NATHAN ASHBY-KUHLMAN > Blog entries from January 2003

Fuller teases to related articles

The other day JD Lasica linked to a humorous (in hindsight) story in the Sumter (S.C.) Item about a bomb scare. The suspected car bomb turned out to be a tracking device put on the vehicle by the driver’s wife.

There’s a sidebar that goes with the main article, and I think it’s interesting how The Item’s site links to the sidebar. Most sites only include the headlines of related articles, but The Item creates a sidebar box nestled into the story with not just the headline, but also the byline and the first two paragraphs of the story:

In a gray left-aligned box inside the main story are a headline, a byline, two paragraphs of the story and a link to the rest of the story.

I like this technique. The design gives readers more information about a story before they have to choose whether or not to click a link and read the rest. There’s empirical evidence that readers prefer having story summaries in addition to headlines in lists of links to articles.

The Item also uses this long-form presentation technique on its section fronts, as do some other news sites, like the Salt Lake Tribune. Usually only one story is visible in the first screenful, but if readers are willing to scroll, they can probably navigate more easily than under “ping-pong browsing.”

There is one thing I would recommend that The Item change immediately, though. In that sidebar box and on their section fronts, the only links into the stories are the red “read the story” links. They must make the headlines clickable too.

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E-mail addresses in bylines: What's best?

At work I’m investigating adding reporters’ e-mail addresses into their bylines, as mailto links of some kind. One issue I’m debating is whether we should use any of various methods of obfuscation from spambots, or whether that would compromise news organizations’ obligation to make their addresses as public as possible.

The biggest question I have not yet answered, though, is how to format reporters’ contact information. There are several ways other sites do it:

  1. Making the reporter’s name a mailto link. is one site that uses this style:

    In this screenshot, the reporter's byline is a mailto link to his e-mail address.

    This design violates usability consultant Jakob Nielsen’s advice (tenth item) to only use mailto code on links “that explicitly indicate that they’re email addresses.... Don’t place mailto links on names.” (Update Jan. 24, 2003, 10:50 pm: Julie Albertson has already explained why this option is evil.)

  2. Making the e-mail address itself a mailto link. This follows Nielsen’s recommendation and makes it much more obvious what clicking the link will accomplish. uses this style:

    In this screenshot, the reporter's e-mail address is below his byline, and the e-mail address is a mailto link to itself.

  3. Making the reporter’s name a link to a popup window. The popup can provide a reporter’s e-mail address and phone number — even his or her picture, fax number and mailing address. uses this style:

    In this screenshot, the reporter's name is a link to a popup window with contact information.

    Clicking the reporter’s name brings up a popup window with an e-mail address and phone number.

If I implement something like this at work, I am leaning toward either the second or the third option, but I haven’t yet decided which is best. I like the additional contact information — rather than just an e-mail address — available in the third option. But I think the second option, where the e-mail address is a link to itself, makes it most intuitive to contact the reporter via e-mail.

Which design for contact information do you prefer? Are there any news sites doing it differently than these three examples? Post a comment and let me know what you think.

Comment by kpaul, posted January 23, 2003, 10:23 am

To be honest, I like it a lot better when the byline links through to a 'bio' page of some sort.

My vote would be for #3 ;)

Comment by Adrian Holovaty, posted January 23, 2003, 10:55 am

Another scheme would be to link to a page listing all stories by that reporter. (I guess that fits in #3, but I figured I'd point this out.) Here's an example from the Maneater, the student newspaper at the U. of Missouri. The Indiana Daily Student and The Harvard Crimson do the same.

Something like that is ideal for student publications, where a large percentage of readers are parents or prospective employers and it makes sense to make it easy for people to find other things a reporter has done. (Disclaimer: I made the Maneater site several years ago.)

Comment by Brian Hamilton, posted January 23, 2003, 1:01 pm

See The Top 10 New Mistakes of Web Design by Jakob Nielsen -- #4 : Lack of Biographies

I'd suggest using the third method, but not opening a popup window. Just send them to another page in the site that has that author's biography along with the others.

Comment by Nathan Ashby-Kuhlman, posted January 23, 2003, 4:49 pm

Thanks for the ideas about adding fuller biographies. The LJWorld popups left me a little disappointed for not offering more information than they do — whether that extra information is a bio or a page listing all (recent) stories by a reporter.

The stories-by-reporter pages probably are most useful at student publications, but most “real” newspapers assign reporters to beats, and having a list of articles by the education reporter, for example, would be a great additional method of archive navigation. Unfortunately our CMS here can’t do that for us. Oh well.

Comment by Keith, posted February 3, 2003, 8:25 pm

I really like #2. I'll tell you why.

While I think Nielsen has a point, in theory, with his tenth item on his list of mistakes, what he doesn't tell you is that many, many of your users will accept this as a convention. I've tested for this in specific and so far I've not seen anyone expect anything other than a mailto: on a linked name.

