Newspaper websites overwhelm readers, should declutter

Picking up a newspaper, a reader expects to see an editor’s judgement of the most important stories that day. But this hope is false-placed on the web, with many newspapers so overindulging in cheap online space that homepages become cluttered to the point of ruining the user experience.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | July 12, 2013

“Most newspaper websites are messes of wretched excess,” veteran media executive Alan D. Mutter wrote on his blog “Reflections of a Newsosaur.” “ … With layers of news, advertising, promotions and whatnot, the array is so dense and disorganized that you don’t know where to look, what to do and — if you happen to click off the page — where to go next.”

Newspapers have a clutter problem. With many of the last remaining free news sites erecting paywalls, keeping up user engagement and interest is more important than ever, and clutter is a sure-fire way to frustrate and lose potential subscribers.

Web Design Trends 2013 identified simplicity as “the new paradigm” for web design, emphasizing that sites should forfeit the bells and whistles they used to tout and instead strip down to their essential components. To keep readers, newspapers should follow this trend.

On many news sites it takes up to seven scrolls to view the entire homepage, Mutter pointed out. “Cramming 15 pounds of potatoes into the five-pound sack represented by the home page,” editors tack on ads, weather, promotions, widgets and all too many stories, leaving readers scrambling to find the top news they need, Mutter said.

Instead, news sites should return to the judicious content selection that is necessary in print. Newspapers should approach homepage design with a mobile mindset, eliminating all non-essential elements, suggested Mario Garcia, Jr., president and CEO of Garcia Interactive, which advises newspapers on digital strategy and design. USA Today’s new design, created by Fantasy Interactive and launched in September, masters this precept.

“We really wanted to focus the experience and allow people to really have almost snippets of what they care about as opposed to sort of a soup of content that they have to find their way through,” Irene Pereyra, Fi’s global director of UX and strategy, said in a September interview with Poynter.

As you can see, the new design draws attention to the top news stories, without invasive detraction from ads or other content. The simple, block format gives readers a focal point without overwhelming them. USA Today does not try to squeeze in its dozens of stories but instead relies on its design concept to carry readers through to the rest of the site.

“Your readers already trust your brand, but they also watch TV, go on social media, listen to radio and download apps,” Garcia wrote. “You’re not going to impress and keep them with depth of knowledge. You’re going to do that with an experience that’s relevant and convenient. That’s how you get their loyalty.”

As Mutter pointed out, the soon-to-be-launched redesigned (below right) also does a good job of streamlining its current homepage (left). The simplified navigation bar trims 11 sections, both topic and medium-based, to four buttons. Display is cleaner, with only the main story teased and the others restricted to headlines. The design changes will hopefully keep readers from being so “stressed out” while browsing.


Editors must remember that only one-third of users discover articles through homepages. The rest are directed through search or social media, Mutter pointed out. So scaling down the front page doesn’t mean readers won’t find other articles. Instead, all article pages should be treated as a secondary entry point to the site. Currently most inside pages are neglected, even though they generate more than half of page views, Mutter said.

“The real challenge is narrowing the focus of your homepage and making it engaging enough that the rest of the features of the site are discovered within the experience, more serendipitously,” Garcia said.

The forthcoming redesigned excells in this area. A pull-out sidebar allows access to other sections, and a scrollable navigation bar at the top of each article links to other stories.

Though de-cluttering is not an easy process, it’s a necessary one for newspapers. Several news outlets have already made this transition. Check out Breaking and The Boston Globe for more examples of successful, simplified design.

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