One of the biggest things news organizations have failed at in recent years is user experience.

Screen takeover ads, auto-play video and audio, slow page load times because of what feels like dozens of ads trying to all load at the same time – an experience that feels like it’s optimized for the advertisers and not for the readers.

Thing is, that’s not new. The design and layout of newspapers were (and still are) determined by the ads. Other than not having ads on pages 1 and 3 of a section (and even that began to change in recent years, a throwback to early days of newspapers when the front page was not devoid of advertising), every inch of space inside the sections was dictated by the advertising sold.

The more ads, the more news. Or, really, the more space for news. I recall days when it was a really slow news day, but we had a huge newshole to fill. Then, days when the news was coming out of our ears, but the advertisers hadn’t come through.

On the former days, we’d cover things we might not ordinarily have bothered with, and blow photos up as large as we could to fill the space. I’d ask writers to write longer than usual to make sure we had enough and wouldn’t have any empty “white space”.

On the latter days, we’d slice and trim articles down, no matter how big the news was, so we could get all the important articles in, in some form or fashion.

Newspapers, you see, were the result of how much advertising there was – not how much news there was.

Sure, when we had a big investigative package we’d worked on for a long time, we’d get extra space that day to ensure we had enough room for everything of import. But on a daily basis? That’s simply not how it worked. Or could work. There was a ratio of how much advertising could pay for how much news space. In order not to go under, you couldn’t regularly have more news space than the advertising paid for. Simple mathematics.

With the rise of the internet, we brought our old advertising practices online, to a degree. Every article had to be accompanied by advertising. Articles were no longer constrained by how much advertising there was, but there also now was no limit to advertising, as Google AdSense and then ad tech companies brought programmatic into the picture.

Now that you could know exactly how many ads people actually clicked on – i.e., took action from – the ads were less expensive. Some of that cheaper cost was due to there being fewer people online in the early days, as well as a lack of respect for what online could bring to the coffers. Later, as ads became ever-more intrusive and annoying and ad blockers began their inevitable ascent, the fact that they brought in so little money wrought havoc on the industry.

If only we’d thought about the reader, and what that best experience was for them, perhaps the industry wouldn’t be in such a free-fall. Instead, we beg readers to turn off their ad blockers, despite having ads that caused them to turn them on in the first place.

The only way to fix this is to think creatively. That means that not just developers and journalists should be thinking about what the user experience is. All involved in news sites need to be thinking about what they’re doing to their readers and why. And fix it.

Otherwise, we might as well just give up the ghost.

Photo via University of Hawaii at Manoa Library of ad from the (Honolulu) Evening Bulletin, via Flickr Creative Commons.

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