The struggle for large urban newspapers to stay in business has largely been an effort on the part of their managements to increase revenue on the Internet faster than it is lost in their print editions. It has become clear that the race is becoming one that newspapers are unlikely to win. Internet revenue for some online editions is actually dropping. Print advertising is going down as fast as it did in 2008. Several large newspapers including The Rocky Mountain News have folded in the last year. The owners of other papers, particularly The Boston Globe and The San Francisco Chronicle, have threatened to fold these properties unless workers are willing to accept significant cuts in people or compensation.
A few newspaper websites have extremely large numbers of visitors. Online research service Compete.com reported that NYTimes.com had nearly 15 million unique visitors in May. The New York Times Company (NYT) reported that its online revenue fell 8% to $42.2 million in the first quarter, despite the size of the flagship paper’s website and other online properties such as Boston.com, the website affiliated with The Boston Globe. Online revenue was only 12.8% of the company’s sales, hardly adequate to have a significant impact on a firm in severe financial trouble. The Washington Post Company’s newspaper revenue associated with online publishing fell 8% to $23 million in the first quarter of 2009. Washingtonpost.com had 8.7 million unique visitors in May, which makes it a large website, but clearly not big enough. Newspaper publishing revenue at the Post was $160.9 million in Q1, down 22% from the same period a year ago. The company losing revenue that fast cannot afford to have its online revenue shrink and account for only 14% of total sales.
Some of the largest newspaper operations in the United States have filed for Chapter 11 since 24/7 Wall St. put out its ratings a year ago. These include The Tribune Company, parent of The Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune, The Sun-Times Media Group, parent of The Chicago Sun-Times, and the parent of The Philadelphia Inquirer.
The latest publicly available numbers show online versions of newspapers can no longer be seen as a way for dailies to support themselves as their traditional revenues drop. Even at companies where 15% of the sales come from online operations, the amount is not great enough to carry the costs of large editorial and business staffs. The newspaper industry is looking for a way to save itself from a long recession and operations such as craigslist which have taken a great deal of their revenue. Moving content online may bring in additional sales but it will not do anything more than buy time for the industry to find other solutions. In some rare cases where newspapers have to fold their print editions, they may be able to keep a small staff in an attempt to salvage a part of their businesses. The most important experiment to see if this will work is going on in Ann Arbor, Michigan where the only paper is online. The Ann Arbor News will be closed on July 23, and plans a small twice-a-week printed online guide.
Methodology: The 24/7 Wall St. rankings cover the website of the top 25 newspapers in America based on daily circulation according to The Audit Bureau of Circulations. These figures are as of March 2009. It is worth noting that many of the papers on this list lost 10% or more of their circulation since the measurements a year ago and several lost over 15%.
The online versions of these newspaper were evaluated somewhat differently than they were last year. Comparing them to one another to define quality leaves out the successes and failures of all of the other frequently visited content sites on the web. It is not fair to ask a paper in Cleveland to match the design and function of MSNBC.com or AOL.com. However, there are things that those sites do which cost nothing. Usually, this is how they present content in terms of placement and design and where they put navigation and multimedia sections. Even extremely simple sites like Yahoo! are carefully laid out. Owners of web destinations with tens of millions of visitors learn a great deal about visitor behavior. The way that large sites are set up is transparent, and, in terms of content and basic navigation, can be copied without any significant investment. 24/7 looked at newspaper websites in the context of what works across the Internet at news, entertainment, sports sites, and blogs on the assumption that newspapers have the opportunity to benchmark “best practices”.
The sites were rated “A” though “F” based on: 1) strength of content; 2) ease of use and navigation; 3) use of new technology and online tools including comment sections, message boards, and multimedia; 4) layout; 5) presence of a strong set of advertisers; and 6) size of audience based on unique visitor data from May measurements by Compete.com. Each listing shows Compete data for May 2009 and in brackets the figures for the same month a year ago.
The most critical conclusion of the review is that the quality of newspaper sites is remarkably uneven from property to property. Some of the smaller papers which are likely to have extremely limited financial resources have done excellent jobs of engaging readers, using the best tools for online content sites, and producing pages which add to the experience of readers of the printed product. These sites are more likely to draw multiple visits from the same users throughout the day, The Holy Grail of internet content reader behavior. Other sites appear to be designed to keep readers away. The wide array of quality among the properties would indicated that there in not much benchmarking going on in the industry, and with the increased risk that more papers will fold, not using standardized measurements of success and excellence to make improvements is a shame.
