Every so often, I spy something that reminds me just how far they need to go in order to fully "get" the web.
This latest example is from the Financial Times. I have huge admiration for the FT. Their reporting is usually spot on, their website is mostly excellent and their mobile site is very credible. But take a look at the bottom of this story.
Those words "Network Envy, Page 2 - BT Under Pressure, Page 16" aren't hyperlinks. They are just scraps of text telling me to turn to a separate page in my paper to read the story.
This tells us several interesting things about the FT.
Their web and mobile content comes from the same back-end as their print content. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but...
Their back end system has no understanding of the web (or the writer for this particular story doesn't understand it)
There is no specific editor for the (mobile) web edition of the paper. Allowing mistakes like this slip through shows a disregard for your readership.
The mindset of the writers and editors aren't focused on the web. This may be the tools they have at their disposal or it may be their training. One thing is for certain - this is a print story which has been thrown with very little consideration on to a different medium.
Think what they could be doing. The first mention of a company could be linked to all the news stories they have. Given this is the FT, why not stick a live stock price after every company's name? When a CEO is mentioned - link to their profile.
The power of hypertext is that it is so much better than regular text. Not only more expressive, but more useful. It can be dynamically generated and updated. It can grant the joy of serendipidous discoveries to your readers.
Ignore the hype about blogs, comments, sharing, and twittering - it's links which make the difference. Links are what drive the web and make it better than newsprint. They connect your content - making it greater than the sum of its pieces.
Can you show me one thing in this paper that happened today?
3 Minutes 10 seconds into the video
And, of course, the answer is "no".
I remember on that dreadful day in September, barely a few hours had gone by before the first "extra" editions of the Evening Standard had pictures and analysis.
A few hours? That feels like a life-time. Especially when it comes to breaking and developing news. There is a huge lag between a reporter typing away, the presses rolling, and the delivery drivers depositing the paper on the streets.
The Internet totally eliminates that lag. A journalist can clatter words onto a laptop and with a push of a button have them broadcast to the world via their website.
The Web is Too Slow
I simply can't wait until I'm back at my desk. Nor can I be bothered to boot my laptop, find some Wifi, find some power, load FireFox, etc...
Flip open my phone, click news, read. That's what I want. And that's what I can get. For breaking news, the mobile Internet is the only real solution.
I present here a quick overview of the most popular British Newspapers' mobile sites. I've also included the New York Times for international flavour and Reuters for the agency view.
I don't intend to comment on the politics of the papers, nor their choice of stories - I'm going to concentrate on the first impression only. Later I'll do a full review of their capabilities.
The first thing to spot is the use of the Favicon. Favicons are the little icons which are used to differentiate your site from others. Think of it like a visual bookmark. Bizarrely, half of the UK papers don't use a Favicon. That means that in the bookmarks list they are likely to be overlooked.
A special mention for Reuters' Favicon (highlighted) - It's an indistinct yellow splodge. I've highlighted it because it's hard to see yellow against a grey background.
Traditionally printed on pink paper, the mobile site seeks to replicate the distinctive hue of its paper counter part. From a branding perspective, this instantly tells the user that they are on familiar ground. It doesn't affect the readability - so why not.
Showing the time next to a story instantly tells the reader how "fresh" the content is. Confusingly, there's no date displayed.
Search is always important to readers; allowing them to get straight to the content they want. Not having any navigation is a hindrance to users quickly finding their way around. While users will scroll to get to navigation - placing it at the top is an easy way to let them choose where to go next.
While advertising is a necessary evil, this advert is hard to read and jars with the rest of the page. The layout of the whole page seems very heavy on the dead-space.
I've already reviewed the Guardian - but to my mind it still stands out as one of the best examples of mobile news sites. Compact and efficient layout, navigation, teaser images, and the date all contribute to a well designed first impression.
Dispensing with navigation has allowed The Independent to cram a few more stories above the fold. Although their teaser text hasn't been optimised for the size of the screen leaving some rather jarring dead-space.
