Starting off on the wrong foot? The Caledonian Mercury website

Last night saw the premature launch of Caledonian Mercury, what has been billed as Scotland’s first truly online newspaper.
And it looks to be an interesting addition to the Scottish media landscape and is already gathering widespread attention.

The ambitions of this new venture are bold and its mission statement noble:

We seek to revive Scottish journalism by using the internet rather than railing against it. The Caledonian Mercury stands for intelligent reporting, informed analysis and raising the standard of debate in Scottish life. It also seeks to return journalism to journalists and is a platform to display the work of selected specialist writers – freed from the demands of filling space, toeing the line and “feeding the beast”.

Engaging with disinfranchised readers of the traditional press. Encouraging and supporting intelligent journalism. Fostering debate. All good stuff. But why oh why does the Caledonian Mercury (CalMerc) website look so bad?
For a site that is supposed to innovate and breathe fresh life into the Scottish media, the whole thing hangs off a standard and unimaginative WordPress template.

At a time when most newspapers are trying to realign themselves for the online market and make a significant departure from their printed equivalents, CalMerc strives to head in the opposite direction with a design that shouts “I want to look like a grown-up newspaper”, despite its claims to the opposite.

So where has it gone wrong? Well, some initial thoughts follow.

Logo and branding

The logo and heading of a newspaper is usually its calling card – from the heraldic motifs and bold logotypes of the Times and the Scotsman to the red tops and sans-serifs of the Mirror and the Sun. With newspapers it is often the primary means and opportunity for branding and here it is sadly found lacking.

The unicorn has a particular resonance for Scotland, notably in its heraldic form where according to legend a free unicorn was considered a very dangerous beast; therefore the heraldic unicorn is chained – however here it is bland, crudely executed and largely anonymous.

Typography and layout

Look at the homepages for the New Times, the BBC News and the Guardian websites and you will see multiple avenues into the range of content on these sites.
The layout of the CalMerc site instead focuses on a single stream, choosing a two-column layout that works well with blogs but just cannot cope with a constant ticking over of content, particulary if CalMerc is to be at all succesful in its aims to decentralise Scottish journalism.

Guide your users. Use layout to help them scan and digest your content. Pick a grid and stick to it but don’t be afraid to break it.

The home page should introduce multiple streams and minimise scrolling, not through fear of the fold but to provide a ready and accessible overview of the breadth, depth and relevance of its content. Direct users to explore as much of the site as possible and facilitate that where possible. Make the tag cloud more engaging and the search bar more obvious.

Engaging users

As a solely online venture, advertising revenue will be integral to the success of the CalMerc site, although as it stands cannot help but feel that the advertising in place is too obtrusive. The Google Ads just feel like another bolt-on and distract from the logo, search bar and date (although can this really be seen as relevant for a newspaper freed from the constraint of daily printing cycles?).

Ironically as “Scotland’s first truly online newspaper”, social networking on the site feel does like a series of bolt-ons and as used gives the impression of an afterthought. Whilst the site clearly is endeavouring to engage with its users why not unleash the potential of the social web and let the populace contribute its own content. It is nice to see that twitter is being used to engage with a user base rather than just regurgitate hyperlinks and it would be great for that engagement to become two way.

User images could be added – perhaps illustrating individual articles via Flickr – or commenting on articles via twitter and other media using hashtags or machine tags? Be native to a web of data – bring other content into your site and let your content seep out into other sites. Oh, and if your aspiration is to engage your users then don’t put your twitter followers at the bottom of the last column of the page, put them foremost.

Show the most read and shared articles – possibly the most focused and decisive navigation element on the whole BBC News website.

Final thoughts

Clearly the Calmerc website is in its infancy but I can’t help feel that an opportunity was missed to launch something truly innovative and support the aims of the publication through a considered and engaging new design.

With the promising start that Caledonian Mercury has made, lets hope it’s not too far off and a new design can be seen and treated as an integral part of its aspirations and innovation (and not just as a secondary, decorative afterthought).

Comments

Please add your thoughts …

You can use Textile

My thoughts exactly.

The original theme actually looks quite nice but they have “tweaked” it and therefore ruined it.

Don’t even get me started on the choices of colours for the sections…

Perhaps it’s all just a stage for the company behind it? – http://www.w00tonomy.com/

Great article, Cole. I agree with all of this. A bunch of journalists with a wordpress installation doesn’t make a ground breaking on-line newspaper. But, it’s early days, so I’m pulling my punches for now.

One thing I have to say though: They’re offering a bottle of Jura for the most insightful comments on the site, perhaps something else should be offered for a redesigned masthead? The current logo is an abomination.

I was looking forward to the launch of the Caledonian Mercury, but my first impression was that it was utterly uninspired — the inertia it created was so great I could barely lift my finger to click on an article link. If a site looks like “My First Blog” I’m not eager to browse around.

Design isn’t all about the look of course, but the usability’s awful too. A single stream gives them no flexibility for prioritising news, editorials, or going any further than a headline-standfirst-photo combo.

It’s a case of a great idea without the technology to back it up.

Yes, it’s a default Wordpress template but you know what? Web development costs quite a bit. The NYT/BBC/Guardian can afford it, but an upstart like this can’t so y’know, go easy.

@Ian

Thanks for your comment. As a web designer I’m acutely aware of the cost of web development. I’m also aware of the widespread availability of free and low cost templates.

These are fine and have their place and their purpose. The Caledonian Mercury website is – I would argue – not that place.

As I hope to have conveyed in my considered and – I feel – constructive criticism of the CalMerc design, if you want a design to support your business then be prepared to pay for it. Failing to do so not only cheapens your brand and dilutes your aspirations but also cheapens the role of design in the communication process (and isn’t that what journalism is all about?).

CalMerc has lofty ambitions and it is a shame not to have seen the same effort that went into tapping the rich vein of journalism in Scotland go into tapping the vibrant design community north of the Border.

I for one would be happy to offer my advice and input if this is something the staff at CalMerc felt they needed some guidance on. I feel I would not be alone in making this offer.

Agree with pretty much all of this. As you say, a missed opportunity, but at least they’re beginning to address some of these issues – better late than never, I suppose. They’re inviting comments on a logo redesign here: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Caledonian-Mercury/272899546758 (http://twitter.com/CalMerc/status/8241534708) (Mind you, not convinced by the new prototype either, I’m afraid…)

@Cole

That’s a fair point. Thinking about it, as a bit of a WP-aware dev myself I’d probably leap at the chance to get involved with local media in need!