If your news site isn’t social, great design won’t matter

There’s been a lot of sound and fury in the media sphere recently, sparked by a blog post from web designer Andy Rutledge that tore apart the New York Times (s nyt) website for being ugly and cluttered. This caused a firestorm of sorts on Twitter, as defenders of the site argued that most of his criticisms and proposed solutions were unrealistic — which many of them arguably are. But the biggest blunder Rutledge commits is when he argues that news sites should avoid social-recommendation elements, when the opposite is true.

Many of Rutledge’s points about the New York Times site have a lot of truth to them, and he makes a point of saying that his criticisms are not specific to the NYT, but apply to plenty of other newspaper websites as well. The biggest issue — as anyone who has spent any time trying to find a specific story on the NYT home page will likely agree — is that the site is literally crammed to the rafters with links. Not only is there a navigational sidebar with links to every section of the paper, and section menus, but there are hundreds of separate links and other elements on every page. Says Rutledge:

I think the object of the game must be to fit as much “content” onto the page as possible in an effort to overwhelm the reader, tricking them into believing that the NY Times is just bursting with a mindbogglingly-bottomless array of important information. If only the reader could learn to ignore 60% of what’s here, she might have a chance at a pleasant experience.

The problem of too much content

To avoid this cluttered look, Rutledge argues that the NYT and other sites should strip out most of what they put on their pages — including much of the navigation — and make their search better and their classification systems more intuitive so readers can find what they want. And he gives credit to many news sites for having mobile versions and iPad apps that do a better job of streamlining their content for browsing, although he argues that many still try to cram too much into a single page.

Lauren Rabaino at the blog 10,000 words has done an admirable job of collecting some of the negative reactions to Rutledge’s post, as has Danny DeBelius. One of the designer’s critics is Nieman Journalism Lab editor Joshua Benton, who argues that Rutledge is ignoring the fact that the New York Times produces a vast amount of journalism and content every day, and that the website has to not only look nice but provide an easy way to navigate through all this content.

But Rutledge doesn’t so much ignore this fact as argue that most of that ocean of NYT content simply isn’t that important to most people, which gets to the core of the problem: for the most part, the New York Times website — like most news websites — is created and designed for some mythical reader who is interested in everything the paper produces. The reality, of course, is that there are virtually no such readers (or at least extremely few of them), and designing for them is a mistake.

No one is interested in everything

Everyone has certain things they are interested in at the NYT or many other news sites, and lots of other things that they couldn’t care less about. That’s why so many have turned to social media tools like Twitter as news sources — not just because it is real-time, and more personal, but also because a person’s social graph via Facebook or Twitter can act as a filter. This is summed up by the famous statement made by a young internet user in a consumer survey on news habits, who said: “If the news is that important, it will find me.” Is a great newspaper website design going to influence that process? Unlikely.

Which is why it’s so odd to see the designer say, in his new rules for news sites, that newspapers should dispense with the “most popular” and other recommendation features they have, and not worry about social media at all. He says:

There is no “most popular” news. There is news and there is opinion and they are mutually exclusive. Popularity of stories is something not contextual to news sites, but to social media sites… News is not social media. If it is, it fails to be news.

This misses the point by a country mile, in a couple of different ways, as Martin Belam from The Guardian and others have noted. For one thing, recommendation tools like “most popular” — or “recommended,” in the case of the New York Times — as well as the “like” buttons and other tools that allow people to share articles through Facebook and elsewhere, can be hugely useful both for readers and for the publications that use them. The Huffington Post achieved some dramatic traffic and engagement growth when it integrated Facebook Connect and made it easy for readers to see what their friends had shared, and others have seen similar jumps from Google+.

To say that “there is no most-popular news” ignores the fact that millions of people like to share news stories with their friends and followers, and that this is an integral part of what the media business is today — whether it’s individually-curated aggregators like Paper.li or News.me, or a more ambitious attempt to create a customized digital newspaper or magazine like Flipboard is becoming. And to argue that news “is not social media [and] if it is, it fails” shows a similar lack of insight into how digital media functions.

All media is effectively social, whether news organizations like the New York Times and others want it to be or not. To ignore that seems like incredibly bad advice from someone who claims to have the industry’s best interests at heart.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users See-ming Lee and jphilipg