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Are we doing too much online?

One hundred and ninety three. That’s the number of navigation links our website is displaying today … on its home page alone.
Nearly two hundred clickable links, choices for you to make, that take you deeper Signs2 into our site - or spin you off elsewhere in the chain where you can begin the link roulette all over again. 193 links. Hell, most days our newspaper prints fewer than 100 pages, it’s hard to imagine why we need all those links each day.
Links to sections and subsections of content. Links to searches and sorts. Links to features and topics. Links to the most popular articles, the most recent comments. Links to our verticals and links to our sister sites. Links to listings and links to nowhere - broken links are inevitable in a site this large and complex built by a distant subsidiary and maintained by such a skeleton crew.
Every time our audience visits our site they’re offered nearly 200 places to go - and that doesn’t count the links to the actual news stories themselves!
Today we’ve got 61 of those visible on the home page - with several hundred more available on inner pages and many thousands more available via our search and archives.

Too much navigation - too little news

Go to your site now. Count the navigation links. Count the direct links to news, honest to godfrey fresh news. I’ll bet your nav links outnumber - or very nearly outnumber - your news links. If you’re a daily paper, I guarantee they will. If you’re a community news site, they’ll be a little more balanced. But still, having 2 to three times more navigation than story links on your home page is like using 60 to 70 per cent of your front page for an index - to your section fronts, not individual stories. Insane, yes? So why are you doing it?
It does not serve our readers well or at all.
This visual chaos, this cacophony of context, is a the bastard child of our newsprint legacy and our desperate advertising departments. It is a fatally flawed attempt to digitally duplicate the authoritative bundling of news, information and advertising that we’ve done in print for so very many decades.
We are still trying to duplicate the newspaper online, to bundle up all that news and information and display advertising into one big happy, daily, package that we imagine readers will sit and consume.
We’re still doing this despite more than a decade of clear and contrary evidence about the behaviour of our readers and the needs of our advertisers.

Readers graze - they don't grow roots

Readers don’t come to our sites and settle in to browse the news. They may spend 15 - 45 minutes a day with our print product; the reality is, that’s about how much time they spend in a month on our websites.
Putting aside the tiny band of lonely lurkers who live on our sites and comment sections, most digital news readers are gazers and grazers, they stop by, spot something that catches their eye, read it and move on, returning, if we’re lucky, several times over the course of the day. Looking for something new, looking for something they need to know.
Check your stats (you do check your stats, don’t you?) and you’ll find, I’ll wager, that at least 80 per cent of your traffic is being generated by 20 per cent of your content. And that 20 per cent is going to be the news cycling through the one part of your home page that displays … fresh news.
Your readers aren’t clicking through to the links, to the section fronts and sub-sub-sub section pages. It’s too much work for too little - and indeed, very rare - reward.
They want news as soon as it happens. They want stories that they can talk about - online and in person - with their friends. They want stories they need to know about so they don’t look stupid at work or in the coffee shop or at the schoolyard waiting to pick up their kids.
This is usually less than 20 per cent of the content we typically fill our papers with.

Digital news needs are different

Readers can - and will - get their NHL news, their movie reviews, their recipes, their stocks and their personal finance tips online etc. etc. etc, from dedicated sites, niche sites that offer deep and expert news and tools. You can’t compete with that - so why are you cluttering up your site and wasting your staff time posting all that stuff that you KNOW nobody reads.
By all means, if there is a market for a digital version of your newspaper (and there seems to be one, it hovers at somewhere between 2 and 8 per cent of your circulation, if current models are accurate) build one. And if you can charge for - do it. But that’s not your future. That’s milking your shrinking dairy herd.
Simplify your site - focus your staff efforts on content that meets local needs - and you’ll discover another bonus: you don’t need that big, clumsy, expensive, hard-to-fix, hard-to-master, web content management system (CMS) either. A simple open source CMS, (WordPress, Drupal) one supported by thousands of developers, many living right in your communities, can meet your web publishing needs, your real needs, easily. You’ll save time and money and have a system that is a hundred times more flexible, adaptable and easy to use.

Worth Reading:

Re-imagining Journalism: Local News for a Networked World - A thought provoking policy paper by Michael Fancher for the Aspen Institute and the Knight Foundation 

1 comment to Are we doing too much online?

  • I subscribe to the tree-ware version of the Hamilton Spectator and only read the front section because I like to know what is going on. I find it insulting that I should have to pay extra for perusing the web site. What this city really needs is another daily Newspaper for competition. I won’t be holding my breath, I still have every copy of the Hamilton Sunday Sun. I also love the weekly Mountain News. The Internet has changed the landscape considerably, making print news old news before it hit’s my doorstep.