I wanted to add a brief, personal observation to the ongoing debate regarding the crisis of digital news and news in general. Not as someone who works in the sector — I don’t. Not as a web designer — I’m not one. Just as a reader, as a consumer of news, as a mere observer.
This post has been inspired by a recent, very interesting piece by Andy Rutledge called News Redux. Rutledge expresses his views on the matter in a compelling way, in such a manner that hardly passes unnoticed, especially among other designers and people belonging (in various capacities) to the field he criticises.
His opening statement sets the tone:
Digital news is broken. Actually, news itself is broken. Almost all news organizations have abandoned reporting in favor of editorial; have cultivated reader opinion in place of responsibility; and have traded ethical standards for misdirection and whatever consensus defines as forgivable. And this is before you even lay eyes on what passes for news design on a monitor or device screen these days.
The rest of his article illustrates what, in Rutledge’s opinion, is wrong with digital news and their presentation, then he constructively displays how he would work towards a possible solution to the issue. And you know what I think? That his criticism hits the mark nicely. I understand he has chosen The New York Times just as an example to demonstrate a more general problem, but in analysing the Times politics page, he points out exactly all the details that confuse and irritate me as a reader. Every one of them. And I believe that his criticism stems from his frustration as a reader first and foremost, and then as a designer.
Reading news online has undoubtedly all the advantages of the here and now nature of the Internet, so you can always count on updated news, plus your experience is supposedly enriched by photo galleries and videos. But when it comes to browsing and actually reading news stories, I still enjoy a better reading experience with a physical newspaper. Recently, the only online newspaper I can read from my computer is the Guardian, but in the ‘readable’ version created by Phil Gyford. About this particular project, Gyford’s thoughts on why he decided to do it are worth a read as well. I concur on every point he makes regarding what he calls the “three main issues that a better online news-reading solution should address — Friction, Readability and Finishability”.
In the Finishability section of his article, Gyford perfectly explains something that has been bothering me for a while about news websites:
When I read a newspaper I’m holding a coherent package of news. “Here,” it says, “is what you should know today.” Once I’ve read it — or, at least, flicked through it — I know I’m up to date. I don’t need to read anything until tomorrow’s newspaper, which will catch me up with everything that happened in the intervening time. And while I’m reading the paper I know how much there is remaining — the pages in my right hand — and I know when I’m done.
This is very much not the case with a news website. There is no sense of an ending. There is no way I can be sure I’ve at least decided whether to read “everything”. There is, on most websites, no way I can be sure I’ve seen all that’s been published since I last visited.
This is fine if you visit frequently, or rarely, or sporadically. If you just want a dose of what’s happening “nowish”, news websites are designed to show you that. But if you want the equivalent of a newspaper — “Here is what you should know today” — you’ve gone to the wrong place. Not everyone does want this, many people just want “nowish”, but if and when you do want something else, there’s nowhere to go online, no daily newspaper equivalent.
I understand that designing websites like The New York Times or The Times is not easy, and that probably designers would do a better job if they could work without interferences, but both Rutledge and Gyford are right: these websites should be made more reader-friendly.
What I like to call the “giant News Tree”, since the advent of the digital age, has been cut in two smaller trees — the online news and the paper counterpart — hoping they could both live long and prosper by taking advantage of their respective strengths. Instead, we’re reaching a peak where both disappoint: the regular newspaper feels limited compared to the always-updated website; the news website disorients the reader by offering too much information on a single page, in a mix of relevant and irrelevant details which do not create an overall pleasing, satisfactory reading experience.