The Wall Street Journal and USA Today rank as the top two newspapers in the United States based on circulation. Ratings for them are not included here despite the fact that they are part of the list. They are national properties which have access to large corporate budgets which are not available to the other websites reviewed, with the possible exception of nytimes.com. The WSJ.com is as good as any content website on the Internet including those not produced by newspaper companies. It has invested large amounts of money in interactive features, the use of blogs, reader response tools, multimedia sections including video and charting, and tremendous amounts of current and archived data. However, WSJ.com is not a general newspaper site. News Corporation (NWS) is in the early stage of changing the paper and its online edition into something more than a financial property.
The final yardstick used by 24/7 Wall St. is whether the online edition of a newspaper is actually better than the print edition. As one expert told 24/7, “The strength of a newspaper web site is its ability to present almost endless information, far more than it could ever afford to print. The best newspapers take advantage of this by explaining in their print editions where additional information on a particular subject can be found — the full text of a speech or a court document, for instance.”
1. The New York Times. Grade: A. Average daily circulation: 1,039,031 (down 3.55%). Compete unique visitors: 14,942,016 (14,736,155 a year ago). NYTimes.com is the best newspaper website in the country, which should be the case based on the property’s budget and access to an extraordinary amount of extremely high quality writing. The Times does not let it end there. The site is clearly designed, easy to navigate, and filled with usefully multimedia and interactive features. Comments, video, graphs, and slideshows are usually grouped close to the features which they are meant to illuminate making them easy to find and use. Navigation for virtually the entire site runs down the left hand side of the most pages and the navigation for major sections of the website runs are the top of nearly every page. Renderings of the pages from the physical paper are readily available and easy to load. NYTimes.com gives readers free access to a number of features includes “Times Wire”, a sort of up-to-the-minute list of what the paper has to offer. A great deal of the content can be customized for individual readers. The site has a number of especially good “blog” sections including one on news entitled “The Lede”, one on technology called “Bits”, and the business section called “DealBook”. NYTimes.com has generously provided the reader with access to a large amount of content from other sources. People can get e-mail alerts and RSS feeds from nearly every section of the newspaper. The website carries advertising from blue chip marketers, although like most large internet properties it has succumbed to the temptation of running ads for phone psychics and other lowlife products and services. Based on the desperate need that all newspaper sites have for revenue, that is at least partially understandable. The only significant criticism of nytimes.com is that one some pages that amount of content and number of links available to the reader is so overwhelming that it becomes confusing. This happens most often in the sports and travel sections.
2. The Los Angeles Times. Grade: B-. Average daily circulation: 723,181 (down 6.55%). Compete unique visitors: 7,325,211 (4,776,264). It is worth noting in passing that latimes.com has enjoyed tremendous growth in its online audience over the last year. Latimes.com is a good online reflection of the printed paper but it does not go far enough beyond that to be a first tier newspaper website. The navigation from the front page is clean, but there are blocks of stories that sit in the middle of the page without any explanation as to why they are there or which parts of latimes.com they belong to. The editors have, intelligently, stuffed the homepage with opportunities to read the paper on a Kindle, buy tickets to events, get traffic information, find jobs, get movie show times or TV listings. These are randomly sprinkled without any clear reasons for their placement. It is telling that although latimes.com does have some premier advertising, the site has a very large number of ads for locating sex offender websites and crime museums. Much of latimes.com has little interactivity and only a modest amount of multimedia content. In many cases blogs are hard to find and not always part of the sections which they are related to. One of the things that the editors do that undercuts the value of the site is keep stories on page which are several days old. This is either a reminder that the staff is shrinking or that the managers overseeing the site are careless.
3. The Washington Post. Grade: B-.Average daily circulation: 665,383 (down 1.16%) Compete unique visitors: 8,747,585 (7,602,093). The weakness of washingtonpost.com is mostly its front page. Except for the navigation bar across the top, the editors have done very little to entice the readers inside the site. There are only a few stories on the home pages that are identified with any of the wide variety of sections in the newspaper. The best way to describe the front page of washingtonpost.com is barren. The inside sections do not make much use of multimedia. The video ads get more prominent placement than some editorial video content. The editors have provided easy access to readers who want to comment on individual stories. There is a section next to some stories for related articles, powered by Evri. The Post has made a poor selection in picking the service. Searched for articles from sites other than washingpost.com sometimes brings up no results. The service is not used on many of the site’s pages. To their credit, the editors have created an especially clean looking site that is not busy and has easy-to-find sections using the navigation bar at the top of the page. The headlines and story summaries are clear and well-placed. The site has a great deal of premium advertising and link ads from Google are usually highly relevant to the content and sections.
