Good newspaper design is crucial to great user experiences. Here's my analysis on why (and how) the news industry is quickly changing and becoming more digital.
It’s difficult to dispute that the journalism industry has been completely revolutionized in the past few decades due to the advent of new technology. Smartphones, tablets, and even our computers have allowed readers to access most of their news from sources online. As a result, newspapers, once the primary way for the public to receive its news, have now receded into the background, overshadowed by dozens of other mediums.
Upon finishing The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman, I wanted to write an article that would apply what I’ve learned in his book to a real life problem. While I was reading his book, I thought of many different products that have pervaded society at one time and have since become harder to find. As a web-based designer primarily with a focus on user interfaces and experiences on desktop, I had rarely ventured out into analyzing or creating physical experiences, whether it be a tangible product or service. However, I’ve learned in Norman’s book that there are many design principles that are shared between the physical world and the virtual one. I’ve also learned that in order to create better products myself, I have to develop a design mindset, one that encourages me to observe and analyze all the products I encounter. In this article, I will be putting what I learned to practice and analyze the design of newspapers and how technology has shaped the industry.
Newspapers have been around for a long time. The term was coined in the 16th century and the first newspapers were printed in the early 17th century, sparked by the global spread of the printing press. However, news has always been circulated throughout history, either through word-of-mouth or the use of written letters.
In the United States, the first newspapers were published around the same time we declared our independence from Great Britain. These newspapers were a way for Americans to voice their political views and assume a collective jingoism against their repressive mother country. Over time, newspapers have evolved into an entire industry fueled by advertisers and information-hungry consumers. For the past two hundred years, newspapers were the main way for people to receive their news. Paperboys, newsstands, subscription-based models, and supermarkets were only some of the many distribution channels that newspaper companies employed to get their product out to as many people as possible.
It is safe to say that mass media and newspapers have proliferated our world and provided readers a medium to ingest information. Nowadays, however, nearly all of our news comes from either television news channels or from online sources. The chart from World Bank below shows the glaring divide between how readers of different age groups obtain their news; it is obvious that younger generations such as millennials receive their information from online, television, and social media where as older age groups tend to stick to other mediums such as television and print.
This suggests that over the next few decades, people will receive more of their information not from individual companies, but rather from a variety of sources. Previously, readers would pledge their loyalty to either one or a few media companies — those that meshed with their political views, interests, and localities. Now, instead of having to choose between different newspapers and TV channels that write their information and publish specific news stories, users will have more freedom to selectively tune into whatever news articles they feel like reading. Every time we log into Facebook or complete a Google search, we are the writers of our own newspapers because we get to pick and choose where our information comes from.
Although the independence to access information freely and for free is a powerful incentive to migrate online, is this the only factor that has people abandoning newspapers?
The newspaper was a foreseeable creation after the mass production of the printing press, the proliferation of books, and increased speed of travel. People were used to flipping pages when reading books, printer presses had the capacity to print thousands of pages a day, and horses and wagons could travel up to a few hundred miles a day. Putting all of these factors together engendered the first “modern” newspaper.
For many, the newspaper feels natural — text reads from left to right (right to left or up and down in certain countries), pages are numbered numerically, sections are partitioned by large headers. But compared to magazines or books, newspapers are more cumbersome to navigate; their large pages span up to three feet wide and the flimsiness of their sheets do little to support them when held upright. Below are two ways newspapers inherently foster bad user experience and how newer technologies have solved these issues.
In a 2009 TED Talk by Jacek Utko, a Polish newspaper designer and consultant discusses whether or not he believes design can save newspapers. He believes that newspapers are dying for a few reasons — “readers don’t want to pay for yesterday’s news, and advertisers follow them. Your iPhone, your laptop, is much more handy than New York Times on Sunday. And we should save trees in the end?” Over the course of several years, many different newspaper design teams in Europe took the approach to completely redesign the newspaper from front to back. This involved changing around the visual design of the pages (especially the front page), modifying the content, and adjusting the workflow to align with business goals. Over the course of three years, circulation grew 29% in Russia and 35% in Poland. However, that study was run prior to 2009; can these same principles be applied nearly ten years later?
Newspapers, like many other creative products, require a combination of attractive design and usability to succeed. Having only one or the other will result in products that aren’t delightful to use or will end up frustrating users. The design of newspapers can influence readers to pick up one copy over another or cause readers to switch to other publishers and mediums.
