Madison McVeigh / CityLab

The pop-up ads! The autoplaying videos!

When Emily Goligoski’s parents want to read their local newspaper, the two Ohioans load up the PDF version of the print newspaper on their iPad and scroll through, “turning” digitally pixelated pages instead of reading the stories from the paper’s website.

“My parents refuse to access the website because it’s just so painful to look at,” says Goligoski, a veteran of Mozilla and former user experience research lead for The New York Times.

These are criticisms Goligoski has heard before. As research director of the Membership Puzzle Project—a Knight Foundation-funded collaboration between New York University and Dutch newspaper De Correspondent that’s currently investigating the efficacy of membership models to sustain online news—she has heard time and again from news readers about how they’re increasingly turned off by the presentation they’re offered by local newspapers’ websites.

The torments of these sites are well known: clunky navigation, slow page-loading times, browser-freezing autoplaying videos, a siege of annoying pop-up ads, and especially those grids of bottom-of-the-page “related content” ads hawking belly fat cures and fake headlines (what’s known as Internet chum).

Put another way: Why must newspaper websites suck so damn much?

In particular, why is the online presence of local papers so much vividly worse than other fare on the web—especially when these outlets are engaged in a desperate fight for readers and subscribers nationwide? Perhaps you recall the (in)famous cartoon drawn by Brad Colbow in 2011. Entitled “This is Why Your Newspaper is Dying,” it offered a cheeky but precise summation of several crimes against digital decency, from “Your content takes up less than 20% of the page” to “Linking to a random story in the middle of an article.”

If anything, the situation may have somehow gotten worse in the years since, and the quality gap between local newspaper sites and more sophisticated content purveyors has become even more stark. We live in an age when even the lowliest of bagel shops can field a clean, elegant, and fairly slick-looking online storefront. Digital publishing has changed enormously since the advent of online news in the mid-1990s, as the initial iterations of news sites have given way to far more advanced offspring. So why has the online face many newspapers show the world grown uglier even as the need for advertising dollars from the web has grown more urgent?

According to the online newsmakers of yesteryear, it’s the pressure of online advertising that makes your favorite local news site, and many others, a fresh hell that even Dante himself couldn’t have imagined.

“I do believe that the clunkiness today is maybe more intrusive than ever before,” says Khoi Vinh, the former chief creative authority at The New York Times.

These aren’t so much questions of the online business of news so much as they are matters that speak to online news design—the look and feel of a newspaper’s website to the reader, or what a designer calls user interface and user experience. But the business and design of news are inextricably linked. As print ad revenue cratered, the need to squeeze revenue from digital sources grew. And that pushed news websites to their breaking point.

“Ads are just brutal for what they do to your browser and the sort of utter lack of regard they have for user experience,” says Ian Adelman, founding design director of Slate and current chief creative officer at New York Magazine.

If you’re an online news consumer of a certain age, you might recall that things used to be different. It’s not that the earliest versions of news websites were paragons of high design. (Though, in their simplicity, the mid-1990s incarnations of the Times and other papers were blessedly navigable and easy on the eyes.) Nor were newspapers’ websites free of advertising: even the earliest ones typically ran small banner ads at the tops and bottoms of pages. But in those pioneer days, online ads still ran through gatekeepers—direct sales teams sold advertising on the web, and even banner ads were placed on the page with the relatively careful consideration an advertisement in a print magazine is given.

“There was a really nice time before 2006 where we were making nice things but adtech wasn’t out of control yet,” Adelman says. “We have a situation now where ads, even on reputable sites, can be difficult to corral.”

What evolved over time was the means of delivery, what design professor Juliette Cezzar calls more of a technology change than an attitude change. As online advertising became increasingly automated—something that ramped up considerably after Google’s acquisition of DoubleClick in 2008—connecting eyeballs to web pages became predicated on algorithmic mojo rather than aesthetics. “Each of the ads is obviously not native to the page. They’re all being served up through code,” says Cezzar, assistant professor of communication design at the New School’s Parsons School of Design. “As soon as you had a piece of code you could put on a page that could suck in other ads on a carousel, that’s when things started getting bad.”