4. The New York Daily News. Grade: B+. Average daily circulation: 602,857 (down 14.26%) Compete unique visitors: 5,965,574 (2,338,654) The front page of the nydailynews.com website is about as well designed as a newspaper homepage can be. The sections are neat and logically place. The layout is easy to follow. Each section is put into a block of its own. Each block has pictures and simple headlines. Video has a section of its own, which means it is an amalgamation of content from all of the sections. That is a disadvantage to the reader who is looking for relevant content, but the section is well-done. The columnists and bloggers run down the right hand rail. Inside the site, there is very, very little to engage the reader making the online versions of The Daily News too much like the print edition. The best Internet content tools are misused. Video is given a back seat to print. There are few places for readers to regularly make comments. Columnists within the sections of the online paper are often buried along with blogs. This takes the personality of the paper and puts it under a bushel basket. The local news section does more to pull in the reader than most online papers do. That makes sense because The Daily News does not pretend to be more than a product for New Yorkers. The local online section runs a piece called the “Impact Panel” which talks about the struggles of people in the region as they work their way through the recession. Nydailynews.com carries some premier local and national advertisers but also has its share of bogus weight loss and colon cleansing ads. Nydailynews.com is an impressive effort, but it is missing some of the important ingredients that keep readers on a site when they visit or encourages them to back later.
5. New York Post. Grade C. Average dally paid circulation: 558,140 (down 20.55%) Compete unique visitors: 4,039,449 (2,279,242). It is hard to believe that NYPost.com is operating by News Corp which owns WSJ.com and huge social network MySpace. All of that online experience would be useful for redesigning nypost.com. The front page of the site is sloppy. Multimedia is fairly well used at the top of the homepage and the editors are smart to allow readers to follow live events when they are of interest to people who live in and around the city. The headlines and text that should take people to stories inside the paper’s sections are an odd mix of typefaces, colors, and mismatched videos and photos. The video section is poorly cropped and randomly placed in terms of its relationship to anything else on the site. There is not much relief on the main pages for the major departments like “News” and “Sports”. Text ads from sponsors are pushed into the middle of the content high up on the pages. It is a blessing that the paper has the ads, but they interrupt whatever chance the reader might have of scanning down the page for content that might be of interest. The bottom parts of these pages are clean and easy to use, but many readers may not make it through the design mine field of graphics and text up higher on the pages. Individual stories are actually well laid out, and are the most attractive and cleanest part of the site. The most graphically sophisticated sections of the site are the places with entertainment content which is, not surprisingly, the bread and butter of the print edition.
6. The Chicago Tribune. Grade: B. Average daily paid circulation: 501,202 (down 7.47%). Compete unique visitors: 3,035,181 (2,672,357) The top part of the front page of the Tribune website makes a good start. It has a “Breaking News” section which is put next to a link to several current videos. Immediately below are three photos with stories meant to pull the reader into different sections of the website. At the center of the homepage is the main story, easily identified by a large photo and appropriately large typeface. Immediate adjacent to that are most of the important stories of the day. The reader has not gotten very far and most of what is relevant or important to the editors is clearly evident at the top of the one single home page. The designers of the website have made a mistake that most large newspaper designers don’t. There is no navigation for the online versions of the Chicago Tribune across the top of the website. It has been buried on the left. For readers willing to work their way down the page, each section is there with its most important headlines, but it causes the visitor unnecessary work. On the positive side the editors have put all of the connections to major social networks in one box. If a visitor wants to put a piece of content on Facebook or list it at Digg, the process is made simple. The Tribune understands the importance of its local appeal. The site has an excellent section to follow traffic, gas prices, and alerts from around the Chicago area and a radar screen to track weather. The site also has a section called ChicagoPoints where the visitor can register and earn credits for gifts by visiting websites that are Tribune partners or watching and rating web videos. The Tribune gets commercial benefits with its marketers. The reader gets a reason to keep coming back to the site. The tools for allowing readers to comment on stories or recommend them are common, but they are well-used and well-placed.
7. Houston Chronicle. Grade: D+. Average daily circulation: 425,138 (down 13.96%) Compete unique visitors: 1,729.604 (2,228,634). The Houston Chronicle website is known as Chron.com. This site is a bit of a mess and is as good an example of what not to do with a newspaper site as any in this survey. The navigation across the homepage includes twenty five tabs some of which are labeled poorly enough so that it is hard for the reader to understand what they are. The front page really does not have a headline per se. The stories at the top of the page are features which don’t appear to be chosen to compel the reader to go further into the website. Some of the stories near the top of the page are from the Associated Press, an indication that the editors don’t feel that they have enough compelling content of their own. The stories do have the basic social network and reader interaction tools including the ability to comment on stories and share them on Twitter or Facebook. The large sections of the paper like “Business” are only a long list of headlines, some of which have brief story summaries. The only illustrations on many of these pages are low resolution headshots of bloggers. The main news page has nearly no illustrations at all. Multimedia features are completely missing, a sign that Chronicle management treats the online paper as an after-thought. Entertainment sections are the only well-designed portions of online newspaper. Most Chron.com sections look like cheap blogs. The site runs a fair amount of local advertising, much of it not very well designed. The Houston Chronicle is owned by Hearst.
