Attractiveness vs. Volume – an explanation of news design

A portion of the NY Times homepage. This is worthless.
A portion of the NY Times homepage. This is worthless.

This post stems from a conversation between Max Cutler, Joey Baker, and myself that went on over Twitter this afternoon. It all stemmed from Max asking, “What’s more important: # of stories above the fold or catchy/pretty multimedia accompanying fewer articles?” Joey and I were in agreement that it was the visual appearance of a page that should be given priority while Max was (playing devil’s advocate?) arguing that perhaps a series of links are better because a reader can scan the top news quickly.

The short answer to Max’s question is that it’s better to use the homepage to display a select number of the most ______ (recent, topical, important, etc.) stories with their accompanying graphics (be they photos, video, info-graphics, cartoons, etc.).

Another way of approaching it, which is the one currently employed by many daily news organizations, is to display a list of various links and excerpts so that readers will presumably scan them to get the news.

I think the “list of links” approach is flawed for a couple reasons:

  1. It fails to recognize the limitless nature of graphics on the web. No longer must we be bound by the costs of printing large graphics. Yes, bandwidth can be more expensive with lots of graphics, but it’s an insignificant amount of money.
  2. It lacks the visual stimulus that our culture has saturated us with in so many other walks of life. We are conditioned to be drawn to images (be they ads, slideshows, television, etc.) and consequently find lists comparatively dull.

That second issue is the main one that I see as a problem. As Joey said, “print designers knew this: human eye goes Art → Hed → Cutline → Deck → Lede. Why only show the Hed!? We need art *at least*!”

One of the focal aims of a news site is to engage the user and bring them into a story. A plain text link is not going to do this for the majority of readers. Yes, perhaps it will allow some people to scan quickly and it may even draw in those with a specific interest in a topic but it will fail where it matters most: with the masses.

When people become accustomed to viewing sites that are a visual tour de force like Apple’s they will come back to a site like the LA Times and wonder, “What the hell happened?”

People like things in a nice package. It’s why more people buy iPods than SansDisk. It’s why people use an email client like Thunderbird or Gmail instead of Pine. It’s time that news organizations recognized the desire for the visual elements of a story.

The reality is that images can connect to emotions, text headlines not so much. The biggest thing that a story can have going for it is having readers that care about it. An image can do this, text headlines cannot.