April 18, 2010

Critiquing The Sun’s New Website

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Journalism has been grappling with the web for years, and The Sun is no exception. The Sun made some long-overdue changes to its website last week, adding interactive content and adjusting the site’s features to make it less static, in appearance and in practice. More links dot Sun stories, and it’s easier to find popular stories.

Although the old site had understated qualities and a clean look, it was functionally lacking. Stories were portioned and listed by individual sections, and some would drop off the site’s front page on the same day they were published. When I was browsing the site’s Google Analytics information a few weeks ago, I noticed that the front page was the main source of page views for almost all stories; users arrive at most stories from the front page.

While this is obvious, I also noticed that almost no users were clicking through to individual sections and seeing stories that way. If the opinion section published six pieces on a given day, for example, but only linked to four on the main page of the web site, then almost no users were reading the other two pieces. Even though finding the other two would only take an extra click, almost no one was doing that.

The new changes get more stories on the front page, but some are still dropping off. A solution is not immediately clear, especially for a section like Red Letter Daze, which publishes weekly. Therefore, all of its stories will come out at the same time; it would be spatially difficult (not to mention cluttered and confusing) to link to all of them from the front page.

The front page’s new layout is better than the old one, although the giant advertisements on the right side take up valuable space that could be better filled with links to Sun content. And, when clicking through to an individual section’s page, the articles still come up in a plain, chronological list. While it’s great that individual columns are now listed and linked to on the section pages, links to the pieces themselves are forced into a thin column on the left side of the screen. I think these lists of pieces are too spaced out going down the page; some headlines spill onto two lines, spreading them out even further and leading to excessive scrolling.

Most of the other features of the new site bring The Sun in line with other similarly situated papers. The site links to its most popular stories in a small sidebar. It also has links to its Twitter feed, its iPhone app and images of pages from the printed issue. The Sun has also expanded its web-only content, and I hope this continues. Uploading content that cannot be found elsewhere is certainly an incentive for more web usage.

By linking to the most popular stories within a given section, readers can hop through the section more easily. Some news sites take this a step further, breaking down “most popular” into “most viewed,” “most e-mailed” or “most commented,” to name a few. The Sun should consider taking that step in the near future.

The new site also has a box displaying The Sun’s Twitter feed. I’ve discovered that this is most useful to highlight unpublished, assorted musings in reporters’ feeds. Right now, The Sun’s Twitter box just lists an aggregation of stories that are on The Sun’s site. The Twitter feed, understandably, draws users to the site. But if users are already on the site, the Twitter box should probably serve some additional purpose.

These changes are not extraordinary, but they are much needed. (And by comparison, the new site is far superior to that of The Ithaca Journal, which is a nightmare to navigate, with its sea of unsorted links thrown together in bizarre fashion.) News sites need to be more than just simple, static pages; they need to cater to the browsing habits of users and make content more accessible. Although not perfect, the new changes go a long way to serving those goals.

Original Author: Rob Tricchinelli