8. Arizona Republic Grade: B+. Average daily circulation: 389,701. (down 5.72%) Compete unique visitors: 1,269,571 (1,156,655) AZCentral.com is well designed and easy for the visitor to navigate. The front page features a prominent main story, several features, and access to photos and music. The site focuses on local news and even has what might be called a hyper-local section where information is broken out by sections of the city and surrounding areas. Below a summary of news by section is a multimedia area with photos and videos that runs horizontally all of the way across the page. It is almost certain to engage users and bring them into sections of the site that they might not otherwise be looking for. The designers of the AZCentral website are clever. They have put a box very visibly at the bottom of the front page with the heading “Get AZCentral.com Anywhere”. This gives the reader a chance to receive the paper on a mobile device, by RSS feed, or text. The inside sections of the site keep the neat appearance and there are 30 to 40 relevant headlines in major sections of the site like “Business”. Inside pages do downgrade the visibility of blogs and multimedia content in favor of text stories. Advertising from local premium marketers seems strong, but text ads include miracle weight loss treatments and teeth whitening products, a sign that the online version of the paper may not be doing so well financially.
9. The Denver Post Grade: B. Average daily circulation: 371,728 (no meaningful comparison because other local daily folded) Compete unique visitors: 1,050,055 (804,081) The Post is now the only daily left in Denver now that The Rocky Mountain News has folded. The online version of the paper has a clean, pedestrian design, but there are early clues that the editors know what they are doing. Next to each of the important stories is a link showing how many comments the piece has received. Many visitors are tempted to look at the stories with the most comments which pull readers who otherwise might go elsewhere further into the site. At the upper right on the front page, the names and photos of the paper’s columnist rolls by one by one, another chance to get the reader’s interest. The center of the front page is filled with simple headlines. The video and photo sections are on the left, not easily found. The main section pages inside the site have very few illustrations and there is not much use of multimedia content. What the editors do well is put their blogs close to the main stories and the sections on “Most Commented” and “Most Popular” close by where they can entice the reader. Sections that should lend themselves to a lot of graphic treatment, such as“Sports” are light on photos, video, and illustrations, a real lost opportunity for the editors to keep the visitor at the site or bring him back. The website has a moderate amount of local premium advertising.
10. Newsday. Grade A-: Average daily circulation: 368,194 (down 3.01%) Compete unique visitors: 3,530,667 (2,056,778). The Tribune Company, which is bankrupt, sold its controlling interest in Newsday to cable company Cablevision (CVC) late last year. The transaction did not work out well for the buyer, which had to write-off $402 million at the end of last year. Perhaps it helps that Newsday is owned by a parent that specializes in broadband and video content because the paper’s website uses multimedia content extremely well, starting with the top of the front page. The reader can scroll though five stories, each illustrated to attract him further into the website. The editors are intelligent to put local content immediately below the top pieces. Newsday’s circulation sweet spot is just east of New York City. There is no reason for the paper to compete with the three NYC papers on either national or metropolitan stories. Near the local stories, Newsday keeps its own set of “TV Channels” on general stories, Long Island news, and sports. The balance of the home page is devoted to the rest of the sections of the paper. It might be easier for readers if the navigation for the site was across the top. They editors gamble and put it down the side and put buttons like “Hot Topic” at the top of the home page. It is probably not a good bet. Readers would like to figure out where they are going with a minimum of effort. The inside section pages keep the simple design from the Newsday front page and reader on most pages are show fairly prominent links for “Most Viewed”, “Most E-mailed”, and “Hot Topic” stories, a trick proven to be effective by the large content portals like AOL and MSN. It is a neat piece of benchmarking of larger sites. Newsday carries some local premium advertising but is light on search link ads.
