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10 things I expect from newspaper sites

Our instructor Dave Stanton gave us a lecture yesterday on Poynter’s EyeTrack study, which tries to discover how people look at pages in newspapers and online. At one point Dave told us the study doesn’t track where the participants are looking, rather what it is they’re looking at.

After a little thinking, I thought I’d make a list of 10 things I look for – and sometimes expect – a newspaper’s Web site to have, and where I expect to find them. These are in no particular order, nor are they meant to be taken as gospel. They are just my opinions.

  • RSS feed link (at the top right) – All newspapers should have RSS feeds. Period. End of story. I do a lot more looking for stories in Google Reader than I do on a paper’s site. And I’m always looking for that little orange button at the top right.
  • Search boxes (again at the top, but not necessarily on the right) – Search boxes are a wonderful thing. However, the boxes are no use to me if they are hidden amongst advertisements. What’s worse is a search box that doesn’t find what I know is on the site. Newspapers really need to work on this more. One of my professors, Dr. Ronald Rodgers, posted a link to a blog post on his online class syllabus about a paper hiring a “search editor.” This is something I hadn’t heard of before, but I think every newspaper should have one.
  • A “contact us” link (at the bottom) – This is where I go to find the phone numbers I need to contact a newspaper about something. And don’t give me some stupid “contact us” form that I have to fill out and wait for a reply. Give me a phone number, the news business waits for no one! I once had to call The Gainesville Sun about a football photo it was using online. The photo was a file photo someone had put with the article and was over two weeks old, but the caption stated that the photo was from the game the night before. In addition, it was about 11 p.m. when I saw it. So what did I do? I went to the “contact us” link (at the bottom of the page) and found a number I could use to alert someone of the error.
  • Cleanliness (everywhere on the site) – If there is too much going on, I’m moving on! I can’t say that enough, it’s the biggest thing that turns me off and sends me looking for something else. A great example of a clean site is a paper my mom used to work for years ago: The Knoxville News Sentinel. Notice the RSS, search box and contact links all at the top (and bottom in the case of the contact link)? Thanks to Rob Curley for pointing this one out on his blog.
  • Credits and bylines (at the top of an article, or end of a multimedia piece) – I want to know who is producing the work I see! Today I was on a paper’s site, and I couldn’t find credits on multimedia packages that caught me as pretty good. I guess I won’t be telling you who did those….
  • No distracting advertising – This is another big one. If I’m reading a story online, it becomes nearly impossible for me to concentrate on what I’m reading with some epileptic advertisement screaming for my attention like a 3-year-old child. I often right-click on these things and look for a “stop” or “pause” command. Sometimes, however, there is no such command. Therefore, the paper loses me because I go somewhere else for my news (without buying anything, of course).
  • Clearly marked sections in the navigation area – If there is a section for, say, multimedia, your link to it should be called “Multimedia.” I don’t see any practicality in calling your section something other than what people should know it is. An example is perfectly illustrated by my former employer on its front page. The paper has something called “Todays Extras” which is the section where all the multimedia content is shown. I don’t know about you, but “Todays Extras” doesn’t seem to correlate in my mind with multimedia content. Besides, when is multimedia content going to be considered a normal part of online journalism, and not something that is “extra” because it’s online?
  • Ways to tag the things I find interesting (bottom of article) – I use del.icio.us a lot to tag stuff I find interesting on the Web. That means that not only am I interested in something enough to come back to it, I’m sharing it with other Internet users. If a newspaper’s site doesn’t have a way to make that easy for me, I lose faith in how technologically current the paper is. That’s not a good thing!
  • Print buttons/links (top right of article) – I love these. Newspapers should make it easy for visitors to print stuff they like. I know, I know. Copyright infringement you say? Well I have news for you: keeping that little printing link from a person is not going to stop them from taking your material. It’s not hard to copy and paste, is it?
  • Links back to where you were – Every site should have a way to return from whatever content a user is looking at. For example: The New York Times offers you a way back to the related article once you finish viewing a slide show. Genius? No, it’s obvious. Users shouldn’t be punished because they were interested in something for a split second and clicked on a link that took them away from what he/she was reading. A simple link back to that article is all it takes to keep them on your site a little longer.

I’d love to hear what’s important to you on a newspaper’s site. Please leave your comments below.

Posted in Journalism