Teaching Examples

Big stories — too big
April 17, 2007, 12:52 pm
Filed under: awards, journalism, multimedia, online, usability

I was just telling students yesterday in my Advanced Online course that when they are sitting in the online editor’s position one day in the future, and a big investigative project is under way in their newsroom, it will be their job to make it both appealing and manageable in an online format.

This means MORE than making the navigation and interface clear and easy to use (although that’s part of what’s required).

MORE than making the page layouts attractive and uncluttered (which is also vital).

MORE than following up-to-date Web standards so that the work renders properly in all Web browsers (very important, of course).

It means you’ve got to present the story in a way that does not overwhelm.

The Advantages of Print

In a newspaper (especially a wide old broadsheet newspaper), you’ve got a space advantage over a Web page. Wait, you say — the Web has a bottomless news hole! Yes, it does. That’s part of the problem.

In the day-by-day delivery of a giant investigative story (such as those linked below), the layout of the newspaper page imposes limits. Even though a busy person might glance, scan, and not read very much of the story, he or she can get a good taste of the story from that process.

Imagine yourself holding the paper spread open. Everything on the two pages is part of one story. You see multiple headlines. You absorb some charts and graphs, photos, large pullout quotes. You probably read a couple of captions too.

With a fairly small investment of time, you can get a lot of overview from those two pages.

Then cumulatively, as the parts of the story run over the course of three days, or a week, or longer, you can keep adding to your understanding of the issues that made this huge story worth the resources expended to produce it.

This is one of the most glorious things about the printed newspaper. Spending 20 minutes a day with it doesn’t permit you to read every story, but in 20 minutes, you can get a very full picture of the world, and maybe your community too.

We lose this on the Web.

What’s the Story?

The way most of these big stories are presented online makes me think of a warehouse. At first I told my students the presentation resembles a library, but then I decided the warehouse analogy might be even more appropriate. Because in a library, at least you can search efficiently (unlike most newspaper Web sites), and the items are arranged very logically (once you understand the system). But a warehouse has no standardized system, so each one has its own rules — and browsing and scanning just do not work at all in a warehouse.

You have to already know what you’re looking for — and then dispatch the forklift to bring it out.

Think about that. How does the warehouse model help us tell a story effectively?

It doesn’t.

These stories won the Pulitzer this year. (The SacBee won for the photo story.) At your leisure, check them out. Think about my warehouse analogy, please.

There are good stories in there. This is excellent journalism. But do these online presentations hook a person who comes fresh to the front page of the package? Do they present the story in its best light? Do they make you want to stay and find out more?

We should think about how we can do this better.

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2 Comments so far
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I like the warehouse analogy and I was looking forward to keeping that in mind as I viewed the stories you linked to and suggested.

Just due to proximity probably, I chose the SacBee story. Living three hours south of Sac in Fresno, I thought of clicking on this story first.

And your link to the story or front door to the warehouse worked.

What happened next was wrong and not your fault.

Before I was allowed into the warehouse to stroll the aisles and view the beautiful content, a giant bouncer stopped me in my tracks at the door and demanded that I fill out a login survey and divulge personal information on myself.

The SacBee warehouse won’t let me anonymously visit their store.

I know this is a common occurrence at newspaper Web sites across the country, but it still annoys me to no end.

I can buy their print version from an anonymous vending machine in thousands of locations in and around Sacramento. In fact they encourage this.

Because of their bouncer, I will not visit their story. And since I will not be viewing their story online, I won’t ever see any of the ads their customers paid for to be hosted on the site.

I was annoyed by the SacBee enough that it made me turn around and leave their warehouse before I ever saw a product or service from a single vendor that paid to attract my eyes.

Ok. Enough is enough.

I feel better now. Thank you.

On to shopping at a different warehouse. I’ll try the other links.

Comment by joseph hollak

Yeah, you know, these newspaper execs say they do not want us “non-local” visitors. If we are not interested enough to register, they say, they they do not want our clicks.

And yet, the clicks read by the beancounters, by Nielsen, etc. — those clicks don’t carry a home address tacked on to them. Clicks are clicks. Page views are page views. You don’t want pageviews? And then you turn around and say you want to get more online advertising?

Something just does not add up.

Comment by Mindy McAdams

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