11. The Dallas Morning News. Grade: D-. Average paid circulation: 332.901 (down 9.88%) Compete unique visitors: 1,640,805 (1,968,150) Dallasnews.com looks like it was put together by The Mad Hatter. Poorly designed traffic and weather sections often sit at the top of the homepage. There are some headlines that have no explanations. Others are explained too much so that reading the story would be redundant. The visitor cannot expect any consistency as he moves around the site. The first few stories are followed by blogs and a photo section where the content seems to have been picked at random. The rest of the homepage has other major sections with their primary stories highlighted. Local news does not get much exposure. The front page also has an area for finding local events called “GuideLive”. Trying to get it to work correctly requires a user’s manual, which Dallasnews.com does not provide. The front pages have virtually no significant multimedia content. The odd design goes inside to most sections. Type faces are tiny. The “Spotlight” sections, which should be an important way to keep readers on the site, are well hidden. Some of the features which should be useful like a list of home prices over the last several quarters are hard to find. The mixture of editorial content and commercial enterprise in the “Sports” section is unusually troubling. A reader looking at a story about the Dallas Cowboys has the opportunity to buy a $17.95 team jersey. Joseph Pulitzer is spinning in his mausoleum. “Sports” does have some video, but the presentation is small and the design is poorly cropped making it look amateurish. Blogs are well-highlighted and the site does a good job of flagging comments and recommendations of individual stories. Dallasnews.com seems to get a good share of local premium advertising.
12. The Minneapolis Star Tribune. Grade: B. Average daily circulation 320,076 (down .71%) Compete unique visitors: 1,380,576 (1,449,800) The paper is in bankruptcy and trouble with the Teamsters union could lead to even greater problems at the paper. The latest information on the labor issue is the two sides have a tentative agreement. The website gets the reader off to a good site with one of the more sophisticated multimedia sections on any newspaper site. It does a particularly good job of giving the reader seven pieces of content to pull him inside the paper. The “Latest News” section is at the very top of the page. Immediately to the right are the “Most Viewed” and “Most E-mailed” articles, a section which is important, but is usually buried well down the page at other newspaper sites. The front page gets a good deal more confusing about half way down with a mix of columnists, multimedia, and hard news stories which are put into place without order or apparent reason. At the very bottom of the page are the “Top Headlines”. That is hardly an ideal place to put them. The navigation across the top of the page is extremely well done. Each tab gives the reader several choices. Those looking for “News” can go directly to sections on subject like “Politics” or “National”. The larger “Sports” and “Lifestyle” areas of the site are broken out in the same way, making it easy for the reader to get to content of interest rapidly and without frustration. The design of the main pages for the major sections is a bit amateurish but the headlines and photo are cleanly placed. The ability for readers to make comments or share content on social networks is basic. For some reason the site gets away from its fairly clean navigation in its “Lifestyle” section which is a mad and unruly collection of photo, headlines, and video. The site has a reasonable amount of local premium advertising.
13. Chicago Sun-Times. Grade: B. Average daily circulation: 312,141 (down .04%). Compete unique visitors: 1,978,026 (1,804,585) The parent of the Sun-Times filed Chapter 11 earlier this year, so the future of the No.2 paper in Chicago is up in the air. Suntimes.com is a particularly good website and an example of what a newspaper which almost certain has a modest online budget can do. The top of the front page has a horizontal block of five photos which accompany headlines for stories. They are drawn from different sections of the site and are designed to get users to move to parts of the site that they might not otherwise visit. The feature is often used on large sophisticated websites, so the Sun-Times editors appear to be benchmarking what the Internet’s content experts use. Immediately below these photos is a scrolling “New Alert” section, a good way to use “live” headlines to keep the visitor interested. Unlike many newspaper sites, Suntimes.com has a main headline and photo to let the reader know what the editors think is important. The first news section below the main story is on local news. This is where a site like Suntimes.com has to do well, especially because it almost certainly has a resource disadvantage compared to it larger rival the Tribune. The guides to the paper’s sections that are further down the front page are not attractive or well designed, but they are a reasonable introduction to what is inside the paper. The paper’s sections are not well designed. They feature low resolution photos. The story summaries are well done. The Sun-Times does something clever and useful for the reader. It links out to websites that allow the visitor to cover a subject in more depth. For example, the business section has links to much larger financial sites. The sites open in a new window, so the reader is not taken away from Suntimes.com. Each section has plenty of story headlines for completeness, sometimes several dozen. To give the reader more related content the site uses Blogburst, which is too bad. It is probably the least useful of the blog aggregators and tends to being back relatively useless links. But, the Sun-Times deserves credit for the successful effort to make the site a very complete news destination for the reader. The website gets its share of national and local premium ads.
