'Traditional Scandinavian design' may not be the way to make money online

Journalists developing newspaper web projects need to beware of falling into the trap of received wisdom, according to a digital media consultant who is working to train regional newspaper online editors at the University of Central Lancashire.

Mark Comerford, a new media lecturer at the University of Stockholm, was speaking to regional newspaper web editors at a seminar.

Conventional wisdom particularly has a stronghold in news website design, he told them. Studying foreign-language websites is a good place to learn about what is successful, although sometimes the results are surprising. As an example, Comerford demonstrated the Swedish newspaper website Aftonbladet.se, which he helped launch in 1994.

Most conventional news sites are designed around the assumption users don’t like to scroll, which leads them to load most of their content in the upper-most 480 pixels of a screen using a wide screen size and small text sizes.

By contrast, Aftonbladet uses extremely long, narrow pages, loaded with garish boxes and stories with enormous headlines stacked on top of each other. To see the full page, readers have to scroll down for screen after screen – while a Flash-based advert follows the cursor no matter how far down a reader scrolls.

Every page on the site is a ‘front page”: On individual story pages, the entire – endlessly long – front page is reproduced at the foot of the story. This unusual design is important, because readers are increasingly arriving on news sites following links from search engines or RSS feeds directly to an individual story page, rather than navigating from the home page.

‘Every single design rule that you have ever been taught has been broken here, but they are making more money than you will ever dream of,’said Comerford.

That’s because Aftonbladet is part of Oslo-based Schibsted, which has arguably been the world’s most successful newspaper group at making the transition to digital publishing.

Schibsted’s results are out today (15 February) and are likely to show huge earnings from online. Its previous quarterly report stated online activities accounted for 64 per cent of profits of 257 million Norwegian krone (£23.76m). Aftonbladet Nya Medier, the Swedish tabloid’s online division, reported profits of 7 million Swedish krona (£551,000) in that three-month period.

With 3.5 million unique users, Aftonbladet.se is the country’s second-largest site after MSN.

Schibsted uses similarly-designed sites across Scandinavia, and is now exporting its approach to Spain. It’s a stark contrast with the increasingly homogenous design of British newspaper websites. ‘The sites you have look really good,’Comerford told his audience of British regional news website editors.

‘They are traditional Scandinavian design. There is lots of white space; there very small lots of neat little boxes. They have very strong page formation. But you’re not making money – these people are. Why are they making money on sites that look like a dog puked them and you’re not on sites that look like a Scandinavian designer designed them, or some fucker from Berlin in a black rollneck sweater?”

Received wisdom has to be reconsidered, Comerford said. ‘Who received this wisdom, and is it wise? If there are other sites that violate everything that you would consider the rules of good design, and yet they work, then what can you learn from that?”

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