To avoid piling on to any specific offender, let’s consider a hypothetical local newspaper in a small- to medium-size market, one we’ll call The Huck Examiner (named after my Very Good miniature poodle, Huckleberry). Like many papers of its size, it’s not locally owned—it’s part of a giant conglomerate, like Tronc or Gannett or a similarly sized enterprise, that is keenly interested in cutting costs. The Examiner, like its equally made-up parent company, isn’t doing so great these days. Circulation is down and print advertising revenue is hurting, as the traditional means of propping up a financially sustainable publishing business has been subsumed more and more by the web. (Though the paper likes to boast that it’s actually reaching more readers than it ever did in the print-only era.)

With fewer dollars coming in, the staff is cut to the bone. Instead of having a  dedicated digital team to make things pretty and police the bad ads, the paper gets away with a skeleton crew to mind the website, and the paper’s content management system and site architecture is shared with dozens of other papers owned by the corporate parent. That publisher needs to maximize “high-impact” advertising—bring on the autoplaying mattress store ads!—and makes it a goal to deliver a certain number of impressions per web page per day. The central concern, in this situation, is how many advertisements are served. And how ads are served can be different across publications even owned by the same parent company: Consider this Poynter piece from 2014 about Gannett-owned properties, where multiple newspapers relied on an assortment of mismatched software to run their websites.

“You have multiple interests going on, and none of them are actually about delivering news to human beings,” Cezzar says.

No designer worth their salt is actively seeking to make a frustrating user experience for an online news reader. The free web, however, is a problem for all publishers, and an acute problem for smaller ones—the ones without the design expertise or robust sales teams needed to mitigate some of the online aesthetic shitshow that was created as the bottom fell out of the print classifieds and advertising market.

“The biggest mistake everybody made was they assumed they could move to the broadcast model: free content and make up the money in the advertising,” says Roger Black, the legendary design director who spent portions of the 1970s and 1980s with Rolling Stone, New York Magazine, and Newsweek. “This may have worked up to about 2000. Then Google started. And then Google, and now Facebook, scooped up all the news advertising dollars.”

Today, Google and Facebook command roughly three-quarters of the online advertising market. Extracting pennies from pageviews is currently the name of the game for many small news publishers, though that holds disastrous consequences from a user experience standpoint.

“News organizations were caught in a double bind, because not only did their ad revenue go away or get reduced—the kind of talent they need to [create good websites] are drawn to technology companies,” says Vinh, now senior director at Adobe. “It’s part of the reason I’m not in the news business anymore, because there are no good answers for news.”

Not all publishers have allowed the economics of digital advertising to ride roughshod over the user experience. A few big media organizations like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post boast millions of digital subscribers nationwide, and they’ve managed to use their paywalls and big readerships to maintain readability. Indeed, many such publications entice subscribers with the ever-more-appealing prospect of an ad-free user experience, using the awfulness of the free version of the site for sales leverage—and stealing readers away from local dailies. Magazines, which still rely more on revenue from issue sales and print advertising, are typically able to field a less maddening digital experience. It’s the smaller news publications, the hard-luck dailies and weeklies that rely on local ads and local eyeballs, that seem trapped in a particular universe of suck.

“A small newsroom might have one person who’s managing the digital experiences across the entire site,” says Melissa DePuydt, technical architect for the Arc Publishing Professional Services Team, which is a part of The Washington Post. (The Post’s digital side runs on Arc.) “Fundamentally they do want to create enjoyable user experiences. But so much has changed, it makes it really hard for publications to keep up.”

So, what’s to be done? The reeling news industry does appear to be coming to the conclusion that larding sites with infinite ads will never supply enough meaningful revenue; paywalls and digital subscription models are ascendent. In February, Wired introduced its first paywall, and digital subscriptions to The New York Times are growing, although print revenue continues to decline. Smaller players like The Information, a technology news site, rely purely on subscriptions and maintain a sleek ad-free layout. And online-only local news sites like the nonprofit Texas Tribune use a membership model, plus the financial support of large philanthropic institutions such as the Knight Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (plus a few ads here and there). Other digital-news upstarts cobble together their budgets from a similar mix of revenue sources, allowing digital advertising to play a comparatively minor role.

Hopefully, if the Huck Examiner and its corporate kin can survive this latest newspaper die-off, they will find some combination of revenue-scrounging tactics that can tame their runaway user experience—while there are still enough users willing to endure the current one.

“To succeed in this business, you have to focus on the experience of the reader and user,” Black says. “Try to give them something that’s interesting that they’ll stay with and come back to, and if there are ads on it, they won’t mind them. We have to work on that.”

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