14. The San Francisco Chronicle’s website is known as SFGate.com. Grade: B-. Average daily circulation 312,118 (down 15.72%) Compete unique visitors: 3,416,506 (3,019,183) The paper is owned by Hearst which recently threatened to close it. Hearst said the 2008 losses at the Chronicle were $50 million and would be worse this year. The paper is still open, but had to make substantial cost cuts. The website shows that, even with a modest and probably shrinking budget, an online product can be fairly well done. The top of the homepage uses the triple feature design that has become popular with so many large content sites. It is well illustrated and draws the reader into sections of the website just as it has been designed to do. The rest of the home page is a little messy, but “Reader’s Views”, a user-created content section, is highlighted fairly far up on the page, making it clear that the website is not just about what the editors want to present. There is a photo and video section. It is too bad that this is not better integrated into the balance of the site. The content blocks that run down the balance of the home page are clean and inviting with photos, a main story, and several more headlines. Some of the main pages for major sections are text heavy. The editors have not devoted as much space as they should to photo and multimedia content. The comment and social network sharing functions are ordinary, appearing to be an afterthought. The main news section is also dominated by text, but the subsections have photos and are easy guides for what is in the rest of the paper. Blogs are not exactly hidden, but they are not part of the featured content in most parts of the site. Where video is used, in sports as an example, the production is fairly well done. SFGate.com carried a fair amount of advertising and its text ads, provided by Yahoo! (YHOO) are well-matched to the stories.
15. The Boston Globe. Grade: D. Average daily circulation: 302,638 (down 13.68%). Compete unique visitors: 4,503,027 (3,478,239). The New York Times Company (NYT) threatened to close The Globe because it will lose $85 million this year. After contentious labor negotiation, the paper is still open, but management’s fight with the Guild is not over. Looking beyond that to Boston.com, the editors would substantially improve the look and usefulness of their website if they simply borrowed some of the basic elements of NYTimes.com. The navigation bar at the top of the home page has only a few options, which makes it harder for users to get to specific parts of the site. The editors allow readers to look at videos for most of the main stories, but multimedia takes a back seat on the homepage with the main navigation for it being well toward the bottom. The section organization on the front page is sloppy. A story on a local murder runs opposite news about the NBA finals. The front page columns are poorly designed. The editors do almost nothing with the tools they have to create reader priorities. Almost none of the stories on the inside “News” page are illustrated. There is a “Top Stories” section near the head of the page to engage readers. The rest of the page looks like a mock-up from “Google News”. Even the “Sports” section is poorly illustrated. The “Sports Video” section sits relatively low on the page and is cropped so many of the headlines are cut-off. The design is simply careless. “Today’s Top Globe Sports Stories” is near the bottom of the page, instead of at the top which would be an industry “best practice”. The editors do offer content widgets to get their stories onto other sites, but this has a very limited audience. The area for readers to get news onto their mobile devices is well done. Boston.com is a mishmash of content, much of it very good, but its poor design alienates and confuses the reader from his first visit to the homepage. The site carries a lot of local premium advertising.
16. The Cleveland Plain Dealer. Grade: D+. Daily circulation: 291,630 (down 11.70%). Compete unique visitors: 1,284,615 (828,712). Cleveland.com makes a good start on its front page. It puts what it calls “Real Time News” at the top of the page and pushes a great deal of local content through that part of the site. The editors must assume that the local readers love sports, and they are probably right, because coverage that ranges from the major leagues to the local teams is close to the top of the front page. The balance of the important sections run down the center of the page until they reach the “Most Commented” stories which should probably be dropped since many of the pieces there get well under 100 comments. The editors have used this to take up a lot of space with something which has nearly no value. The navigation for the site is intelligently done. Below the standard navigation bar is a second set of links to local stories by regions of the city and its suburbs. Most of the inside sections look like they may have been cut and pasted from the print edition. They run with a photo, a headline, and a brief summary. In many cases, the summary may be too good, preventing the reader from going any further. The lists of content down the left and right sides of the page are confusing, use tiny print, and do not have any clear priority. The editors seem to be throwing darts to decide what content takes priority. The “Sports” section does have some video, but most of the site comes up short on multimedia. Whatever chances readers have to interact with the editors or other readers are well concealed. The site has some local premium ads, but it is a bad sign that it runs a number of ads for cleaning arteries, whitening yellow teeth, and getting better abs.
