On Design: Searching for a More Visual News Site

On Design: Searching for a More Visual News Site

When the Chicago Sun-Times laid off its entire photo staff last year, I commented that one of the problems was the utter failure of website design to appropriately showcase photography. Here is an example of the current design and the way photography is displayed:

sun-times

 

The only image that appears “above the fold” is a staggering 306 pixels wide.

Design is a much higher priority at The New York Times, and they have a few distinct layouts: 1) lede image, 2) lede image + slideshow, 3) sidebar image, 4) dedicated slideshow, 5) Lens blog. Here’s what they look like:

Lede plus slideshow

Lede image (600px) plus slideshow preview (190px)

Sidebar image

Sidebar image (190px)

Dedicated slideshow

Dedicated slideshow (600px)

LENS blog

LENS blog

I would still argue that these designs aren’t optimal for photography. Photos are subordinate to text and don’t make the best use of vertically scrolling screen real estate. Perhaps this is part and parcel for a news site as opposed to a photography site. The New York Times Magazine does a better job with larger images. And of course, having a great image helps enormously.

Photo by Martin Schoeller

Photo (1280px) by Martin Schoeller

 

They have made strides with their “Snowfall” layout to infuse more and smarter online design into their pages.

"Snowfall" design with full width images

“Snowfall” design with full width images

The Snowfall and Magazine designs aside, I find the New York Post website to be more visually-oriented.

post

There are no ledes. There are only titles overlaid atop photos — The Post’s photos are often lascivious and/or provocative, but still front and center. And in the inner pages of the site, photography acts as “click bait” for the reader.

Even though the concept is old by Internet years, The Atlantic, still does a great job of incorporating large images (1280px) in a vertically-scrolling display, rather than relying on the more typical pagination or filmstrip display styles.

atlantic

In non-news website land, things have gotten noticeably larger. A trend, perhaps influenced by tablet design, is full-screen, full-bleed photos. Consumers are familiar with this from their smartphones, iPads, Flickr, and even our own PhotoShelter Beam websites feature a number of full-screen templates.

fitterer

A consequence of full-screen design on a multitude of devices with different aspect ratios is unintended cropping of images. Photographers spend a lot of time composing images. They look from edge to edge and are mindful of concepts like the Rule of Thirds, so perhaps the lack of adoption of full-screen design in news websites is a result of wanting to display the image with the photographer’s crop.

kurtz

A full-screen image conforms to the browser size which can vary by device or user preference.

This concern, my friends, is malarky.

It’s not that I don’t believe in the photographer’s right to compose the image, it’s that images are cropped all the time by photo editors and others in the publishing chain. Horizontals are turned into verticals. Landscapes become squares. Details are zoomed in. The photographer simply does not control how an image will be viewed the moment he/she delivers the file to the editor. And unlike “art” (which exists to ask “what is art?”), I would argue that the goal of photojournalism is to convey a story through the image. If a larger, cropped photo is more effective than a smaller uncropped photo in grabbing the reader’s attention, then mission accomplished. If different crops of the same image still capture the reader’s attention, then mission accomplished.

The cropping issue is similar to the “pan-and-scan” version of movies (aka “This film has been modified from the original to fit your screen”). Purist hate it, and given the choice, I’d pick the letterbox version every time. But not given the choice, I don’t know what I’m missing visually, and the story still comes through even if the DP is rolling over in his/her grave.

The point is that in order to raise the profile of photojournalism, we need to figure out better ways to make photos stand out.

Here is the ESPN Body Issue online.

espn

Glorious, right?

Here it is again as envisioned in TheAtlantic layout.

atlantic-maya

And envisioned in the New York Times layout.

nyt-maya

And envisioned in the Sun-Times layout.

sun-times-maya

Which would you rather look at?

ESPN expends a modicum of effort to prevent drag and drop of the image, but anyone with a hint of technical acumen can get at the large digital image. Apparently, they don’t care. And neither should you. This is the 2nd decade of the 21st century. Worrying about online theft of images is akin to being baited by trolls. Don’t do it.

Which reminds me, this is the 2nd decade of the 21st century. Let’s make sure that our treatment of photography on news websites reflect that fact.

UPDATE: Bravo Sports Illustrated

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There are 6 comments for this article
  1. Brett Cole at 12:36 am

    “ESPN…. Apparently, they don’t care. And neither should you. This is the 2nd decade of the 21st century. Worrying about online theft of images is akin to being baited by trolls. Don’t do it.”

    I’m frankly shocked to hear you say that. I wonder what all of the PS customers think hearing this. Why does PS bother having any controls then, watermarks, empty gifs, etc. Why have a whole section in the backend called “Image Security?” Seems to be a very callous and misguided statement.

  2. Per Karlsson, BKWine at 3:12 am

    Brett,

    Right so! What had you been smoking when you wrote that Allen?

    Worrying about online theft is definitely important. Just like worrying about offline theft. Off-line theft exists, it happens, you cannot make it go away. You cannot protect yourself to 100% against it. That does not mean that you shouldn’t fight off-line theft. At least you have to make an effort to protect yourself and make life difficult for thieves (by locking your door for instance).

    The same goes for on-line theft. It is illegal and it should be fought.

    Stealing is stealing be it off-line or on-line.

    One good example is the recent news on “AFP and Getty Images found liable for willful copyright infringement, Haitian photojournalist Daniel Morel wins maximum damages.” (quote from EPUK).

    A news agency (AFP) and a photo agency (Getty) who blatantly ignored copyright and became on-line thieves.

    A photographer who did worry about on-line theft and fought it. And won $1.2 in damages from the thieves.

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 3:20 am

      Let me rephrase what I so ineloquently stated because I’m 100% pro-copyright. Don’t worry about the size of the image as far as image theft is concerned. Let your website software prevent basic drag-and-drop (as PhotoShelter sites do), and pursue worthwhile infringement when they occur. But let the images shine the way they were meant to.

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  5. Ugochi at 6:28 am

    Great post. I think the impact on the site should be more important than protection of image. I am building a news site and have been wondering if my designer was right about full width slides being the best. I am now convinced he is very right, you made it all clearer . Thanks!

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