INN Member Website Review: October 2015

Map of active IP addresses

In the realm of nonprofit news, the websites of INN members represent the front end of our digital presence and impact. As the newest member of the Products and Technology team — aka the Nerds— I’m working to get acquainted with our members and a site review seemed a good way to start. It’s also a useful every so often to see what we’re collectively doing on the web as a benchmark for future progress.

My review this month of the 100+ INN Member websites shows a very healthy community. I found thousands of examples of insightful reporting, excellent storytelling, and engaging design. As with any sample of 100 websites there are bound to be things we might improve.

I’d like to suggest three priorities we could work on together over the next year:

  1. Responding to the Mobile Challenge
  2. Going Social
  3. What is good design?

Responding to the Mobile Challenge

In State of the News Media 2015, Pew Research Center reports that “39 of the top 50 digital news websites have more traffic...coming from mobile devices than from desktop computers.” Yet a significant number of nonprofit news sites that excel in every other way are not optimized for mobile.

Converting a non-responsive website to cross-device friendliness can be very challenging. The solution used to be providing a “mobile” version along with the “desktop” version of the site. But now with so many different types and sizes of devices and displays, the better practice is to publish a single site for all devices using the techniques of Responsive Web Design.

The speed with which mobile devices have become part of our daily lives is unprecedented in the history of technology. In 1995 there were 80 million mobile phones users worldwide. By 2014 the number of mobile phones reached 5.2 billion, including 2 billion smart phones. The number of smart phone users worldwide is projected to reach 4 billion by 2020.

The smart phone is changing the way people engage with media and each other. In a recent Zogby Analytics survey of millennials, 87 percent said “my smart phone never leaves my side.” 78 percent spend more than two hours a day using their smart phone and 68 percent prefer using their phone over a laptop or desktop computer.

But it’s not just younger demographics who are increasingly going mobile. Since 2008 time spent per day with digital media has more than doubled for all U.S. age groups. As highlighted by Mary Meeker in her Internet Trends 2015 report, almost all of this increase is from media consumption on smart phones.

The integration of smart phones with everyday life is rapidly changing the way people discover, consume, and share news. The urgency of addressing any mobile gap can’t be minimized.

Going Social

Social media have become increasingly important for discovery and sharing of content, with nearly half of digital news-consuming adults saying they use Facebook every week to get news about government and politics. But in some cases social media integration on news sites remains problematic, with bloated tracking scripts or missing Open Graph metadata needed for effective engagement.

I suspect many of us are concerned about the intrusiveness of the big social media players. It’s in their interest to make it easy to share our content on their platforms. This helps us reach new audiences and expand our news impact. But we also understand that their business model is predicated on harvesting as much personal information as possible about the people who visit our websites.

Many of the free widgets we embed on our sites make it easy for people to share our content, at the cost of exposing data about their interests and behavior. Social widgets can also slow website performance. The leading social media players and technologies keep changing. In this environment, developing best practices around social media is very challenging.

What is Good Design?

I’ve been a news professional for 28 years, and a web designer for the past 15. I think design without good content is wasted space. Good reporting on a flawed website can have great impact. But good design applied to great content can make a huge difference.

Ideas about what constitutes “good web design” have changed dramatically over the past decade, and will continue to evolve over the next. Fashions aside, we have learned fundamental lessons about what works for website users. We know people don’t like feeling lost or confused. They don’t enjoy struggling past obstacles to simply read a story.

Website designs can inflict many distractions on visitors in an effort to control their attention. Sometimes it’s important to get across (e.g.) the idea that our organization needs their support. But if we do this in a way that frustrates our users, we’re designing at cross purposes.

Each of us understands this from our own experience. We decide every moment whether to stay on a web page or direct our attention somewhere else. Something is always competing for our attention. As storytellers and designers, our job is to win that competition.

We can help our audiences by providing a distraction-free space to engage with our content. I like the phrase “radical clarity” as an aspiration for our websites, especially story pages. Mobile has forced us to rethink designs that present too much information for a small screen, and we need to carry that thinking over to larger displays as well.

Solving everything now

Building anything of enduring value almost always takes more time than you want it to. The corpus of INN Member websites represents a tremendous amount of work by their creators, and great value to their audiences. As a website builder I know that work is never done.

My hope is that a year from now we can repeat this review and see clear signs of progress, especially in the areas of mobile friendliness, social media optimization, and clarity of design. The INN Nerds will do what we can to help. And I'll be writing with more details and actions we can take to address these priorities in the coming weeks.