Newspaper sites: Drop comments, but not interactivity

The keyboard, where many ill-advised comments are brought to life

Online comment sections on news sites are generally regarded as horrible, especially when anonymous writers prevail. Many sites have abandoned anonymous comments, but Reuters, PopSci and other publications have killed their comment sections altogether.

Obviously, there is an innate value to taking in community feedback and there has to be a place for that. What the news organization needs to do is maximize the reward (to audience and organization alike) and minimize the costs. I can get behind the kill-comments movement if it means that the website evolves smarter interactivity and empowers readers to actually help each other and the publication.

Forums — First, create a section for reader interaction that exists outside the content section. At the bottom of articles where comments would normally appear, offer an option to “talk about this in the forums.” Clicking it creates a linked thread back to the article. If a thread has been created, this button could intelligently say “Join 10 other people talking about this topic in the forums.”

Look at the popularity of link/forum sites like Reddit; they develop intensely passionate fans. Volunteer moderators could be trained to keep discussions civil. This should be an in-house module rather than sending people to other networks to have the conversation.

Content-aware actions — At times, readers use the comments section to call out a publication’s mistakes, to disagree with a writer or voice some other complaint. Based on the nature of the content, different actions could be provided at the close of the article:

Opinions/editorials/columns – A button for up vote/down vote to show aggregate community support or disapproval of the article stance. A button for “write a letter to the editor” that takes you to a page with tips on how to write an effective letter that would be published.

Movie/restaurant/reviews – A method to “post your rating” with a pre-determined scoring system. Your critic’s scores can be matched up with the readers, like a Rotten Tomatoes for restaurants, bars, local events, etc.

Event previews — Buttons to “add this event to my calendar,” open a locator map, buy tickets. After an event, the recap story can ask specifically for attendees to respond.

General news — An option to “Report a correction” should be on every article. You could also have calls for contributions, photos, videos right there as well, if the event is well suited for crowd-sourcing.

These would be some interesting features to build into a news-based content management system.

Making it harder to cheat

Overhearing a discussion about cheating on classwork the other day, I had this thought: Good teachers really ought to make it harder for students to cheat in any way they can. They should be constantly trying to out-smart their students, because the students are trying to out-smart them. They work in groups, collaborate and exploit existing resources quite well in order to make up for not studying and actually understanding the material. Students develop these skills quite nicely, which is an education in itself, but they suffer by not actually learning what teachers want them to learn.

In the context of a high school English class, I have these suggestions, which I would argue both thwart cheaters and encourage true student engagement.

  1. Sparknotes and Cliffnotes have made it all too easy to cheat by reading summary material instead of the actual source. Does Sparknotes have an entry for “Hunger Games“? I couldn’t find one. So cut back on the Shakespeare and pick a book or two from the young-adult bestseller list. Teach a text students will actually want to read and they might actually read it.
  2.  Analyze a film from the last century. Even some of the old greats — Citizen Kane — would be better than another go at “Othello”. Plot is plot. Character development is character development. Irony is irony. Critical thinking is critical thinking, right?
  3. Tell the students to read editorials from the local newspaper and critique them. Encourage them to write a letter to the editor on a local issue.
  4. If you do read classics (which of course, should be done), find modern versions of it to play in class, even if not direct remakes, but similar plot lines. Realize that Shakespeare was the soap opera writer of his day. Or, find modern films or TV shows that allude to the classics and quiz students on what was alluded.
Anyway, I’m not trained in education, but it seems that there could be more done on the teaching side to combat cheating. And in some courses that might mean veering from the traditional track and taking students into unexpected territory, where they have no choice but to learn.


I might pay to never see a Flash ad again

Flash advertising on
Case in point: Obtrusive Flash banner overlay advertising on What's it going to cost me to make these go away forever?

You win, Internet.

I’ve hit one too many news websites where my quest for information is assaulted and derailed by the visual violence of Flash banner advertising. Houston’s is a huge culprit. I avoid it at all costs.

So, tell me, Internet, how much is it going to cost to either eliminate or drastically reduce banner ads? $1 a month per site? $5? I understand effective CPM. What’s the revenue per user you need to make it worthwhile?

Installing an ad-blocker plugin on my browser is not enough. I’m also tired of having presentation systems disrupted by the demand for banner ad positions. Print publication designers can design covers, spreads and certain other pages knowing they don’t have to design around ads. Newspaper sites should treat their web front page with the same reverence as their print front page. Sure, allow one or two premium ads. But don’t obstruct the news with your ridiculous Flash animation.

Blackboard redesign, version 0.1

It took a couple of hours, but I feel much better having done it. Sometimes I get ideas in my head and the only way to get them out is to make them. I propose a ton of new things here, but I’ll have to explain them fully later on. I’ve created a tag for this line of thought and will post related items there.


Designer == Coder

lots of folks have been talking about how designers need to learn how to code. i agree, but also: should developers learn design principles?