The colouring is rather plain, but fits in well with the paper's brand. Colouring the background space given over to the advert is an interesting design choice. It simultaneously draws attention to the advert while keeping it conceptually separate from the rest of the site.
The Metro is technically a newspaper. The mobile site reflects the paper version - cheap, cheerful, primary colours and a blonde on the front page. The total dominance of the image detracts from the rather good navigation choices - split by category. The masthead is perhaps a bit large - but the promise of the image will probably be enough to get 50% of the population to scroll down.
It's interesting to notice that there are no stories or direct links to stories to be seen.
They "Gray Lady" lives up to its reputation with a very plain site which, nevertheless, packs in a lot of information.
Using an anchor link to get to the navigation is a smart choice. It reduces clutter at the top while keeping navigation options available. With intelligent use of space they've also crammed in a search box. The date and time give the viewer the reassurance that the news they are reading is not stale.
Unlike the other sites, the NYT places images on right. While this is distinctive, readers of English are accustomed to a flow of information from left to right. I wonder if this style helps or hinders readability.
The link to a dedicated application is a smart touch and will probably upsell readers. Unfortunatley it comes at the expense of looking like it is part of the headline. A less subtle change of font, colour, or placement would help here.
Reuters is not a newspaper. It is austere and feature poor. Deliberately so - it caters to those who want the news without any fuss. That said, they do make poor use of the space available; only the lower third contains any real content. It makes a nice change not to have an advert at the very top of the page - but the heaps of space aren't really necessary.
Shifting the masthead and date on to one line, then removing some extraneous space would provide a better first impression by bringing more news to the forefront.
The page is strongly branded and very picture heavy - that's likely to negatively impact download times. Navigation is very clear but it is missing search. They have deliberately taken the paper's style - the ripped edges of the image, for example - and applied it directly to the mobile. That's not always a great idea, but it certainly makes it stand out from the crowd.
The Mirror's mobile site feels dominated by its advert - yet, impressively, they still manage to keep 3 stories above the fold.
There's no navigation or search. Indeed, it's as simple as you can be without the barren space typified by Reuters.
While offering a good amount of news - this really gives the impression of being Lidl's site, with a bit of news thrown in. Adverts should be carefully designed not to swamp the pages on which they live.
Alphabetically last, The Telegraph is a rather mixed bunch. The only images are an advert and its logo. The navigation and use of date are well integrated. Despite this, they can only fit two stories above the fold.
There are no images to entice the user - although the text rich screen does convey a depth of purpose that the others may be missing.
It's important to remember that users will scroll. The idea of putting important assets "above the fold" is, at best, a distraction. But there's no denying that the first impression really does count.
It's heartening to know that the UK's mobile (mainstream) news market is so vibrant and healthy. While they differ in functionality and content - these sites show that providing news on the mobile is no longer a niche activity.
Mobile news sites come in a wide range of shapes and sizes - demonstrating that mobile needn't be static and simplified.
These sites - despite their problems - are evidence that mobile news, for many people, is the news.
Regardless of the sanity or effectiveness of this idea - I thought it would be an interesting idea to turn the tables. What would it be like if News International were unable to scour the web for stories to rip off, comments to plunder and images to steal?
% Information related to '184.108.40.206 - 220.127.116.11'
inetnum: 18.104.22.168 - 22.214.171.124
remarks: **** INFORMATION FROM ARIN OBJECT ****
remarks: netname: NEWS-INT-UK
descr: News International
descr: PO Box 481
descr: 1 Virginia Street
descr: London E1 9BD
remarks: country: GB
remarks: changed: [email protected] 19901026
remarks: changed: [email protected] 19950103
remarks: **** INFORMATION FROM RIPE OBJECT ****
descr: Times Supplements Limited
remarks: rev-srv: ns0.newsint.co.uk ns1.newsint.co.uk
All this means that any connection originating from 143.252.*.* comes from News International.
Or you could treat them no differently from any other Internet Citizen. The choice is yours.
Disclaimer: I'm not sure what other IP addresses they may own, and this doesn't cover anyone connecting from home, via a dongle or other mobile device.
