I’m gradually getting around to the ONA sessions I was not able to attend last week, and here’s one I definitely wish I had: David Wright of NPR discussing online design. He makes a point echoing one of the things said a day earlier by Amy Webb (included in this post) – get the online experience right or the content doesn’t matter.
But David had a better illustration than Amy did. Both asked, more or less, what problem are you trying to solve? David illustrated it with an example from the phone industry. In the post-monopoly, pre-mobile era, Sprint built its brand with a television commercial declaring its service was so good, “you can hear a pin drop.” In the post-mobile era, Verizon struck on the central issue for consumers: “Can you hear me now?” In other words, we went from a landline era, in which customers cared most about how clear the sounds on their phone were, to the mobile one, in which they cared most about whether they could hear anything at all.
In that metaphor, many journalists are stuck at the landline stage, but most of our customers have moved on to mobile phones.
What Amy said better than David was that news people stink at thinking in terms of Web design because we are most concerned with the end destination – our content. But since David’s entire presentation was design, he dwelled longer on that issue (how people get to the content in the first place) and showed just one example of the problem, the home page of a newspaper’s website, where the top navigation had, he said, 152 options (I assume he’s including drop-downs). The only reason for that can be journalists – every editor in charge of each section wants to be sure each “critical” part of his/her section is easy to get to from the home page. It does not help the online reader. Compare the typical news site’s design with what you find on an app designed for tablets, or (like the new business site Quartz) one designed to mimic tablet apps.
What they both said was to design with the online audience in mind. Create the best possible experience and people will come back. Without a good experience, the content alone won’t do it.
All of this echoes an idea from a decade earlier that didn’t (in my opinion) find much acceptance in newspapers: the “experience” newspaper. The argument then, said almost exactly as David put it in his presentation, is that people will pay for a satisfying experience, even if the essential content (the actual content or something similar) is available somewhere else. If it’s true, that more than anything else might be the hope for getting young people who don’t have any news-subscribing habit to pay for news. If it’s not, the future of paid news – aside from major national or regional brands – might be tied entirely to the number of older readers who already are in the habit of paying for news – in other words, already in decline.