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Q.A.: Basic Journal-ism: Tips for Electronic PublishersSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Not long ago, while talking with the publisher of an online news operation I mentioned that I teach a course called Writing for the Web. He surprised me when he replied, "What is writing for the Web? We ask that question every day."
As the contributors to this issue make clear, many people involved in electronic publishing have made great strides in taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the Web. But as in any new venture, there are still far more questions than answers.
During a recent sabbatical, I attempted to start answering the fundamental question of what separates the best electronic publications from the mediocre. I spent months talking with leaders in commercial electronic publishing, reading the work of people who have thought long and hard about the challenges and opportunities of this new medium, and visiting countless Web sites that showcase fresh and creative thinking. One result of that research was my online work Editing for the Web.
In the coming issues of JEP, I've been invited to discuss my findings, with special emphasis on how they apply to electronic journals. I'm hoping that this will be an interactive feature, with readers providing examples for my columns as well as feedback on them. I trust the experience will be a learning one for all of us — and fun, too.
Biting the Hand That Feeds Me
What better place to start than with a critique of my host, the Journal of Electronic Publishing? As the online site that endeavors to "help us understand the new and exciting medium of digital publishing," JEP should attempt to set the standards in the areas of good design, ease of navigation and others. In some areas, JEP succeeds, but in others there is clearly room for improvement. The redesign effective with this issue clearly tips the balance into the positive side, but looking at the previous design seems useful for comparative purposes.
First, the good: JEP is functional. There are no unnecessary animated GIFs to drive the reader insane, no frilly decorative doodads. The original opening screen makes it clear to the first-time visitor what JEP is, what types of content can be found here, and what the copyright policy is. The page also indicates the frequency of publication, useful to visitors who plan to stop back for updates.
That said, JEP is hardly an example of a cutting-edge Web publication. Three areas could stand improvement:
JEP has been online since 1994 — and the previous design looks it. The journal is a classic example of what designer David Siegel calls a "first-generation" Web site:
First-generation sites were gray. Some had banners and were well organized; most had edge-to-edge text that ran on for pages, separated by meaningless blank lines.
While this type of design was fine in the early days of the Web, design soon evolved into a second-generation model with "icons replacing words, tiled images replacing the gray background, red and blue borders around the images, and banners replacing headlines."
"Ultimately, of course, it's content that counts the most, and an ugly e-journal with good content is clearly preferable to a beautiful journal with little substance."
Siegel notes that third-generation sites have entry, core and exit areas. The entry area should grab the visitor; the core should direct and guide the visitor; and the exit area should cap the visit — and provide a convenient place for collecting information from the visitor. The electronic journal theory & event comes close to this third-generation model, with a single screen offering the viewer the options of checking out the current contents, scanning the archives, searching the site, learning about Project Muse or getting subscription information. The opening screen is clean and uncluttered, welcoming the viewer to explore further. Subsequent pages carry the same clean look, but there is no clearly indicated exit page.
The original opening page of JEP attempted to combine the entry and core areas, doing justice to neither. Instead of grabbing the visitor's attention, that page was more likely to have the visitor pushing the "Back" button. Some of the problems:
- The gray background, full-width text and less-than-professional logo make the page look like something slapped together after a half hour of instruction in HTML and Photoshop.
- The full-width horizontal rules — speed bumps, I call them — disrupt the unity of the page.
- Aside from the recent blurb about JEP's quarterly publication schedule, there's no indication of what, if anything, is new.
The redesign effectively addresses these problems. The opening page, with its new logo, looks much cleaner and more professional. The white background and lack of speed bumps provide greater ease of reading. Perhaps most importantly, however, is the fact that the opening page clearly indicates what's new in JEP. A catchy headline and underline lead the visitor to the hyperlinked Table of Contents; the small box allows the inclusion of links to other features without cluttering things. (The standing heads for the boxed features are not the clearest, though; I had to check my dictionary to see what "Causerie" meant, and I'm not sure why this column is titled "Q.A.")
