Journalism In The Service of Democracy: A Summit Of Deans, Faculty, Students And Journalists

This morning in my mail I found an attractive printing of the proceedings from a January summit on journalism. All in all, this is a good print document that suffered when it was shoveled online.

I have no idea what kind of time constraints or “it came to the boss in a dream so do it that way or else” loopiness might have been facing the webmaster at carnegie.org or whoever else was charged with putting this document online.

Nevertheless, the journalists who shared their experience and insights with the Carnegie Corporation deserve an online venue that avoids the n00b mistakes that I teach my college freshmen to recognize.

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction, by Vartan Gregorian.

Perhaps now more than ever, in this “age of anxiety,” of globalization, conflict, non-stop opinion and an overwhelming info-glut, we need objective observers and reporters to help us distill the onslaught of events, data and information into knowledge and wisdom. It is in that connection that we should be able to look to the press to assist us in answering the telling questions asked by T.S. Eliot: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

Eliot’s query speaks to the “Home Depot-ization” of so much of the news that we interact with these days. The proliferation of online sources of news and opinion along with cable stations and an extraordinary, seemingly depthless supply of print and electronic sources of specialized, compartmentalized information means that one can pick and choose among the issues one wishes to be exposed to. That may be fine, up to a point and certainly, it is everyone’s right to pursue their individual interests and concerns, but if all an individual chooses to know about or understand is tailored around his or her particular notions or points of view, such narrow vision may well leave them seriously under-informed about national and international affairs that deserve their attention in order to be a knowledgeable and active member of our participatory democracy.

I didn’t attend the summit, but its focus — on the relationship between journalism and democracy, on the value of journalism as a vocation that benefits society — is one of my favorites.  I was very pleased last year when on the final exam, my journalism students were able to recite four of the five rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. (Yes, five out of five would have been better, but they only got an average of 3.5 of the five passengers on Gilligan’s Island.)

The website that goes along with the printed report is a good example of what happens when the information in a print document is shoveled online, without appropriate consideration of how differently people approach knowledge acquisition online.

[Update, 26 May 2018: I’ve replaced some of the links from this article to cached versions of the pages in the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. Just as some of the links from my blog post have broken over time, some of the images on the cached site are not available.]

The website was obviously put together as an afterthought — it’s clear that the “real” document is, in the mind of the organizers, the print document.  As an institution, journalism — and the knowledge it contains and the wisdom it hopes to impart — won’t last long if that mode of thinking prevails.


Get the Title Right

First, and to my mind rather ominously, the website gets the title of the summit wrong.  I used “View -> Page Source” to look at the title of the page.

<script src="/__utm.js"></script>
<html>
<head>
<title>Journalism In The Service Democracy: A Summit Of Deans, Faculty, Students 
And Journalists</title>
<link rel=stylesheet href="review/main.css" type="text/css" title="style sheet">
<link href="../main.css" rel="stylesheet" type="text/css">
<link href="main.css" rel="stylesheet" type="text/css">
<style type="text/css">
<!--
-->
</style>
</head>

That’s why the site’s Google entry looks like this:


Do you see the problem?

 

Here’s how it looks on the website.
Thumbnail image for JitSoD2.pngAnd every page on the “low bandwidth” version of the site repeats the error.

Nobody’s perfect. Once when I was applying for teaching jobs, I sent out a batch of application letters that stated I was looking for a job in “techincal writing.”  At conferences, I still see some of the people to whom I addressed those letters. Ouch!

So, I’m not writing this blog entry simply because I caught a typographical error. Rather, I see the typo as one of several details that identify a “put this brochure on the internet” shovel job.  The content that made an attractive booklet simply wasn’t revisited — not even at the most basic level — when it was converted into an online form.

Every page on the site has the same title, which is a wasted opportunity to add value to the semantic web.  (Search engines weigh keywords in page titles more prominently than keywords in the body of a document, so giving each web page a meaningful title will make your content more visible to search engines.)

Implementing the Table of Contents

Fairly far down on the left-hand side (too far down, from a usability perspective), there’s a “TABLE OF CONTENTS.”  But there are only four items in that table — the introduction, the whole dang two-day conference, and then two appendices.

That’s actually also a weakness of the table of contents in the booklet, which includes only the same four items.  But setting aside the contents of the table of contents, let’s focus instead on the implementation.

We’ve all been trained, by using the internet for years, to expect links to be underlined — or at least to highlight in some way when we hover the mouse pointer over the text.  The clickable text on this table of contents doesn’t stand out at all, and the capitalized words that do stand out are not a link.

An additional annoyance: dead space in between the lines of text — much harder to avoid since the links don’t highlight when you mouse over them. In the image below, I’ve marked in green about how much of the table of contents is actually clickable. That’s a lot of dead space. (The mouse pointer will change from an arrow to a finger when you’re over a clickable link, but I wonder how many people really notice that.)

JitSoD3.png

Note (26 May 2018): In the decade since I created this blog post, I seem to have lost the image to which I was referring. I’ll leave this up as a reminder that in 10 years, quite a lot can change on the Internet.

There’s also no indication of the reader’s current location, which means sometimes the reader will click a link only to have the page reload and the same page displayed in the window. But clicking on the dead space between lines of text will also result in a similar navigation failure, with the same page displayed in the window.

If you want your readers to stay focused on your message, the last thing you want to do is make them start thinking about what is causing unexpected behavior of the interface.

“Pages” and the Horizontal Navigation Bar

Along the bottom of the page, there’s a horizontal navigation bar that includes 15 subdivisions, with URLs identifying them as “index”, “pagetwo” through “pagefive,” then “page6” through “page15.”  Because the page names aren’t consistent, power users won’t reliably be able to type in the URL of a page they want to see (a common navigation practice known as URL hacking).

The index is the introduction, which makes sense. The file called pagetwo includes subsections “Backdrop for the Summit,” and “Opening Night,” each of which are important enough to warrant a separate URL. Why are they both posted at the same URL?

I can imagine somebody defending the choice to group those two items, but I cannot imagine why the title of Panel One with a list of participants is tacked onto the bottom of pagetwo, while the actual contents of Panel One gets pushed onto pagethree. What is the benefit of splitting that information across two separate pages? I don’t see it aiding the transmission of information, let alone knowledge and wisdom.

This division problem continues through the document.

There’s no indication, at the bottom of a any given section, whether the next section is a continuation of what you’re currently reading, or the start of something new.  If you should happen to follow a search engine link directly to one of the internal pages of the site, you wouldn’t know whether you had landed on a stand-alone page, or in the middle of a series of pages devoted to that particular subject.

JitSoD5.pngThere’s plenty of white space around this navigation bar, so there would have been plenty of room to include a link that describes what’s coming “Next.” (A similar link to “Prev” might also be desirable.)

Yes, it is possible to read the online document by paging through it, but because the online document makes poor use of navigation, and divides its content unpredictably across multiple pages (without clearly describing the relationship between those pages), the website is not nearly as useful as it might have been. The section divisions seem to have been made randomly, without any consideration given to the content being divided, or the needs of its audience.

Conclusion

I applaud the Carnegie Corporation for organizing the event, and for making the proceedings available online, but I would be reluctant to require my students to read the website.  I’m sure most would just print it out anyway, since the long paragraphs are not scannable (the “Opening Night” subsection includes a 345-word paragraph). But I don’t see any link to a printer-friendly PDF version.