The online newspaper format debate

We are often asked by the media why we chose to provide full content digital replicas of newspapers online – i.e. a user interface that looks just like the printed edition.  Why didn’t we design a new user interface for newspapers that looks more like a website?

Some people think it’s because the newspaper digital replica format is “familiar” and comfortable for print subscribers.  Some say it is because the format enables formal references to the printed edition.   And yes, there is some validity in these reasons, but there is so much more…

First – digital replicas provide a richer user experience

The average newspaper reader reads his/her favorite papers to find out “what’s new” in the world or their city.  They often don’t go looking for something specific – they read papers to discover new stories and find out what’s happening in an ongoing story from the day before.  Reading newspapers is a fun activity; it’s not a task or a job – it’s entertainment. 

Newspaper and magazine readers love to browse and there is nothing easier to browse online than a digital replica of a publication.  You can literally “flip” through the paper at your leisure and uncover stories and related pictures you weren’t expecting to find, and for which you would probably never “search”.   And as you browse the paper, you also discover which articles the editor considered “hot” that day – their visual presentation in the paper is evident in their: location, font sizes, size and number of pictures, length of article, color, proximity to other stories etc. 

Second – digital replicas “stand out” from the millions of websites and portals we typically see on the Internet. 

Ironically, their “traditional” format actually makes digital newspapers “non-traditional” on the web – they are less “web-like” and so they are quite unique.  They take a traditional layout and map advanced digital features to it in a way that creates an interactive experience for the reader. 

From the newspaper itself, readers can bookmark and post stories on blogs, or share articles through email.  They can translate articles on the fly, listen to articles, print articles or crossword puzzles, search and monitor just the printed media, access back issues and watch embedded videos, all without ever leaving the newspaper.   And they can do all of this for not one newspaper, but hundreds of them.

Which bring us to the third reason – standardization

The digital replica format is a standard for navigation and interaction across hundreds of publications, regardless of country or language.  Whether you’re reading The Washington Post (US),  Globe and Mail (Canada), Le Figaro (France), Times Online (UK) or Kommersant (Russia), the format is the same.   And thank goodness for that!  Imagine if every publisher chose to offer its digital edition in a non-traditional, web-like format.  For those of us who enjoy reading multiple newspapers, we would have to learn a new user interface for every publication we wanted to read.  No thanks…I like standardization, especially when it comes with advanced digital tools.

Fourth – it is proven to retain readers’ attention longer

The average time a visitor spends on a good newspaper website is about 1 – 2 minutes (it’s much less with many).  Whereas, the average time a reader spends on is over 11 minutes!  An order of magnitude is significant, don’t you think?  We receive regular feedback from our subscribers that they love getting the “whole paper”. 

And the blogosphere doesn’t stop talking about it either.  Here’s a post from TechCrunch this month that might interest you,  where the author talks about the plight of the San Francisco Chronicle.  It received a lot of attention from readers.  What I loved was Mr. Johnson’s comment:

As for the Chron, I read it every day…I like how the newspaper includes something for everyone. You get to choose from the whole selection of stories, in one place, without having to do any work other than flip the page.
Like many old newspapers, the Chron has made many mistakes. Their SFGate web site sucks. It’s a mishmash of a site. Their search functionality doesn’t work very well. You can click on a link that says Today’s Chronicle but it doesn’t look anything like the newspaper. And if you need any help from what passes for support there, good luck in getting a reply.

I’m still waiting for someone to take the whole newspaper, put it into PDF format on the web and make it look exactly like the newspaper all the way. The newspaper format is tried and proven over 150 or more years. It is an optimized way to provide information. But instead, newspapers try to map their proven format into something that looks like everything else on the web, a mess of stories, columns, frames, etc.

This sentiment isn’t new.  I hear it a lot.  Yes, we still get the question about why we chose to go the “replica way” from the media, and I’ve listed here a number of reasons why we chose this format.  But at the end of the day…the best reason of all is that readers spend more time on our site than other newspaper websites and they tell us they like the newspaper format and our digital features.  And what could be better than giving customers what they ask for?