Despite these improvements, two other aspects of the opening page could still use work. First, a site search engine and a site map would allow visitors to get what they're after more quickly. Second, the opening page still does not fit on a standard PC screen. That may not seem like a big problem, but Jakob Nielsen, Sun Microsystems' chief Web usability expert, thinks it is. Usability studies conducted by his group show that that users don't like to scroll down to see parts of a Web page. Visitors are less reluctant to scroll when confronted with full pages of text, such as the actual articles in a journal, than when they're at the opening page. Adding an entry area to JEP would help reduce the amount of material that needs to be on the opening page; using buttons instead of text for regular features also could help.
The format of articles in JEP has changed with this issue, and the change is generally for the better. The old format, exemplified by A Model for Cost Allocation and Pricing in the Internet, suffered from text overload — that wall-to-wall text effect again — and lack of contrast (black type on gray background). Those problems have been addressed in the new format, with narrower columns and black text on a white background. Even narrower columns and a larger point size would make online reading easier, but those changes would consume much more paper for those who print out articles. One solution would be for JEP to offer an additional version of each article designed to be printed out, like Synapse does.
One area the old format excelled in was the use of references and notes. The references not only provided hyperlinks for online readers but also offered quick reference for those who printed articles and read them offline. That's important, because unless articles include strong interactive or multimedia components, more readers are likely to print out articles and read them on paper than read them on screen. As Jakob Nielsen points out, "Reading from computer screens is about 25% slower than reading from paper," because a computer screen has only about one-tenth the resolution of even an inexpensive inkjet printer — and less than one one-hundredth the resolution of a magazine page.
Another good feature of the old JEP format was the inclusion of an abstract at the top of articles. Abstracts help the visitor decide quickly whether an article is worth reading (or printing for offline reading). The use of subheads in both old and new formats is good. As Nielsen notes, "Skimming instead of reading is a fact of the Web and has been confirmed by countless usability studies."  Subheads make such skimming easy, as would the addition of a list of hypertext subheads at the top of each article to help visitors zip right to what they're looking for.
It also would be helpful to include a listing of all links that appear in a piece at the end of each article. Doing so makes it easier for readers to digest the text in one gulp if they are so inclined, then pursue external links later. It's also a courtesy to those who will read the piece offline and want to follow up on one of the hyperlinks without necessarily having to track down the original journal article.
Ultimately, of course, it's content that counts the most, and an ugly e-journal with good content is clearly preferable to a beautiful journal with little substance. But it's the combination of the two that makes a truly outstanding publication. With this redesign, JEP is clearly headed in that direction.
Thom Lieb is an associate professor of journalism and new media at Towson University in Baltimore. Among his courses is Writing for the Web. He is the author of Editing for Clear Communication and has written and edited for magazines, newspapers, newsletters and online publication. He holds a Ph.D. in Public Communication from the University of Maryland at College Park and a master's of science in Magazine Journalism from Syracuse University.
1. David Siegel, "Creating Killer Web Sites," Indianapolis: Hayden Books, 1996, pp. 26-27. See also the online site, http://www.killersites.com
5. Steve Outing, "Reader Usability Wisdom From a Web Guru," (http://www.mediainfo.com/ephome/news/newshtm/stop/st070297.htm) Editor & Publisher Interactive, July 2-4, 1997. Also see the Sun Web Site Design History (http://www.sun.com/sun-on-net/uidesign/designstory.html)-->. [Editor's note: Link removed 8/24/01 because the article no longer exists.]
6. Jakob Nielsen, "Be Succinct! (Writing for the Web)" (http://www.useit.com/alertbox/9703b.html), 15 March 1997.
Links from this article
Editing for the Web (http://pages.towson.edu/lieb/editing/Welcome.html).
theory & event (http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/theory_&_event/)
The Journal of Electronic Publishing September, 1997 Volume 3, Issue 1 Links checked and updated August 2001 ISSN 1080-2711