Comparing news homepages during big news

Friday, charges were issued to Baltimore police officers in the death of Freddie Gray. It’s the latest development in what has been an emotionally-charged situation in Baltimore, with another added twist now that officers are being charged with Gray’s murder.

In breaking news situations, people will turn to whatever medium will get them information the fastest. Tweets will grab people’s attention, but in complicated cases like this, web sites will provide the most information and be the most flexible when it comes to updating breaking news.

But none of that means anything if the home page doesn’t keep the reader hooked. It’s a tough task; you need to convey information, grab people’s attention, and keep them clicking on your site. When someone heads to your website, they will decide in seconds whether they will keep reading.

With that in mind, let’s compare today’s coverage of the charges on the homepages of CNN and The Guardian.

CNN’s page presented it as straightforward as they could:

Screen-Shot-2015-05-01-at-11.12.39-AMThe big, bold headline grabs you the moment the page loads. “OFFICERS CHARGED.” Anyone will know what it’s referring to, unless you’ve been on Mars, in a cave, with your eyes shut and your fingers in your ears.

The headline and picture combo works, too. The big hammer headline says “CHARGED” and the picture shows the person doing the charging. A deck makes it clear this is about the Freddie Gray case, and a second deck clarifies that the person in the picture is prosecutor Marilyn Mosby.

CNN (in the efforts of cross-branded promotion) also gives a link to their live stream at the top of the page, so people who are interested in watching can follow along with video.

By itself, CNN’s version is pretty good. But the problem is that, CNN deploys this same layout EVERY DAY. Giant scary headline with a big picture, no matter what the lead story is. Don’t believe me? Here are some other examples, with varying degrees of news value.

Screen shot 2015-05-01 at 11.14.08 AM cnn.com-large cnnWhen everything looks exactly the same, nothing stands out. Similar sized pictures and headlines for stories that can’t be any more different hurts your ability to connect to readers. Save your large headlines for the stories that need it, not filler content about Putin’s struggles.

Here’s how The Guardian covered today’s news:

Screen-Shot-2015-05-01-at-11.17.51-AMThe Guardian takes a less dramatic approach to the news. The headline and picture aren’t as big, but they are still significantly larger than anything else on the page, which suggests to the readers that the story is important.

What I also like is that The Guardian takes a more comprehensive approach to the story, by presenting multiple stories examining different sides. The “breaking news” is today’s news about the charges being filed. There’s further news stories to read about a second prisoner speaking out, and details about Gray’s cause of death. They’ve also linked to an opinion piece about the case. The Guardian does a great job of grouping their related stories together; you don’t need to search around to find more on the topic you want.

But there are definitely some flaws with the layout. The very first words in the headline are “Freddie Gray,” yet the picture is of the prosecutor. Mosby’s face might not be recognizable to readers, so they may be left wondering if the picture is for an unrelated story. I also find it awkward that the weather is given a prime position at the top of the page, suggesting its importance alongside stories of Freddie Gray and Ben. E. King.

But The Guardian and CNN take very different approaches to news, and these layouts reflect those attitudes.

The big thing about covering big news on your web site is to walk the tightrope. Emphasize its importance without sensationalizing it. Give information on the home page, but not so much that it overwhelms your readers.

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