One of the most important design choices that newspapers need to take into consideration when designing is layout. Many newspapers take a modularized approach to designing their pages, and section out their workable space into blocks containing information. However, this visual organization can be ambiguous and doesn’t provide a level of feedback signaling to a user when a particular section is finished. The ambiguity arises when there are multiple paragraphs spanning the same widths and height, without any space to separate them. Breaking newspapers off into different sections promotes clean and organized design in theory, but lacks clarity if done improperly.
Snippets of each article are appended by page numbers, signaling to the reader which page they can navigate to in order to read the full article. In a way, this is a simplified but disorganized and incomplete glossary that allows a reader to get a quick overview of all the articles in the newspaper. Magazines, books, and encyclopedias all contain concise tables of contents that allow users to preview all the topics covered in a simple and concise listing.
Conversely, articles on tablets and mobile devices have clear indicators that signal to a reader where an article starts and where it ends. Because each story is generally located on a separate page, headers and title at the top of a page are signifiers that the article is beginning and an end to the scrolling at the bottom provides feedback that the article is over. There aren’t several paragraphs spanning across the width of the page, users have the ability to search for terms within the page, and readers have the ability to return to their previous page instead of having to flip through several pages of paper.
Newspapers are overloaded with information. Daily newspapers from large, established companies average 40 pages, several hundred articles, and 150,000 words. Sifting through all this information can be daunting, considering how much data and information the average consumer is already exposed to every day. When a consumer pays for a newspaper (between $1 and $2), they’re paying for information and/or entertainment. When a percentage of that information is irrelevant and requires readers to sift through a needless amount of data to find the articles and topics that interest them, an inefficiency arises in unnecessary costs for the publishing company and wasted time for the consumer.
It might appear that the corporations that manage these newspapers might be profligate, but realize that by writing articles on a myriad of topics, they can appeal to a wider audience. However, there’s a trade-off between having too much content and too little. Online platforms solve this issue by offering dynamic content that updates as newer content is published. Search bars help target a major pain point in having to dig through an entire section of the newspaper to find a particular topic.
In addition to refining the process and allowing readers to purely focus on the written articles, news links on electronic platforms also attempt to change how advertisements are displayed. Ads usually work on mobile platforms because they are non-intrusive and relevant. Online advertisements are usually located in a particular corner or section of the page and are reloaded with the page. Depending on a reader’s preset preferences and privacy settings, these advertisements can usually be tailored to align with the interests of visitors of the page. Although consumers don’t appear to have a strong preference for non-tailored ads versus tailored ones, marketers want to know that their campaigns are effective, thus generating revenue for both the advertiser and the medium handling the advertisements. Newspapers lack this ability, showing advertisements that have completely no relevance to a particular individual (a notable example of this is an oddly specific ad marketing funeral arrangements to men in relationships as a perfect valentine’s day gift for their significant others).
Looking forward, it’ll be interesting to see which direction newspapers will head in. Many state that the newspaper will become a relic of the past, whereas others state that the industry needs to reposition and reinvent itself to stay relevant in today’s times. A notable example is Amazon’s recent acquisition of The Washington Post. In an NPR article from an employee who worked pre-acquisition and post-acquisition, The Washington Post has been completely revolutionized since Jeff Bezos acquired it in 2013. Revenues, web traffic, and subscribers have gone up in number and their core business model and strategy have shifted towards an online presence. In addition to hiring more IT talent and focusing on online platforms, the Post is making more of an effort to ensure that ads are relevant and non-intrusive. In this controversial purchase, I’d assume Bezos is not buying the Post, but rather buying the talent that comes with it. By building off a solid foundation, Bezos has helped turn The Washington Post from a dying company to one of the strategic leaders in the industry.
Although the Post is temporarily differentiated by its advantages in technology and human capital, this is not a sustainable strategy. Similar companies have the ability to emulate successful ones and saturate the industry with news articles that mirror the same level of quality and amount of information. With so much data available at our disposal, what do we do with it? Several decades ago, data was mainly controlled by an oligopoly — a few companies that held most of the information. Now, anyone has access to publish information. Yet, how do we know any of this information is trustworthy or worth reading?
That’s where the curated web comes in. Curation of good content matters because readers want to ensure that any content they consume is accurate, trustworthy, and of high quality. When companies aggregate information, readers want to trust on these sites to contain reliable and organized information. Companies need to stand out in terms of their human capital, technology, and long-term strategy in order to succeed in today’s competitive and information-heavy market. By starting with good design and a solid foundation in their brand, companies have the opportunity to mold the next generation of the web.