I would agree with Jakob that it's not the ideal way to handle this (darn conventions!). Which brings me to why I like your second option. This way you satisfy your users by providing an obvious link to email and you satisfy the Gurus in the process.

#3 sounds good, but you need to ask yourself how your readers will view a pop-up - if they show annoyance to a mailto you can bet a pop-up will not go over well. I'd take it a step further and bet that many users will be surprised if a linked name doesn't go to a mailto. I know that goes agaist what Jakob is saying, but, hey I disagree with him as much as I agree with him.

Good luck with whatever you end up using.

Comment by francois, posted February 5, 2003, 8:01 am

I'd say #3 is best, but only if you have useful information to provide, like biog/photo and story archive.

Otherwise #2, which makes a good argument for human-readable email addresses, like

As for spambot avoidance, any mailto: is vulnerable, even those that use entity encodings (see my comment on this old web-graphics thread.) Others, like gazingus's rely on javascript being available. I saw a good non-js method on Simon Willison's site -- this would only work on a separate reporter biog page.

Comment by francois, posted February 5, 2003, 1:17 pm

Just saw a nice approach on OJR that does both, following a link from your How to let readers comment post. The reporter's name is hyperlinked to an article archive page (no biog), and next to it is an envelope icon with a mailto: link. It could've done with ALT or TITLE text, though.

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Get rid of story-summary ellipses, the Web site for the Opelika-Auburn News in Alabama, uses a confusing style for article summaries on its front page. Each summary ends with an ellipsis (...):

A partial screenshot of, which reads 'All across the area, people will be gathering to celebrate the birthday and life of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr...'

Ellipses are supposed to be used to indicate omission, usually in direct quotes. On the Web, people have gotten used to search engines’ use of ellipses to highlight search keywords within sentence fragments. Automated discussion forums even cut text off in mid-word with ellipses. takes the time to write good story summaries that are complete sentences, but the ellipses at the end of them make the sentences look incomplete. Perhaps the site wants to remind readers that there’s a full story available without using ugly “more of this story”-style links, but it would be better to just use one period rather than three.

This criticism of the Opelika-Auburn News for putting ellipses after complete sentences is not meant at all to excuse the sloppy unprofessional front pages like those of the Edmond (Okla.) Sun and many others whose summaries are incomplete sentences generated by software rather than human beings. Even the fully-automated Google News doesn’t cut things off in mid-word. Maybe the main reason the Opelika-Auburn News should eliminate its superfluous ellipses is to avoid confusion with sites like the Edmond Sun.

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How to let readers comment

Steve Outing reminds us that, as Dan Gillmor put it, “The Internet is Read-Write, not Read-Only.” There is less distinction now between news producers (journalists) and news consumers (readers/viewers) and journalism is becoming more participatory.

The Internet is letting people who are not professional journalists become an important part of the news process, from news gathering to distribution to commentary to error recognition. All of this takes advantage of the fact that, as Gillmor says, “my readers definitely know more than I do, and, to my benefit, they share their knowledge.”

It’s therefore a shame that, in Outing’s words, “few traditional-media publishers seem to have the guts to invite the public in in a big way.” For fear of discussions becoming offensive, off-topic or just uninteresting, news sites commit three major sins that prevent their readers from ever having respectful, insightful and exciting discussions about the news.

  1. Many news sites have no discussion system at all. The most reader interaction these sites offer might be an e-mail address for the newsroom, or if you’re lucky, addresses for individual reporters.
  2. Most news sites that do offer discussion forums completely separate them from articles that might be the subjects of discussion. At in Alaska, there’s a “discuss this story in our discussion forum” link at the bottom of stories, which is better than completely isolating the forum with just a navigation rail link. But the link takes you to a forum front page rather than a forum thread for that particular article. If I wanted to post something, I’d have to choose which area — “General news”? “Alaska news”? — it belonged in and start a thread. But why would I bother, because how many other readers of that article would actually be able to see my comments? To take advantage of the medium, news sites need to display comments inline with articles, as this site does, or show a thread for each article that’s just one click away, as many bloggers do.
  3. Many news sites have moderated forums, which require a site producer to manually approve each comment before other readers see it. The Benton (Ark.) Courier does display reader comments right at the bottom of articles, but they show up “shortly” — not right away. I’m not saying that news sites will never receive unpublishable comments, but in my opinion it is better to keep discussions moving quickly by allowing free posting. Web staff can continually monitor discussions for anything that might need to be removed without having to approve everything beforehand.

By committing these three sins, most news sites are abandoning discussions of their own stories to the independent sites like Kuro5hin and Slashdot that thread discussions below their stories and allow unsupervised posting. Are there any news sites that understand how an article and readers’ comments can become more than the sum of their parts?