That's probably a bit large for a paper - you could shrink it down or cut down on the error rate, but then it would be hard to scan.
Luckily the Guardian redirects mobile phone browsers to their mobile site - rather than trying to cram the whole page on to a tiny screen - so there only needs to be one code per story.
Assuming that the Guardian's CMS works in a vaugely sensible way, each story has an ID. So the URL could be http://guardian.co.uk/?p=123456789
So, using a shorter URL gives us...
If they were to use a custom short-url service - guardi.an for example - the code becomes even smaller.
Could this be printed near every important story? I see they have links within the paper than you have to manually type in - could this be a way to connect the online and offline versions of the paper?
One of the things I love about Private Eye is the columns I don't read. Corners of the magazine dedicated to the gossip of the classical music world, the perils of modern architecture, positively incomprehensible reports about big business buying into football. I care for none of these subjects, but I'm immensely relieved that they are reported on somewhere.
The Guardian's Saturday edition strikes me as a long form version of Private Eye, but written by those who would never use a sentence where a paragraph would suffice. Full of long rambling articles about the truly trivial and incomprehensible.
After the Guardian's excellent reporting on Trafigura, I decided to help their coffers and circulation figures by purchasing a copy of their paper - breaking ten years of abstinence from paper-based news. As I've reviewed their website, I thought I'd review their paper from the point of view of one who is deeply familiar with online media but unfamiliar with print.
In 1998 I bought my last newspaper. My parents always had newspapers at the weekend and - due to a stock of vouchers given away in Freshers' Week - I assumed I'd follow in their footsteps. In halls I was one of the lucky few with a permanent Internet connection. Every morning started with a scan of http://news.bbc.co.uk/, a browse through USENET and one or two international newspapers' nascent websites. I haven't bought a paper since.
Nowadays upon waking, my Blackberry has already downloaded the headlines from the BBC, Guardian and a hundred different news sources all, seemingly, for free. Why would I buy a newspaper?
The first thing that struck me was the user interface. Actually, scratch that, the first thing that struck me was the price. £1.90! Nearly two quid. For someone unaccustomed to paying for news, that's quite a tall order. I gather that the weekly paper is "only" £1 an issue. For £1.90 I was expecting quite a lot. I don't think I found value for money.
So, the user interface. I remember a kerfuffle a while ago about the Guardian moving to a Berliner format. Supposedly easier to hold and read. Utter nonsense. To even try to read this paper on a commuter train would be a recipe for disaster. Huge unwieldy pages and, to add insult to injury, no staple in the middle! Even though I was placidly sitting on my sofa, pages kept falling out! Perhaps reading a newspaper is a skill that has atrophied in me - but having to continually shift my grasp on the sheets was a chore. A simple staple through the middle would make for a much more pleasant reading experience.
One good thing though. The linear nature of the paper meant that I was forced to read stories I would otherwise have skipped were I on the web. A newspaper is presented like a book; you read each page in turn. You're perfectly free to skip over a story - but I found myself reading at least the first paragraph of each story. On the web, I pick and choose. I never have to read a story about childcare, sport, Scottish politics etc. It was refreshing to get a wider view than my usual self-selected reading.
Naively, I thought that there wouldn't be much advertising. We're continually told that there has been a collapse in the advertising market. I assumed my couple of quid would pay for the majority of this paper. There was advertising on nearly every page. Some pages had nothing but advertising!
What struck me was the sheer randomness of the adverts. When reading an article about the Lost City of Atlantis online, I'd expect to see adverts for cheap holidays to Greece, SCUBA gear - maybe even a computer game. In the paper, it's Abbey mortgages and Moben kitchens. The adverts are randomly placed, unrelated to the text and somehow, highly intrusive. One section of the magazine has a full page advert disguised to look like a normal article. Yes, it says "Advertising Feature" at the top of he page - but it's otherwise presented as another piece of journalism.
It is even bundled with separate advertising sections. Little leaflets drip out of every page littering the floor. They're the equivalent of pop-up ads and just as annoying.