There should always be a little cross-training in every industry. It improves communication and mutual respect. A serious UI/UX designer isn’t trying to just make something “pretty.” More like, “pretty awesome.” (Heh!) But experts should be left to do what they do best: design experiences or code the backend. Very few can do both equally well. One of the complications is that on the web, there are no decent design tools. On the Web, design is CSS. The code is the design control. Instead of a paint bucket with red as the color, you have to create or specify an HTML object and give it this property:

background: #c00000;

And in order to “paint” on an HTML canvas, a designer needs to know some code to get it done. I don’t think anyone should expect a UX designer to code advanced queries and JavaScript. But he should be able to clearly describe the user’s needs and expectations, and understand the capabilities and limitations of every technology — just as an established print designer knows some paper types have better color reproduction than others.

When I interned at the Naples Daily News in 2006, I designed newspaper layouts as a copy editor. The layout software we used was code-based. Every headline, byline, photo caption and article text had to be set with special codes not unlike HTML. I had an epiphany later on, thinking back on this experience while I was dabbling in advanced CSS: Programs like QuarkXPress and InDesign merely removed the coding aspect from design. It replaced markup with buttons and toolboxes.

Today, when I “design” a website, I often think in desktop-publishing terms: image boxes, text boxes, headlines, paragraph styles, all of which have either CSS or HTML equivalents. A “div” for example can be practically anything, either a text or an image frame, depending on the CSS. Similarly, when I draw a box in InDesign, almost anything I can imagine can be placed inside of it. Because I understand how a CMS works, I can also imagine divs and other objects as “placeholders” for dynamic data, like a list of headlines.

It is therefore not hard to imagine better design tools built for the web that are as powerful as InDesign is for print. In fact, Adobe Muse strives to offer this very thing. All it’s missing is the ability to integrate with content management systems, which can’t be too far away. After all, InDesign itself has XML import/export capabilities and can do simple data-driven documents out of the box (a glorified mail-merge), but even more is possible with InDesign plugins.

In other words, someday soon, designers can get back to strictly designing* and coders back to coding.

*Of course, another roadblock is browser compliance with HTML and CSS specifications. Browsers need to be as predictable as a PDF reader. A document creator should be able to use standard tools and create something that he is reasonably certain will be represented the same way across all browsers, operating systems and devices, just like today’s PDFs.

E-learning still has a long way to go

One week into my studies at U-M’s online master’s program, and I can tell that e-learning has a long way to go. I don’t think it’s the fault of the professors, but the systems they’re given.

We use Blackboard, which is surely a robust system that seems to do an adequate job at handling different kinds of learning modes. It has certainly come a long way since its days as WebCT. But I still feel like I’m using a website designed in 2002. Framesets, seriously? And all kinds of Java, which always seems slow and buggy to me.

For a user who is accustomed to the ease of navigating Facebook, Twitter and numerous iPhone apps, Blackboard is just plain ugly and awkward. For someone who appreciates simple, unobtrusive design, it’s a chore to use. Granted, it is clearly a product that has collected a lot of functionality over the years — a compliment to its apparent flexibility — but lacks the finesse that comes with a product that was designed on purpose.

A better web learning system would integrate webinar-style lectures and interactions, collaborative writeboards and other teamwork tools, integrated file sharing, a user directory with avatars, chat (show me if any other classmates are online), integrated calendar and RSS feeds, private messaging, live notifications and other features that make me addicted to it the way I’m addicted to checking my Facebook. In other words, look at every successful feature of social networks, and design them for a learning environment, which are essentially the same as “groups” with a leader/moderator.

If the Blackboard system I’m using now offers any of those features, they are not obvious. (Another design flaw.)

Of course, I am only seeing half of the end-user experience. I’m sure the teacher/admin side isn’t pretty, either.

If I get in the right mood, maybe I’ll whip up a quick wireframe on what Blackboard could look like if it got some real design direction.


I want: Single post XML export in WordPress

I want to be able to hit a button inside the WordPress post editor that says “Get post XML” and download just that post’s XML for importing into InDesign. Or hell, give me the ability to export Doc, RTF, PDF and any other basic text format. Give me data portability, WordPress!

Do that and you’ll have a free, open-source alternative to Google Docs.

If I were a competent programmer, I’d do it myself.

Dying newsrooms should become museums

View of LA Times Building from Bradbury Room at LA City Hall
Kinda looks like a museum, doesn't it? (photo: calvinfleming via flickr)

I like the expression: “Invest in people, not buildings.”

Newspapers should rent out or sell building space to a historical foundation and let them turn the newsroom into a local museum, library or public forum. Create a vibrant, interactive museum about the city. Blend together news and history, photo and video. Newspapers are virtual time machines, but their secrets are locked away in microfiche.

No sense in having a central newsroom when the news is always “out there”. A city news agency should consist of dozens of bureaus, scattered geographically throughout the city, with mobile offices. Budget meetings could held virtually with Skype or something like it. A small production shop could produce the print edition, which is transmitted to printing presses and delivered freely in each community.