My high school library cancelled its subscription to the San Francisco Chronicle after the librarian decided that since the content is free online, there was no need to subscribe.
It’s true that SFGate.com has the same articles as the paper. But I almost never read those articles online, and I regularly buy the paper.
Why? Because like a lot of other newspaper websites, SFGate is never as good a way to read news as the actual paper is.
No, I’m not part of the “a-screen-can-never-match-paper” crowd. I love reading things online. But newspaper sites generally fail to offer what newspaper papers do.
There are lots of problems with newspaper websites, many of them detailed in Brad Colbow’s visual critique, but the issue of lousy website templates is a key one.
On most newspaper websites, the page design is locked into a template.
This means all the elements are permanently set: three main stories go here, sections names here, ads here, and so on.
With almost no exceptions, no matter how big the news, the page basically looks the same.
This contradicts the idea of a “news hierarchy.”
The “news hierarchy” is a central concept in print newspaper design. It tells the reader what the most important stories are.
Papers do this by using different size fonts (BIG headline = big story), vary the type used (ALL CAPS, bold), putting a story “above the fold” etc.
Online,whether Osama bin Laden has been killed, or a cat got stuck in a tree, the story is displayed the same way.
When bin Laden was killed the New York Times had to rewrite the code for their home page to accommodate the big news–a luxury that smaller papers don’t have.
When I pick up a newspaper I want something tailored to the day’s news. And when I go to a news site I don’t want to see a template that has been the same for years.
I recently listened to an editor at a Southern California paper lament that his paper’s website was extremely limited in terms of creativity.
The corporate owner of the paper forced almost all of their papers to use the same newspaper template.
In fact, most newspaper companies make their papers use identical templates.
As you can see at left, the Houston Chronicle (top) and Seattle PI are forced by their parent company Hearst, to having identical sites.
Never mind that the Seattle PI is supposedly the first great experiment in a standard paper converting to an innovative online-only news site. It looks identical to the Chronicle, a normal metro paper.
If Hearst, McClatchy, Tribune, Gannet and the rest had found the “magic template,” it would be fine to force all their papers to use it.
Instead, many of the sites, while fine, are nothing exceptional.
If not exceptional, then why lock them into the same templates and not allow them to tailor their sites to individual stories and communities?