Take a look at the Arizona Daily Sun. At the bottom of article pages are unedited readers’ comments. Visitors can easily request removal of any offensive comments or personal attacks, or hide all the comments for the remainder of their session. The site asks:

Keep your comments civil. No personal attacks, please. Please direct your comments towards the story, not towards other users’ comments.

There’s also a section at the bottom left of their front page that tracks the most active discussions in the past month; right now an article about water politics has inspired 11 comments. Eleven comments doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s a manageable number that others can actually absorb, as opposed to the hundreds of comments posted to Slashdot. Since many of the comments on the Daily Sun’s site actually do offer a reasonably cogent opinion or add information to the story, the site and the rest of its readers gain something from each article’s miniature “letters to the editor” section.

By avoiding those three sins of online discussions, the Daily Sun’s Web site offers definite “added value” over what is possible in print without even requiring much time of the site’s staff. It’s just a matter of having the right mindset — the mindset that readers aren’t zombies and do in fact have things to say — and then developing some simple software. Obviously the Daily Sun has that mindset. Lots of other news sites should start following its lead.

Comment by Julie, posted January 18, 2003, 12:10 am

The Sun's approach is very interesting, though I still have two strong concerns about allowing users to post unedited comments.

1. A mainstream newspaper Web site does not really want to gain a reputation for being unsuitable for children. I wonder how quickly they typically remove inappropriate comments. If I am a parent it doesn't so much matter to me that they WILL take a comment down if little Susie has just learned a little more about life and/or cursing than I wanted her to. If I were the Sun's Web manager I would have the comments start OFF and let the user choose to turn them ON.

2. They are still putting themselves in a questionable position in terms of publishing libelous material. You run a nice heart-warming story about Joe Local. Joe's ex is angry and posts all kinds of defamatory statements about him. Sure you take it down once notified, but once published, a retraction in print can certainly help mitigate penalties but does not eliminate responsibility, and it is unlikely that a different standard would be applied for online removal. It was still published. There has been established an opinion defense related to 'letters to the editor' which could apply, HOWEVER letters to the editor are reviewed by editors. If someone is defamed by a comment published on your news site and is upset about it, I believe he/she would have a very decent shot in a libel suit. Certainly the paper showed no malice in intent, but the plaintiff might get pretty far with reckless disregard.

Sure it's unlikely, but one pricey lawsuit can -- and should -- make a news site look VERY carefully at the value of allowing users to post unedited comments.

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If only reporters could add semantic markup

Adrian Holovaty urges news Web sites to follow Mark Pilgrim’s example and create an archive of citations. It would let readers get a list of every story from your news organization that quotes a certain person or organization, and readers could also see which people or organizations are quoted most or least.

Doing something like this properly depends on using HTML’s cite tag to delimit the name of every person or organization cited in every single story. Then a computer can generate a citation index automatically.

There’s just one big problem. This isn’t something online producers at any news organization have enough time to do. Perhaps I’m biased, since I’m speaking as an overworked online producer, but when some online news sites can’t even spare the time to fix paragraph breaks, how would they ever be able to add cite tags?

The only answer I see is giving control of semantic markup like this to people who have time to do it well on every story on a day-to-day basis — reporters. The reason bloggers who push the envelope like Mark Pilgrim have time to add these tags is that they can add them as they are writing. There’s no post-processing required, because the semantic markup is added directly into HTML that is destined directly for the Web.

At news organizations that repurpose print content, however, markup like this would have to be done as a post-processing step by online personnel, because print production systems don’t understand it. Where I work, once a typical front-page story has been written and edited, it is sent from a Harris database into a flat file for Quark. Once the print page is done, an online producer sends the finished text through a converter into a second flat file which is FTPed to a staging server that moves it into our Vignette-based Web content management system’s database. Then, once it’s approved, our public Web server can display it as HTML. That’s four file-format conversions from what a reporter wrote to the HTML readers’ Web browsers receive.

The point is that for news Web sites to adopt markup like the cite tag that adds meaning to their Web documents, the markup needs to be added by reporters and editors and flow harmlessly through the print edition production system before arriving on the Web. So until someday when newspapers’ dead-tree editions are of secondary importance to online editions and print staff are the ones doing the format conversions, I have a modest proposal: Publishers need to scrap print production systems and replace them with ones that handle this kind of markup, ignoring but preserving it until it arrives on the Web. In fact, this is exactly the kind of thing the XML-based News Industry Text Format is designed to do — encode news articles so they can be displayed in print or online.

But until all of the systems at work understand NITF, online producers like me are stuck fixing the subheads that the computer assumed were the main headlines, hunting down photos because the print systems do not automatically record which pictures go with a story, and categorizing stories into the right sections. We’re too busy to add cite tags. That’s something the reporters should do, if only they could. And I might just have time to write the script to build that citation index — if I didn’t have to do the half of my job that computers should be doing. If only they could.

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This page last modified on Sunday, January 15, 2006 at 6:04 pm