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‘Post’ redesign: Try again

Published: March 18, 2011
Section: Opinions


In June of last year, Fox News came out with a new, modern website and, at that point, I had my answer: The Washington Post, not Fox News, would be the last of the major online news outlets to redesign its website.

The new question was when.

On Wednesday, The Post finally unveiled a new website. The problem is that they failed to make their website better to distinguish it from the other great sources of information online. The look and feel are almost identical to that of the old site.

The designers even kept the old navigation bar at the top of each page, which alone has three flaws: the words are not uniform, with some in upper case and some in title case; the bar is not perfectly centered and there are far too many sections listed; and, most importantly, the background color is the worst shade of grey imaginable. And that’s only the beginning.

A trend

FOX News and The Washington Post were the major holdouts. Every other noteworthy media organization had redesigned its website. CNN—perhaps keeping up with its ever-changing target audience—introduced two redesigns since 2005.

The Los Angeles Times looked like it was never going to change but, in August of 2009, the paper unveiled a format that not only looked different but even worked to rebrand the paper to appeal to those interested in the entertainment industry.

The list goes on. The idea of a redesign if simple: to improve layout using new tools that have become available to web designers since the middle of the last decade and to introduce components that make sites more interactive, such as modules from popular social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.

For such a major news service, The Post was just too late.

The standard

On April 3, 2006, The New York Times unveiled a website that, for the first time, looked like a newspaper website.

For the first time, the website used a new font, Georgia, giving the writing a look of greater authority. Navigation, commenting and general readability significantly improved. The key to this change was that The Times was one of the first newspaper sites to embrace new cascading style sheet (CSS) web standards, leaving blocky, table formats for an earlier time.

Recognizing that layout is subjective, let me state that even today, five years later, I think that The New York Times website is a work of genius. It is easier to use, expandable (as evidenced by the addition of Facebook modules) and looks like a newspaper.

Go to the front page and immediately the most important news is right there in bold letters. The Times did not make the mistake of allowing techies to control its website—instead, the editors who manage it employ clear editorial judgment when they decide the size and placement of a story.

Even so, the site is dynamic. It pulls from the AP wire to give a comprehensive view of the news. Certainly, no news site can be perfect.

I, for one, was dismayed while in the United Kingdom last semester to find no mention of student protests about increased fees on the front page of The Times, despite both the jarring nature of the event as well as its prominence on most other news sites, including CNN.

At the same time, I would submit that The Times’ clear editorial judgment along with the look of authority of its website is what keeps me and the other 16 million regular monthly visitors to the page coming back.

A second opinion

The Post, by comparison, had nearly eight million visits last month, almost half the hits of The Times. Having lived in Washington and having read The Post, there is no doubt that the paper has greater potential.

It all comes down to the usability of The Post’s website.

The old site was aligned to the left, had modules that were not visually appealing, and had links that were small and hard to read. The page was not boxed and, as a consequence, some content appeared to veer off the page.

The new site does not improve on this. The site is boxed but without a noticeable line to differentiate the page from the background image, which is a dull gray color. The text of links is black, confusing readers as to which objects can be clicked on. There are also far too many small pictures on the main page, each of which is so insignificant that together they detract from the look of the page.

A major obstacle confronting designers of The Post’s website was the static address of its articles. This is the URL that you type into a browser to access a given article. For instance, on The Hoot’s website, an article will be accessible by typing: http://thebrandeishoot.com/articles/9857/.

This rather simple format allows the article to be accessed by remembering the number at the end of the address. Other websites go for text-based addresses; for instance, The New York Times uses the intuitive format, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/13/nyregion/13payphone.html, where the address includes the date, category and then the day followed by a key word.

A typical Washington Post address, before the redesign, was http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/linkset/2007/07/05/LI2007070500831.html.

Unfortunately, they haven’t much improved. Perhaps to be different, perhaps just to confuse, the new format lists the category, then the name of the post, then the date and then an unintelligible string of letters in both capitals and lower case: http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/latest-nuclear-plant-explosion-in-japan-raises-radiation-fears/2011/03/15/ABwTmha_story.html.

A final problem with the new site is the right hand bar. Compared with the space given to the text of articles, this information bar is too large, includes a number of irrelevant modules and does not break up the website.

Additionally, the bar is continuous—that is, it starts at the top of the page and continues to the bottom. The content on the left does the same, which becomes tiring and focuses a user’s attention to the top of the page and the bottom, but not to the content in the middle.

An effective use of non-content modules on a website is to focus one’s attention toward content by breaking up a Web page into different parts. By leaving all of these modules on the right, the designers split the site into two vertical parts, both of which are too long and appear never to end.

By the way, at the time of this writing, at the top of the site below the masthead (which really should be centered), there is a string of text that reads: “In the news: US soccer, Raymond Davis, IE9, St. Patrick’s Day, Blog directory, Carolyn Hax.” My advice: learn from The Times—automated text is not a substitute for editorial judgment. If the text is going to be automated (“Blog directory,” really?), get rid of it.

Journalism is in enough trouble. By ignoring its website, The Washington Post is only making its situation worse.