17. The Detroit Free Press. Grade: B. Average daily circulation: 290,730 (down 5.90%). Compete unique visitors: 1,252,629 (1,159,728) The two Detroit papers, the Free Press and the News, cut back daily deliveries from seven days to three. That puts a great deal of pressure on their websites to keep the reader engaged for the balance of the week. Freep.com, the online version of The Detroit Free Press, delivers the goods. The navigation at the top of the front page covers the standard inside sections like news, business, and sports. The editors have intelligently added tabs just below for “Top Headlines”, “Columns”, “Staff Blogs”, and “You On Freep.com” the personalized version of the paper’s content. The “Top Headlines” section gives the reader a good summary of the current headlines. The editors play “Local News” prominently and in the center of the home page. “Most Popular” stories are immediately to the right at a spot on the site which is likely to get heavy traffic. This is “state of the art” as far as web design is concerned. The other news sections on the front page run in easy to find blocks with headlines which are large enough to read, but not overwhelming. The social media connection section is high on the front page, giving those readers who have an interest in sharing or receiving content through Web 2.0 methods an easy way to do it. Inside sections are clean, but not well enough illustrated. Even the “Autos/Business” section is light on photos and multimedia content. Video is tucked off to the side part way down the page. Detroit is a sports-centric city and this is not properly exploited in the “Sports” section which is mostly text. The photo galleries on most pages are complete but not well-positioned. The site has too many “wrinkle cream” ads to claim that it is a financial success.
18. The Philadelphia Inquirer website is called Philly.com. Grade: D-. Average daily circulation: 288,298 (down 13.72%) Compete unique visitors: 1,943,551 (1,230,053) The poor design starts with the homepage and then works its way to almost every section of the website. The “Most Commented” articles list is tucked high up on the front page next to the “Home” section, an incongruous positioning that is the product of poor design. The “Latest Headlines” have designations that they are written by Inquirer writers. It is as if the editors are saying that if the stories were from somewhere else would be an advantage. The messy design does not improve until half way down the home page where the main sections actually begin. These are simple and neat. Just below those there is a multimedia section and then another hodge podge of sections and quick links that look like they were arranged by a deranged designer. Inside the website the main news page is mostly a collection of simple links without any design features to make them attractive. It is not clear whether stories are ordered by importance, time stamp, or some random mechanical software. The online paper has section called “What’s Happening” which has almost no content at all. It is nothing more than a search for jobs, cars, real estate, and rentals. The best video content is in the business section which says a great deal about the paucity of multimedia content elsewhere at the site. A section called “Most Popular Photos” floats through a number of sections without any context or connection to the sections themselves. The editors do very little in any of the websites pages to interact with readers. The site has a fair amount of advertising from premium marketers.
19. The Star Ledger. Grade: F. Average daily circulation: 287,082 (down 16.82%). Compete unique visitors: 2,727,073 (1,241,103). Advance Communications, the parent of The Star Ledger based in Newark, threatened to shut the paper down eleven months ago, unless the employees would give up over 200 jobs. They did. The paper’s website, NJ.com, is the worst one in the survey. It is confusing from the start with the most prominent section at the top of the page set up to give readers a chance to “Relive your Jersey Shore weekend.” Probably very few people actually went to the beach last weekend, and many who could not make the trip missed out because of the recession or a lost job. NJ.com looks a lot like Cleveland.com, which makes sense since they are owned by the same parent. Whatever discretion the editors of the Star Ledger had to deviate from the site’s cookie cutter formula, they used to the detriment of the reader. The “Business” section lead-in on the home page is simply a poll about wedding guests. No one would guess by looking that the stock market or economy even exist. The only really intelligent decision that the editors make on the front page is to put video content near the top and allow people to submit their own video content, a smart way to promote interaction. Matters get worse at the paper’s inside sections. Photos look like they were taken with disposable cameras. The sports section has the appearance of one long blog. Almost all of the stories run based on what time they were filed. Some of the most important stories of the last day disappear to the bottom of the page. That makes story selection mechanical instead of editorial. The same madness carries over to other sections like “Business” where the reader could use some help determining the priority of the news. NJ.com does is probably not prospering. The most prominent ad is for colon cleansing, which is ironic given the quality of the paper and the way is set up so it will not betray any human hand or intelligence.
20. St. Petersburg Times. Grade:. A-. Average daily circulation: 283,093 (down 10.42%). Compete unique visitors: 897,116 (615,043). The paper and its website, Tampabay.com, are affiliated with the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, so the ownership of the company is not held by a public corporation or a group of private owners. Tampabay.com shows what a relative small daily paper can do with ingenuity and an eye toward what the largest and most successful content sites on the internet do. The sites navigation is crisp and direct. Unlike some other online newspapers, the reader never has to look hard to see where he is or find out where he is going. The main story on the front page is clearly what the editor means to show as the main story. It has an appropriate headline and graphics. Other important headlines and stories run to the immediate right of the feature content. Across the top of the news pages is one of the most engaging pieces of content used by any newspaper site. Called “All Eyes” It is a look at the wider world through photos. It offers the reader a miniature of what Life Magazine was in its day, an unexpected essay or images from all over the world. Another idiosyncratic section at the top of the page is “Mug Shot” a collection of people recently arrest in the Tampa Bay area. Looking at it is nearly irresistible. Immediately below it are the paper’s “Most E-mailed” stories. Just below the main stories is a horizontal line of images and videos, eight in all. The reader cannot help seeing them as he skims down the page and they are an excellent way to draw visitors further into the site. A large video and multimedia section runs just below that. The rest of the front page is rounded out by well-illustrated introductions to the other parts of the paper. The navigation bar at the top of the site’s pages allows the reader to see the subsections at the website so that they do not have to click through several pages to find what interest them. The clean design runs through most of the site and the lack of clutter allows the editors to run nearly 100 headlines in some sections. These are broken into sections so that visitors can skim them without having to look at each story. Video is well-placed on most pages. Politics is covered in a series of excellent blogs that give the reader information about local and state activities. The “Sports” section puts video and other multimedia content were they should be, at the top of the page. Advertising is sparse, so it is not likely that Tampa.com does much for its paper’s bottom line.
