Is your website ready for the big story?

January 14, 2013 01:30
Michelle McLoughlin / Reuters

Most news websites are put together with a great deal of thought. A glance through dozens of radio and television station sites shows consistent themes: Photos of anchors, buttons for Facebook and Pinterest pages, links to sports and entertainment news, and of course, ads for everything from  afternoon talk shows to your local furniture store's latest "going out of business" liquidation sale. Most days of the year, the layout works well.

But does your station have a plan for adjusting the look and feel of your website when a big news story happens; particularly a large-scale tragedy like the Newtown shootings? A thought-provoking article by
Megan Garber in The Atlantic lays out the implications. Garber points out that while no one planned it, a picture of "The Man-Candiest Moments of the Year" ended up juxtaposed with a photo of a woman consoling a crying child on Buzzfeed.com that day. It was an unintentional result of the way the website layout was designed; a hard news story on the left and links to features on the right.

For years, newspapers have adjusted their front page layouts to make room for big stories, pushing sidebars and feature headlines out of the way for a banner headline and a six-column-wide photo to capture the moment. Compare the front pages of the Indianapolis Star from a typical day, and the day after President Barack Obama was elected for his first term in 2008. Most of the usual material is taken away to let the important story become the focus. For a story like an election, a special layout may not be a priority, but when the juxtaposition of serious and lighthearted stories might look insensitive, the ability to adjust your page to the day's news could be helpful and goes beyond a simple "breaking news" banner.

Do you ever get a second chance to make a first impression? In the fluid world of web pages, perhaps you can. Which pages should have an alternate design? The website's front page, local news front page and the individual article page tied to the big story would the most viewed in the event of a tragic story, along with your mobile front page. Sidebars, feature links and ads could be removed or pushed to the bottom of the page. A top bar with the smiling faces of your anchor team could be replaced with a special graphic featuring the station logo. Feature links and ads could be removed or pushed to the bottom of the page. Once the alternate design is ready, it could be switched on when needed.

The ability to adjust your layout could be an important tool when your community looks to your station for thorough, in-depth and sensitive coverage of the big story. To avoid seeing pictures of a shooting or a plane crash in your market right next to Lindsay Lohan's latest tribulations or an ad for a great deal on used cars, consider having a backup layout ready to deploy.