Digital Journalism & the Slogans of Doom (3)

[April 6, 2010] 

[This post reflects the state of the sites discussed at the time. The issues raised are still relevant to the discussion of digital journalism in the US.]

As I continued to search the digital face of American journalism, for signs of its impending demise, I discovered more evidence that—in an effort to be more “relevant” to a badly drawn portrait of the digital audience—digital news editors had walked even farther away from their heritage than their on-air counterparts.

At least on a traditional national news program, we feel the weight of an achoring personality. This is someone who lends the proceedings some sense of perspective and authority. No doubt today’s audience has no stomach for the somewhat paternalistic tone struck by Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Howard K. Smith or Peter Jennings. The only thing about “the old days” less likely to recur is the use of music by Beethoven as a theme song for a nightly newscast.

Yet even in the aftermath of the broadcast Reformation that followed the now-mythic 1960s, personalities like Katie Curic, Diane Sawyer and Brian Williams still offer viewers a point of orientation. Online, anything like a unifying perspective at sites serving the major broadcast news outlets is conspicuously absent. Accordingly, my visit to ABC News and MSNBC turned up only slight variations on the themes I discussed in relation to cbsnews.com in my previous post.

Trivial pursuits.
As it appeared on April 5, 2010, the abcnews.com homepage presented users seeking the big picture with a dizzying array of disassociated design elements. At the top of the list was a thumbnail crawler offering a random sampling of the day’s most titillating gossip. Is Tiger back in the swing? Did Whoopi have an affair? Will Erykah Badu apologize?

What follows on the home page is a patchwork of links and associated thumbnails raining down on our consciousness at random. In mild contrast to CBS, ABC puts slightly less emphasis on its broadcast news menu, but that hardly matters. Far from being about “the news,” abcnews.com is a free-for-all of information overload delivered in no discernable order.

Like the Facebook page it emulates, it’s a list of lists, offering no center of gravity, no focal point and no interpretation of the day’s events. Even within the category headings further down the page, the rationale for grouping these stories is not at all clear. Ironically, this confusing visual experience is not only discouraging to anyone seeking perspective on the news, I also have a hard time believing it serves the needs of the gossip-addicts it panders to.

Demotivating clutter.
MSNBC’s more sober approach has many payoffs, if for no other reason than that the layout gives the users’ eye somewhere to rest. Beyond that, the categorization of news items begins much higher up in the layout and, within each subsection, there’s a clear hierarchy of attention. By whatever criteria the stories are grouped, it’s easy to see what the editors intend me to focus on.

While I may not agree with their choices, the resulting frame of reference makes the site much more readable. That small accomplishment alone lends this site at least the aura of authority, a sense that one might reasonably expect something that YouTube or your BFF can’t offer. Even given that aura, however, the site’s cluttered appearance is still deeply demotivating.

In my next post, I’ll look at a few more familiar players then visit sites orbiting outside the gravitational pull of network broadcast news.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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