21. The Oregonian. Grade: C-. Average daily circulation: 268,512 (down 11.76%). Compete unique visitors. 1,013,461 (912,759) Oregonlive.com as the site is called, is relatively clean looking, but the type is so small that most people over 50 cannot use it without reading glasses. Since few people under 30 read papers, the Oregonian online has not left itself much of an audience. The site’s navigation is well-done, and intelligently focuses on local content. The editors make a mistake listing their multimedia section by showing only text and expecting that the reader will take the bait and go to an unknown destination to find the content. The front page gives a lot of space to the sites large number of blogs, but in many cases it is not at all clear what the blogs are about. “Travels With Terry” is a good example. Who is Terry and where is he going? Oregonlive.com is another of the Advance Publication sites. It has done better with the template it was given than any of its stable mates. It gives the readers more multimedia options. In some cases it is not clear immediately which videos are from advertisers and which are from the editors. Unshackled from the Newhouse design imperatives, the site might work relatively well. There is a modest amount of local premium advertising.
22. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Grade: B. Average daily circulation: 261,828 (down 19.91%) Compete unique visitors: 1,716,818 (1,417,049) AJC.com, at the Atlanta paper’s site is known, takes a remarkably simple approach to putting content on the internet, and for the most part, it works. The main story sits where it should front and center at the top of the page, and there is a “photo essay” to its left. The “Latest Headlines” run below the main story and the text is large enough to read and is not crowded. At the top right is a section called “The Buzz”, mostly about entertainment, for people who are interested in “news light” Those visitors don’t have to be bothered with more important stories. Under the news headlines is a horizontal bar of multimedia content drawn from a number of sections of the paper. It is an intelligent way to let visitors “shop” for things that they might find interesting beyond the content they normally read. The headlines for other sections run directly down the center of the front page, neat and easy to follow. The editors have intelligently put the links to get mobile contest, RSS feeds, text alerts, and newsletter directly to the right of this content. Video content is directly to the left. The design of some of the inside sections including “Sports” is choppy while other parts of the site like “Entertainment” are very well designed. AJC.com has made the mistake of being inconsistent by abandoning what works on it home pages and it some sections for a chaotic look in others. The “Business” section, for example, carries most of the successful home page navigation inside to set up its pages. AJC.com has run the risk, in some parts of the site where it radically changes design, of making people think they have left the Journal Constitution completely. The site carries a large amount of local premium advertising.
23. San Diego Union-Tribune. Grade B:. Average daily circulation: 261,253 (down 9.53%). Compete unique visitors: 993,170 (994,797) The Union-Tribune was sold by the Copley Press to private equity firm Platinum Equity which has continued to make cost cuts. Signonsandiego.com, the paper’s website, is one of the better ones in the survey. The front page runs what the editors have picked as the stories that deserve attention down the center of the page. A box of photos to the left serves as a way to get readers into other parts of the paper’s website. Blogs are available to the immediate right. Below the main news in an entertainment guide, a wise acknowledgment of the reasons that people go to local news destination. Directly under that is a well-done multimedia section. All of the editor’s choices of good content by section take up the bottom half of the page. The editors made a good decision by putting more navigation at the bottom of the page so that the reader can move from there directly into the paper. The inside sections are not attractive, but are very functional. The amount of content is plentiful and easy to find. The multimedia options on most pages look amateurish. The editors do step up the interactivity pace by a fair amount in “Sports” and “Entertainment” where blogs and forums are used to keep the reader on the site. It is probably unwise to run “Multimedia” as a separate section instead of integrating it throughout the paper. There is not much reason to visit a section when it is not clear what is there. The “forums” are well promoted, and it shows. Some of the topics have over one million posts, a sign that the editors know how to keep readers engaged by sharing information with one another. The premium advertising on the site is light.
Douglas A. McIntyre