Archive for the ‘Web writing’ category

Time.com’s ‘The Page’: Like a Blog, But Better

17, September, 2008

There are more things wrong with Time.com’s renovated website than befits a multimedia news-and-content monolith. Maybe that’s due to the lingering toxicities of that whole nearly fatal AOL infection. But those flaws are a subject for another day.

Today I’d like to call attention to really smart evolution of the blog and into a successful new format: The Page, Mark Halperin’s daily dose of high-quality political news scrapery.

[Sorry for the lousy cut-n-paste. Those two images should read seamlessly, as one.]

There’s so much I like about this:

The items are essentially links to the full content on Time.com and elsewhere. This makes the blog an easy scan of current relevant news items, with one-click access to the full versions.

It’s all very visual, using big images, varied typographic textures and white space to make The Page highly scannable. Essentially The Page is a compelling front end for the news.

It’s built on WordPress!

Below the big entries of the moment, the bottom of The Page is a more conventional gathering of news items, but notice again how each is presented with scannable typography and written as if the blurber actually understands the content.

The Page is also pushed out as a daily e-mail.

The Page is an excellent evolution that combines blog, well-crafted blurbified news and next-gen e-mail. It’s one of the most usable products of this type I’ve come across.

The real value-add, as they say on the business side of the operation, is not the content, but Halperin’s brain. Instead of rewriting the news, he selects and presents it.

Flaws? Halperin should be more ecumenical in his item choices, so the product remains a gateway to the political news of the day, not Time.com’s news reporting of same.

Oh, and this: Is the title “The Page” ironic, retro-cool or, for all of the product’s digital virtues, an artifact of the creators’ ink-and-paper-centric worldview?

Conflict of interest note: In a moment of weakness, Time.com several months ago declared this humble blog a Top 25 blog.


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CNN: Leading the pack in. . .newswriting?

22, August, 2007

I’m only sort of kidding.

Click here. Or here. Or, what the heck, here. [Note from author: CNN doesn’t have permalinks for its content, so these links keep going dead. If you wind up at a missing page, just click on any news story and you’ll see the feature I’m talking about.–cs 5/28/08]

Notice that each of these stories appearing on the CNN website is topped by a bulleted list titled Story Highlights. The following text rides in a box alongside the headline of a story, “Russia: We did not drop missile”:

STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • Russia says it could not have dropped a missile in Georgia earlier this month
  • Georgia accuses Russia of “shameless Soviet diplomacy”
  • Experts from the U.S. among others have identified the missile as Russian
  • Incident reignites feuding between Russia and its pro-Western neighbor

The folks at CNN have figured out what editors of newspapers figured out by the 1920s or so but then (how?) forgot when they made the transition to the Web: Above-the-fold matters. People skim the news, scanning headlines, decks, picture/captions, and reading (sometimes) ledes and (rarely) the story to the jump and (very rarely indeed) all the way to the end.

But the biggest group of people skims headlines, decks, pictures and captions. This is the news consumer, both in print and online.

The most successful newspaper websites don’t seem to get this. Many use only the headlines that appear in the day’s paper, or those that come on top of wire service stories. The best of them handcraft blurbs for stories that get bigger display. A few get pictures and captions.

But click on the article itself and get this from USA Today.

This from the New York Times. [This link is behind a pay wall. Again, any Times news story will do.–cs]

This from the Washington Post.

In these examples you’ll find decks, some multimedia enhancements, links, and so on.

But none of them has what, arguably, would be the most valuable service to Web readers of the news: A succinct summary on top of the story, above the fold, that needs no clicking or scrolling to consume.

My deduction: CNN creates very little original news–and, as a broadcast culture, accepts intuitively how short a news consumer’s attention span is. (Recall the ribbon of text scrolling across the bottom of its newscasts.) It has no vanity associated with its original news reporting, no need to spool out the whole 43-inch wordroll in order to comfort the top print editors, who (still!) insist their marquee work in the paper be marquee work on the Web, repurposed with little disruption to the version that is trucked each morning to readers’ homes.

CNN’s news summaries are often not very good. The language is sometimes dull, the details are poorly selected, insights are heroically resisted. They read like the work of junior producers in a hurry.

But the summaries exist, high up, bulleted and readable. This fact alone gives a majority of Web news readers–skimmers and dippers–a better experience.

The only website I’m aware of that campaigns to package news stories with this kind of efficient skimbait is the give-’em-a-break-they’re-still-in-beta site Newser. Its stories are topped by 100-word blocks of text, written by newswriters, and more insightful than CNN’s. But they are presented as blocks of text. No white space. Small text. From a usability perspective, these better writeups score lower than CNN’s bullets. Compare the Newser link above with any of the CNN links at the start of this blog entry and you’ll see what I mean.

I’d say it’s ironic that a broadcast website understands how to present news to an electronic user better than newspaper publishers that pay for serious reporting and news analysis.

But it’s not.

If newspapers took a cue from CNN’s packaging, and topped their full reports with easily skimmable summaries, they’d have the best of both worlds: Important, original news that carries out the vital functions of the Fourth Estate–and reaches the maximum audience.

asap’s Patriot(ic) Act

4, July, 2007

If you can’t make it to any fireworks this evening — or you’re weary of the whole picnic-basket-and-battle-the-traffic thing–click over to asap, the Associated Press’s extraordinarily good site targeting what they hope will be the next generation of news consumers.

The site’s Firefox-friendly fireworks show demonstrates just a few things asap, now about 18 months old, does so well:

Matches the medium with the message. Note that while the presentation is technically a video, the user experiences it as a slide show set to music. 

Takes wise advantage of “regular” AP’s first-class assets, in this case several dozen smart, remarkable photos of fireworks taken all over the world. There is not a visual cliche in the bunch. Brilliant photo editing here.  

Declines to pander.  Lesser minds would have set the slide show to a musical backdrop of Death Cab for Cutie or John Mayer–you know, “kids’ music.” Here the soundtrack is a vintage vinyl recording of (what I assume to be) a mid-century orchestra performance of “Stars and Stripes Forever,” providing a slight wink of irony underneath it all. 

Exudes contrary but not hostile energy. The (brief) text is devoted to fireworks as they are done around the world–Italy, France, Japan and China, not the U.S. The main story source is not, refreshingly, a member of the chronically overexposed Grucci family. Interviewing the Gruccis for July 4 stories is as hackneyed as interviewing that idiot in the hat on Ground Hog Day.

Three audio clips extend the surprisingly insightful interview, but like most “on-screen” audio they present a lousy user experience. (Show of hands: Has anybody ever listened to an audio clip without clicking away to do something else while it plays? Anyone?) 

There is much more to say about asap, most of it good. I’ll get to that later. Meantime, enjoy the show.