Two major news-related websites have debuted redesigns.
One of them serves the most sophisticated, affluent digital market in the country and is backed by a strong, tenured publishing brand.
The other is funded by a company controlled by a mephistophelian international cult leader that serves second-rate content to one of the most blockheaded audiences in the nation.
You can guess which has debuted the better site.
It’s the Washington Times, funded by the Unification Church of Rev. Sun Myung Moon, and the sweetly obedient house organ of the Bush administration and those who feed off it. If ever you’ve wondered who those 23 percent of American are who think Bush is going a good job, the answer is “people who read the Washington Times.”
The new Washington Times homepage is far superior to the updated sfgate.com, the site operated by the Hearst Corporation and serving the San Francisco and greater Silicon Valley area.
The Washington Times homepage is — I use this word carefully and rarely — groundbreaking in its presentation of information, at least in a popular medium like news. More than any newspaper-born site I have seen, it has disposed of the idea that a news written for a daily newspaper should be presented facefirst on the web. The project leaders seem to have started with a slate clean of many of the assumptions that have held back newspaper sites for over a decade.
Have a look:
A quick glance reveals how different this is from most news”paper” sites (I may punctuate it that way from now on). One big story given billboard play, a big headline and enough text to let you know whether you want to click in or not. The two bigger stories topping the second column attract more attention and top a column of crisp headlines.
This is all smart and satisfying stuff. But the money shot here is the semitransparent Dig Deeper thingbat that lies over the main image. Click on it and the entire main image flips over like a playing card. On the “other side” you’ll find either related media (pictures, videos), themes (topics) or stories.
Sure, lots of news sites do that sort of layered aggregation. And the Washington Times isn’t doing a very good job curating or automating the content so far. (The site almost operates as a beta at this point. Bully for them launching it anyway, I say. Meeker minds would have left it aging in the shop until it was “ready.”)
But the Dig Deeper tool itself is a joy — once again, a term I use rarely and carefully. When you flop back and forth the WT square spins like a die, and the whole flip-over motion provides the sort of brainpie satisfaction you get from any inherently entertaining interface, like the endless procession of currently viewed videos rising over the horizon on YouTube.
Meanwhile, on the Left Coast, the folks at Hearst have debuted an iteration of the news”paper”‘s (ok, last time, I’m tired of that already) home page.
It manages to integrate just about every commodity-level news web design feature that has appeared over the past three years. I couldn’t find anything I hadn’t seen done many times, and better: you’ve got your blogsphotogalleriesyourcommentsmostreadtopicpagesmashupssocialmediasortastuff, in all their tepid familiarity.
News editor Vlae Kershner’s announcement has a bit of the involuntary cringe familiar to all editors who introduce changes that some readers are certain to hate. ["Our talented staff of online editors is still learning the new programming tools and figuring out where to best place content, so please bear with us."]
Even the site’s “annotated tour” seems to have a hard time mustering much enthusiasm for itself.
To be plain, there’s nothing bad about the renovated sfgate homepage. It’s just the newspaper of the leading technology community in the nation catching up to, oh, mid-2007. (In its previous re-do, last year, sfgate.com had essentially updated to 2005, in my estimation.)
The current re-do will do nothing to forestall the paper’s death or expedite its transformation. It’s just keeping pace with what the other folks do, though without much energy. Which is what newspapers have done for decades. Why start innovating now?
Which brings us back to our friends at The Washington Times. Why indeed start innovating now?
The paper has just undergone another of its major upheavals. [The history of the Times is a comic operetta of steadfastly conservative editors denying the Unification Church has any influence, and ultimately being ousted or quitting due to excessive church influence. In the background, a solemn chorus of Washington conservatives weeps, rends it garments and gnashes its teeth over the fact that the nation's capital doesn't have a legitimate answer to the Pinko Post. Like the Fantastiks in New York, it's a Washington show that plays for decades.]
A site redesign cannot solve the fundamental problem of the Washington Times–that it is, politely put, rotten at the core.
But the folks who redid the Washington Times site were able somehow to engage with one fundamental problem of web news presentation by disposing of the “paper” and working directly with the news and how users interact with it. They ignored their peers’ habits. Along the way they’ve brought some new energy and ideas to web news design.
Wouldn’t it be interesting if a San Francisco news source took up a similar challenge?