The Huffington Post is hard to read.
Not its writing style. It’s usually straightforward, if a little tabloid-y.
Not the actual typeface. It’s your standard Arial. (Or actually, it’s any available font in the order of: Arial, Helvetica Neue, Helvetica, generic sans-serif.)
It’s the layout. The Huffington Post’s articles are laid out in long, monotonous, poorly-spaced columns of text.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, of course. It’s readable to a point. Zero in and scan along.
The problem with the Huffington Post’s layout is that there isn’t really any. None of the accepted structure of Web articles is present. For the top blog out there, there’s a surprising lack of adherence to what are now standard practices.
Best Practices – No Longer SEO Gimmicks
The Web is a fragmented place, with lots of opinions about everything, especially itself. Numerous people focus their energy on the way the Internet should look and feel. There are always divergent opinions. But Web design is now a full-fledged industry, and as with any industry, best practices have emerged.
The site CopyBlogger is considered a go-to resource about writing for the Web. While it focuses mostly on how to better one’s writing style for blogging, it also delves into how blog posts (and online news articles, by extension) should be laid out.
Among its main points: clear subheads that divide an article, making it easy to scan and giving it structure. Short subsections and white space also allow readers to follow along more easily. And having clear minimum standards for spacing and size can give an article a more approachable format.
While the Huffington Post’s type is not so tiny it’s impossible to read and the paragraphs aren’t spaced so closely they blur together, the formatting is such that articles become large columns of type that do little or nothing to break up the visual monotony and give the reader a structure to follow along.
The Huffington Post’s Content Lacks Formatting
It’s easy to displace responsibility or effort toward article formatting because of the Huffington Post’s main method of news gathering: aggregation.
The site collects and summarizes articles from around the Internet, along with republishing articles from collectives like the Associated Press. These articles come already written in their own flow and organization, so it’s not incumbent upon the Post to restyle everything they gather.
The Huffington Post’s original content, however, also lacks any styling or formatting. Take for example this feature piece about Michele Bachmann, researched and written by the Post’s Sam Stein and Jason Cherkis. It’s an excellent piece with detailed, original reporting. But, it still lacks any kind of layout or formatting to make it easily readable.
There are a few possible reasons for the Huffington Post’s lack of structure and formatting. They all relate to the way the Post may see itself.
The Newspaper Legacy
The most obvious source – or lack of one – of the current formatting style, is the people who create the content. The Post hires often from mainstream, traditional media outlets- often magazines or newspapers. In traditional print media, layout has almost always (except, notably, in long-form essays) been similar to how the Huffington Post does things: small text, closely-spaced paragraphs – all the better to fit that article into its allotted column inches in the print edition.
The problem, of course, is that the Web has no length contraints. While this may seem at first to be an advantage, because reporters (and layout designers) can give the articles a little more room to breathe, that advantage is only available if the content is adapted to the medium.
Longer articles are not inherently readable online. Because of screen-size limitations and scrolling, articles require more structure. A news piece is not nicely enclosed within a column on page A7, all within the reader’s field of vision.
The article online needs an ironic helper: it needs to be broken up so that its flow can be evident.
The Serious Publication Paradox
Because the profit margins on Internet traffic are relatively low, blogs and other websites try the most proven techniques to attract readers.
Some of these techniques have gained slightly less than pristine images, however successful. Numbered lists often increase interest in an article, even if that method of attracting readers may detract from the article’s perceived gravity. No groundbreaking work of journalism ever starts with, “9 Reasons Why You Should…”
Several best-practice formatting customs, like sub-headlines or bullet lists, may come off as less than seemly, because low-quality, traffic-driving content often exploit them. But that doesn’t mean they should be used.
The Knowledge Is There
It’s easy to excuse the formatting style of the Huffington Post as just the way things are done there. However, within the larger AOL/Huffington Post media organization, several outlets follow article format best practices.
TechCrunch, one of the most notable, uses a larger typeface and well-spaced paragraphs. Engadget, which along with TechCrunch joins the Huffington Post in the top 5 blogs online, uses good spacing, subheads and large-format images.
The sites are separated pretty well in terms of editorial staff and site design, but the knowledge surely exists within the company to provide a better reader experience.
The Huffington Post dominates Web news now because of its aggressive aggregation, breadth of subjects covered and large audience.
Now that it’s on top, the Huffington Post should spend some time on self-reflection, and tweak itself to provide a better reader experience, so people keep reading.
The Huffington Post is a top publication on the Internet. It should look a little more like an Internet publication.