They don’t browse anymore from front to back page, so everything is shown them at once in an abridged form. Sections are still there, though, as topics in the main navigation bar.
I believe many online newspapers do a bad job at being news aggregators, because they’re trying to make everything findable by teasers, but these make so much visual noise that one actually doesn’t discover anything. They should leave the aggregator thing to the pros of the digital era. Instead, journalism sites should concentrate on the thing they are still good at and that makes them indispensable: original content. That’s often just local news and news assessment, maybe exclusive in-depth reports, probably done by freelancers. National and global news (i.e. the facts) are usually handled well enough by the agencies that also feed into aggregators.
The UX challenge is in news portals that draw content from many different sources. Newspaper editors should concentrate on selling the original content produced by their journalists to those portals instead of trying to be aggregators themselves.