In 2010, Ethan Marcotte published “Responsive Web Design” on A List Apart, an influential Web-and design-focused blog. The article outlined many of the principles that define the modern Web, which needs to support everything from smartphones and tablets to desktop computers and video game consoles. The hope was that every website would be able to fit every display without error.
Three years later, the responsive Web design movement continues to grow. Many websites adapt to fit the screens on which they appear, and many sidestep the limitations of the shitty Web browsers through which they are accessed. Yet it seems that many news-focused websites have missed the trend, relying on mobile-specific websites even though Marcotte’s vision is well within their grasp.
This is hardly the biggest problem facing modern news sites. Declining ad revenues, concerns over the viability of “native ads,” and the increased prominence afforded to stories designed for virality instead of reality all take precedence over these websites’ presentation. But it does show just how slow the Web changes — and how frustrating reading news on the modern Web can be.
Consider the following scenario: You’re scanning Twitter for interesting things to read while you’re using your laptop, and you see that someone shared a new report from the Wall Street Journal. You click on it, only to be taken to the mobile version of the Journal’s website, which is nigh unreadable on a desktop browser. Would you abandon the story, fuss with the URL to get the desktop site, or just read it as-is?
If you’re anything like me, you’ll just close the tab and hope that someone tweets a link to the desktop site later in the day. (It doesn’t help that the Journal is behind a paywall, which can make it difficult to switch between the mobile and desktop views.) If the Journal had a responsive website that displayed the right design on the right devices without relying on a mobile-specific version of the website, this wouldn’t be a problem.
I don’t mean to pick on the Journal. Reuters suffers the same problem. So does The Verge, a relatively new website that doesn’t have the legacy design of its older counterparts. I’ve had more than my fair share of issues with PandoDaily’s website, too. This problem is common to more news-focused websites than I care to count.
Sometimes this is a blessing. I prefer reading the New York Times and the Guardian through their mobile websites, which boast modern interfaces and nix the clutter endemic to their desktop counterparts. I’ll often hunt for links to Reuters or The Verge that weren’t shared through a mobile browser — I do the opposite with stories from the Times and the Guardian.
In many ways, the future of news is unclear. Perhaps the old media giants will give way to new media upstarts. Maybe we’re heading towards a future where seeking some deranged notion of “truth” is more important than presenting facts. There’s a — hopefully very slim — chance that every story our grandchildren will read will be presented in the form of a GIF-laden listicle.
But the future of news is certain to involve even more device types, screen sizes, display resolutions, and so on. It’s going to be accessed through smartphones and smart glasses and smart watches and every other object that might one day be described as “smart.” Let’s hope that by the time that happens the major news outlets will be able to tell when someone’s reading one of their stories on a smartphone and when they’re reading it on a laptop.
[Image courtesy alui0000]