Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Media columnist writes that local news websites' poor design may undermine credibility, push readers away

In a Twitter thread Sunday, Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan criticized local news organizations' websites, writing that poor design and user interfaces undermine their credibility and has likely driven readers to get their news from social media instead. 

"I'm a big fan and supporter of local news but god their websites are horrendous," Sullivan tweeted. "The overall statement seems to be 'we're gonna make this such a terrible experience that you'll never come back -- cool with you?'" 

Several journalists agreed. Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, responded: "This is one of the unmentionables in the (important) push to save local news, and why moving fast is so important: the more time that lapses, the worse the sites will get, as resources dry up. Then, even sympathetic people may start to wonder if they're worth saving."

Jason Joyce, city editor of the Madison, Wisconsin, digital newspaper The Capital Times, chimed in: "100% of journalists I know agree with this. Executives who established ad operations and incentives for reps have never understood it."

Cierra Brown Hinton, editor of Scalawag Magazine, replied that digital design often takes a backseat because print is usually a newsroom's primary product and advertising its main revenue: "We say digital transformation like it’s past tense; it hasn’t happened. In the digital space you’re not just competing w/other news you’re competing with every brand that wants attention."

Some commenters noted that many local newsrooms are obliged to use corporate-mandated layouts that are optimized for ads but deliver a lousy reading or viewing experience. "The average local site is in a template created by a chain, and most seem to do it on the cheap. People in local newsrooms complain but significant change rarely happens. Some corporate paymasters need to wake up," wrote Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog.

Other commenters added that local newsrooms, especially independent organizations, may not have the time, money or expertise to improve their website. "Good websites take investment and expertise — most local news sites have trouble affording that," wrote author Gwenda Bond. "One of the organizations supporting journalism should fund—or partner with a university on—a best practices study and open source design template."

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