The Global Mail's web misstep

The Global Mail is a gutsy exercise in old school journalism but there are some gaping holes in how the news site engages its audience.

If you had $20 million to help build the best online news and features website in Australia, what would you create?

Would you model it on the best in the business, or would you depart from all traditional design principals? Would you aim to serve the masses, or target a select group? Would you build for iPad, focus on an app, or build something that works across all platforms?

Would you favour traditional media style, or involve citizen journalists and embrace crowdsourcing?

The Global Mail, backed by Wotif founder Graeme Wood, is a gutsy experiment with the mantra “Our audience is our only agenda”.

If you long for the good old days of long form magazine-style investigative journalism you’re bound to fall in love with it, but if you’re looking for new and cutting edge media site that goes beyond what’s been done before you’re likely to be disappointed.

And if The Global Mail, whose audience, according to editor-in-chief Monica Attard, includes “everyone”, really wants to serve that audience, it needs to address some serious issues with its website.

Putting aside the early technical problems and down time that faced the Global Mail after its launch yesterday, there are some gaping holes in how the site engages its audience.

Freelance journalist and media consultant Nate Cochrane, while supportive of the Global Mail’s stated aim, is not sure the site lives up to its promise.

“The lack of a community voice sets off warning bells for me.”

If Global Mail readers wish to provide feedback or comment or add to a story they must email the publisher. “Please note that while we appreciate all feedback, we do not guarantee all letters will appear on the website,” proclaims the site – as if its readers had dipped nib into ink and crafted their comment on parchment.

The Global Mail’s stated desire to step back from the “breathless 24/7 news cycle” is admirable and should help ensure a high standard of quality. But applying old media models that drive one-way conversation to a new media platform won’t help the Global Mail build a loyal following.

Comment tagging would work well with the site’s design, says Cochrane, similar to what’s on offer with Kindle eBooks.

The site was built by Hunted Media, which also counts Graeme Wood as its major shareholder, with design from Josephmark. It’s a radical departure from most mainstream media websites.

Usability consultants Tim Yeo and James Breeze of Objective Digital say while the Global Mail’s powerful imagery is designed to provoke an emotional response from its audience, the site breaks from the major conventions of design for desktop or laptop users. “The website’s design negates the utility of vertical scrolling…Users can only progress by clicking on the right or left button. This breaks a major convention of the desktop/laptop environment, much to the very likely irritation of users,” says Yeo.

The Twitter feed ticker tape is also unlikely to win fans. Darryl King from website development company ireckon says it’s highly distracting, very jumpy and hard to read.

King, who counts some of Australia’s most trafficked media websites among his clients, says the site design distracts from the content.

“Personally I don't want a magazine look online, nor a newspaper look online. I want content online represented best for the devices I am using. I am happy to read great content top to bottom, left to right, whichever way works most naturally, as long as I don't have to re-think how I use the device for a particular site.”

Attard told The Australian the site has no readership targets and while the team running it would like to come up with “novel ways to help pay our way in the world”, they haven’t thought of any yet.

But in order to firstly generate an audience of repeat visitors it might monetise, The Global Mail has some work to do.

How the Global Mail responds to user feedback will be interesting to watch. Wood has said his investment is about boosting public interest journalism. Few would disagree there’s been a decline in quality as newsrooms have continued to cut journalists over the last decade, but what’s happened in the meantime seems to have been overlooked by Attard and her team.

Quality content is being produced by non-journalists, citizen media is alive and well and readers are seeking both the opinions of journalists and that of their peers.

Journalism is no longer a one-way street and that’s as true for philanthropically-funded journalism as it is for commercial media.

The Global Mail and Hunted Media did not respond to our request for comment.

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