There seem to be three separate sections which do reviews. The main paper reviews classical music, theatre and TV, the Guide does games, clubs, websites, theatre and television. Then there's a whole section called "Review"!. Why split over three different bits? Why are some reviews barely a paragraph and yet others are A-Level essays pontificating on the deeper meaning of art.
David Hare has also written an interminable essays in the magazine. While I'm sure that it's of great interest and importance for his readers, I resent having paid for such... Well.. flotsam.
These articles are not news - they're just blog entries. Only, for some reason, I'm expected to pay for their ramblings. There are plenty of better written and more interesting articles being posted every day on blogs round the world. I suspect that's the idea behind The Blog Paper. I'm as guilty as anyone of writing self indulgent tosh on my blog. Entries which are of no interest to anyone other than me. But I don't expect anyone to pay for them. I don't bundle my writing in with my work. "Hey, boss, I'll finish that report you're paying me for - and I'll throw in an essay about how my wife doesn't understand me!"
What it really highlights is that opinion pieces aren't news. They're not even journalism except in the most litteral sense of the word. They are barely a step about "Have Your Say" sections of news websites. Indeed, the Guardian's own Comment is Free section shows that anyone can write a similar article. Tellingly, the comments in CiF show the utter contempt most readers have for opinion pieces.
I hate sport. One reason why I am usually loath to buy a paper is massive sport sections. I was feeling guilty about buying the Guardian only to recycle the sports section unread. Evidentially, Guardian readers, like me, were last to be picked at PE. The sports pages are mercifully short (16 pages) and fitted neatly into my recycling bin.
There's just so much that's confusing about the Guardian in paper form. So many different, overlapping sections. Different shapes, sizes, grades of paper. Long rambling articles, tightly focused analysis, full page pictures, full page adverts, a list of every comedy club in Britain, a review of an obscure restaurant in the middle of nowhere. Don't get me started on the pathetic "Free Gift" which is meant to entice me like a child to a bland breakfast cereal,
What does the Guardian want to be? Is it news? Is it "lifestyle"? Is it review? Is it academic essays? Is it everything jammed into one ill-fitting format because "That's what newspapers are"?
It's a format that in incomprehensible to anyone under the age of 30. It's an insular little work with only one page given over to readers' comments.
My moaning comes down to a question of demographics. There is only one slice of the population which matters. Me. No one else. It's hideously ego-centric to think this way but I do. Why can't I buy the Guardian without the sports section? With an expanded technology section? Charlie Brooker on the front page and David Hare banished from view?
Well, on the web, I can. This paper in physical form has to please everybody. An unenviable job and one I suspect is impossible.
Love The Guardian - Hate The Paper.
I'm sure I'm depressingly close to their target audience - but whole swathes of the paper are lost on me. I love reading the Guardian's news online and on my mobile. So why do I hate the paper version so much?
The web allows us to see how many people click on each story. See who reads, how long they read for, what they read next, where they came from and where they go to. I suspect if you were to put the newspaper fully online, it would become clear that some sections of the paper survive through inertia alone. Can anyone really be interested in Mark Lawson blethering on about people who don't speak like what they ought to? Or Lucy Mangan's meanderings on "Are You There God? It's Me, Margret"? They are there to fill space. Their sole purpose is to reaquaint me with the joke behind Polly Filler and her ilk.
Anyone who has read Flat Earth News cannot fail to recognise that the newspaper industry is in crisis. Journalists are too stretched, deadlines are too tight and money is in short supply. How can newspapers be saved?
Well, there are easy solutions. Stop writing articles for space filling reasons. Retrain the "journalist" who wrote about celebrity trends in the "noughties" and get them to write about news. Recognise that - if you're committed to a finite space resource like paper - you have to trim the fat, not the meat. A review of a book does not need to be a undergraduate essay on the author and contain a huge photo of her and her dogs. By contrast, a review of a computer game, club, or bar needs to be more than a puff-piece paragraph. See what your readers want - make a paper that they can use.
Is an article on Russia taking state control of all TV channels really worth a tenth of the space as an article by Alan Rusbridger where he tells us that Google, Wikipedia, Twitter and Comment is Free are pretty cool?