Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Some notes on The Washington Post:

The front page of the Washington Post is pretty typical of online newspaper web presenses. There's the leftover tribute to the masthead on top, followed by some large attention-grabbing image (in this case a photo of John Kerry and his chin) and a supersized headline marking Kerry's locking up of the nomination. Much of the design of the site is a testament to the way "old" web sites were designed with many (many!) links to content deeper within the site (vertical links) and few links which function horizontally. Most notably they have the "old fashioned portal" problem of of having a Google search bar at the top of their page. Rather than specializing in providing news online, this indicates that at least at some point in the newspaper's history they had dreams of being a gateway page to the net. The Google search bar therefore runs at counter purposes to the lack of other horizontal links.

On the WP's front page there are five ads — six if you count the link back to Google which is debatably advertising for their search engine. Of these ads, only one is what might be considered "traditional" advertising in that it's the long stretched out "vertical banner" commonly on sites from many different types around the net. In this case it's an ad for Courtyard Hotels complete with GenX model-human dancing on his bed with a guitar — we've all been there haven't we? At first I was puzzled by the appearance of an ad for a hotel chain on the front page of a newspaper site — typically the prime spots are reserved for tech companies — but the age and actions of the ad's main character seem to be targeting the same demographic.

The site requires registration to view any interior pages (use my info: thisisnotaname@notanemail.com, asdfgasdfg). What a pain to have to deal with that. Presumably it exists so that the WP can collect some information about those who use their content. Even so, charging anything for content is a barrier to entry and many users simply will go elsewhere, and forced registration tends to work essentially the same way.

Once you get to the interior pages, the most notable thing on the page is the advertising. There's a "double wide" vertical banner for British Airways above the fold, animated of course, which makes it difficult to concentrate on the rest of the content. Interestingly, as you view more pages the advertising moves around on the page (in this case a banner ad was added to the top of the page). They're attempting to cash in on the fact that the human eye perceives change more than "things." Interesting tactic. Otherwise the rest of the page makes pretty good sense, there are links related to the story (in this case Kerry's near-sweep of Super Tuesday), poll results in the various states, photos of a jubilant Kerry, a primary calendar for the rest of the country.

On the front page, the stories linked to are "headline plus one sentence lead." Interestingly they also include a byline on the front page unlike most other online newspapers. Once you go to a "category page" (like "sports") that changes and users are only presented with single line headlines from which to select for reading. The former is a better way to attract readers, the latter tends to encourage hunting and pecking.

So the big question -- is the WP doing a good job? I actually think they are. Their front page has a few remnants from an earlier day, but all in all they're modernizing quite nicely. Do they provide good content? They tend to have a pretty reasonable repuation for doing so, and when it comes to "quality" reputation is really all there is to go on. Nothing in the layout of the site hints at their underlying biases -- except of course the stories they've selected (one from each of their sections).

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