What’s the difference between a newspaper’s front pages and its home page? Front pages are designed by committees of journalists using tried-and-true rules and home pages are designed by committees of journalists and business people who are making up the rules as they go.
It shows in the rottenness of the result.
Steve Outing’ latest column in E&P gels a lot of my concern. I don’t necessarily agree with Jay Small and Adrian Holovaty that news sites should be more like Google or that the front page shouldn’t look like an index to the news.
But we need some guidelines for how to build a news page.
Newspapers benefit from established rules that have been taught in high schools for generations. Because our medium is so new, we’re in the process of learning what works and what doesn’t.
Here are my issues with the way news sites are created today. I’m using the San Jose Mercury News home page as my poster child, because it’s one I know well. There are a lot of other papers who commit these sins.

  • Too many brands: why is it that newspapers must create new brands for their sections (employment classifieds, auto classifieds, real estate classifieds, special content sites, local sports team section, entertainment section, etc.). Each brand is an ego exercise and requires the creation of a logo that must appear on the home page. These brands make it difficult for the reader to solve a problem (find a job, get the scores, check a showtime).
  • Too many GIF’s: This is the child of too many brands, plus designers’ desire to overcontrol the display of the page. Of the 18 GIF’s I counted on the Mercury News home page, 2 were editorial, 3 were ads, and the remaining 13 were internal logos and house ads, many of them animated.
  • Too much static information: A deep, well-organized nav bar makes it easy for readers to get where they’re going, but the Mercury News home page has nine separate static sections. Across the top: other Knight-Ridder Bay Area sites, “channels” (site sections), administrative links (help, contact, etc). On the left: search the site, “Looking for..”, “Our Site Tools”, win movie tickets, search personals. On the right: “Shopping/Services”, stock search, yellow pages search. Across the bottom: “Discover more on Bay Area.com”, and repeats of sections and administrative links.
  • Too many nested tables: I didn’t count the tables, but there seem to be a lot of divisions on the page that indicate another table element.
  • Too little news: About a third of the home page real estate is devoted to news, and a lot of that is white space.

I don’t agree that news sites should be more like Google’s home page. Google is designed to do one thing and its simplicity is a direct result of that need. News sites have multiple goals and those goals are more complex and information-intense than a web search.
Although I love white space, and it’s free on the Web, news lends itself to high-density information. Take a look at the simplicity and density of Macintouch, The Register, news.com, Google News, the Wall Street Journal, Salon, Arts & Letters Daily, The Economist. I’m not holding up any of the these an ideal just yet, but I believe that the high density of these pages makes them very useful.
My guidelines for designing a news page that works are:

  • Use fewer GIF’s.
  • Give your sections names (Entertainment), not brands (“Whasssup!”).
  • Use fewer house ads and promotions, and make them count.
  • Put all the navigation in one place.
  • Limit animation to advertising.
  • Have fewer fields of information.
  • Keep the essential layout of these fields as identical as possible.
  • Increase the real estate and density of news on the page.

This approach has the added advantage of making it more possible to use cascading style sheets for layout. This is an urgent need and I’m pleased to see it getting some attention.