Digital Journalism & the Slogans of Doom (4)

[April 10, 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.]

Aside from the issues I’ve already discussed, my exploration of the digital face of journalism has also driven home to me the signature attributes of digital space as an emerging medium. I say “emerging,” because we don’t yet know what form it will ultimately take. Despite the squealing hysteria surrounding the iPad, even that sleek new device is only capable of displaying digital space as it exists today.

With that caveat, however, a few things seem clear. Digital space is, at a fundamental level, a multidimensional experience unfolding in real time. That means an effective, motivating Web site must be more than a tidy assemblage of image, text and motion graphics. It needs, through over-arching architecture and design, to simultaneously grow out of and inhabit its own unique world.

And on that score, the vast majority of sites devoted to delivering on the promise of American journalism fail miserably. That this is intimately bound up with the perceived demise of the field can be seen in every way the home pages of Fox News, C-Span, UPI and The Huffington Post are decidedly different from the iPad.

In a promotional environment where the iPad could sell out Yankee Stadium if it chose to give a concert, it’s hard to imagine these sites are reaching more than a fraction of their intended audiences. That is, assuming the goal of journalism is not to appeal only to a narrow band of obsessive-compulsives, market researchers or ideologues on holiday.

Stacked like hotcakes…
The problem, again, is partly one of organization. While all four of these sites do create some sense of hierarchy at the top of their templates, each quickly loses definition. The category labels at foxnews.com, do no more to guide or motivate users than a conventional coffee shop menu.

At c-span.org, the labels “What We’re Covering” and “Featured Links” are too generic. In the first instance, the heading reduces the site to the status of a help menu for c-span broadcasts. Equally important, these neutral demarkers, like their “just the facts” cousins in digital and direct marketing, are not motivating. “Great,” says the user, “I’ll check out the Featured Links after I find the news stories I’m looking for.”

By the same token, given UPI’s heritage of excellence, I can’t understand why it would take so little care of its digital footprint. With an information flow far below the standard set even by Flickr, upi.com can only be navigated by ESP. Finally, huffingtonpost.com consists solely of a welter of topical articles, blog posts and images stacked like hotcakes in a rural truck stop. The disarray is further compounded by a cluttered navigation.

…and served up with indifference.
In each case, the effect is analogous to that of a landscape architect dumping hundreds of pounds of sod, seed and fertilizer on a vacant lot and calling it a “garden.” Like a well designed park, a Web presence needs to exist to serve its regular visitors, by offering different paths through it, providing areas of rest and recreation and creating a welcoming environment.

Because when someone arrives at a news source—whether via the latest technological heart-throb or a battered CPU running Windows 98—the one and only reason they’ve come is to be enlightened, informed and, yes, reasonably entertained. In my next post I’ll discuss sites I believe achieve those needs more successfully.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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