Ron’s Reasons: An Illustrated Web Critique

Commentary by Ron Reason

When the Great Falls Tribune redesigned its website, it sought to offer more choice to more readers and gain more advertisers. Here’s a look at challenges and opportunities presented before and after the change.

Former Home Page: September 1, 2008 – March 1, 2014

Screenshot of former Great Falls Tribune website dated September 1, 2008 thru March 1, 2014. With critiques in boxes 1-3 below.
Archival screen snapshot courtesy of Joe Addy, Webmaster, Great Falls Tribune

BOX 1:
The lead story on the old home page sure took its time getting to the point, with a head and deck totaling an astonishing 33 words; a wordy habit carried over from newspaper layout. The new lead headline (facing page) gets to the point in a much more economical eight words, emphasizing the value and need for smarter headline writing.
BOX 2:
The smaller horizontal photos in this central area posed a problem: Many images, especially the sports action shots chosen here, are too busy to translate to this small size. The revamped photo teasers in the redesigned page (facing) are more successful in presenting readable content.
BOX 3:
In this sample, the former home page layout allowed 20 headline options for the home page visitor. The new version (facing page) offers nearly 60, not counting rotating galleries, which offer additional options. Obviously this was a remake about volume, volume, volume. The home page is deeper, of course, but offers more stories in photo and video form. Readers are visual creatures, and the new design plays well to that.

In this instance, the Great Falls Tribune staff actually had a fair amount of say in how the redesign went. They had almost full control of the content on the front page, including photos, videos, links, images, etc. They did get to choose their own color scheme as well, but as with most corporate overhauls, much of the design was determined by the owners, Gannett Corporation. They aimed to get readers more of the content they desired online by going with a heavy image/video site design, as you can see on the facing page. Web Master Joe Addy said they felt satisfied that the new site accomplished their goals.

New Home Page: March 2, 2014

Screenshot of Great Falls Tribune new website on October 10, 2014.
October 10, 2014 home page was randomly selected for commentary below.

BOX 4:
A bolder, slightly deeper header features a larger logo in caps and lowercase. This wisely moves beyond an old, stale trend for newspaper websites, shown on the older home page: all-lowercase logos (too casual) with a “.com” added, which was superfluous – we knew we were on a website, right?
BOX 5:
A larger image in a quickly rotating “lead story” gallery creates a greater sense of hierarchy and action. Don’t like the top item? Wait a few seconds, another option appears. Reflects the idea that greater updating and higher volume offers readers more choices and keeps them around longer.
BOX 6:
High up, this “utility rail” clearly presents visitors with info on how to use the site, contact staff, or submit items. Very user friendly.
BOX 7:
The “Brady Bunch” shapes in this block of teasers might threaten to get a bit monotonous. But, if the content of each square surprises, stories update often, and heads are well written, readers will stick around. The reverse white heads present a challenge: bottoms of images must be dark enough to ensure readability.
BOX 8:
Content such as VIDEO is clearly organized (as with GALLERIES, farther down). But an ongoing challenge for news websites is to present content that truly deserves to be shown as video. The headline on this story – “data breach at Jimmy John’s” – doesn’t suggest a dynamic viewing experience so much as, perhaps, a talking head. Opening screen shots should also present some hint of action to come. If this content is from an automated feed, there may not be much you can do, but if published live and locally, these are things to look out for.
BOX 9:
Readers are scanners. This rail serves them well. A vertical layout moves the eye quickly (and has since the days of The Wall Street Journal’s “What’s News” column). Reverse white-on-black text can get hard to read, but the narrow column and short bits of text make it work here.
BOX 10:
From a reader’s standpoint, the lack of advertising on the home page template on this particular date may be a godsend. From a publisher’s standpoint, it’s a concern: Where’s the revenue going to come from? The “Today’s Deal” near the bottom of the home page might be moved higher, and might benefit from offering more than one product. Or, text-only ads (horizontal 1-or 2-lines, as in Google) could be subtly introduced between editorial elements, and might boost revenue.

Design consultant Ron Reason will be the University of Montana School of Journalism’s Distinguished Pollner Professor for Spring 2015.