CJOnline redesigns

Written by Adrian Holovaty on April 17, 2003

The award-winning Topeka (Kansas) Capital-Journal site, CJOnline, has redesigned. (See the editor's note.)

Here are a few quick thoughts. Full disclaimer: CJOnline is one of my employer's competitors.

  • The design is mostly CSS-based. (I say "mostly" because some page elements, such as navigation, are still coded using tables.) As always, use of this technology should be applauded.
  • Netscape 4 users are redirected to a "sorry, your browser is not supported" page. It's a cute message, but isn't the Web Standards Movement about making content accessible to all devices?
  • The reader reactions are fascinating and instructive. Plenty of insight here, from normal Web users who don't know (and likely don't care) what stylesheet-based layout is.
  • The site uses quite a bit of DHTML to let users show and hide certain pieces of content dynamically. My first impressions haven't been favorable -- mainly because many of the dynamic widgets are triggered when my mouse moves over them, rather than when I click on them. That causes quite a bit of "Oops, didn't mean to do that. What was I looking at before my mouse cursor moved over this picture?" The home-page widgets (e.g. the "Breaking News" at the top) are a decent idea and would be improved a good deal with this quick fix: an onclick instead of an onmouseover.
  • It took me a while to notice the horizontal Flash bar on the home page; I had ignored it because I thought it was an ad. Surely there's a better way to present this content than through an animated Flash bar that looks awfully like a dreaded banner ad. Not to mention, what's the difference between "Sports1" and "Sports2"? And why aren't they next to each other?


Posted by Smiler on April 17, 2003, at 10:04 a.m.:

I totally agree with the onclick instead of onmouseover...

As you'll notice, move your mouse and several stories appear next to the picture, what makes it worse is that to actually click these links you have to move your mouse up and through the picture otherwise they disappear..... Grr :)

Posted by Nathan Ashby-Kuhlman on April 17, 2003, at 10:55 a.m.:

I like the four different centerpieces. I think the DHTML left navigation works, but I'd prefer more "major" categories (for me, at least, it's not intuitive to roll over the strange combination of "News / Weather" to find "Opinions"). The "Keyword / Search" option would save you a mouseover if the input field itself were in the navigation rather than being hidden a level down.

The "breaking news" element at the top of the home page looks odd when it's totally empty. The Flash thing is going to get old really fast. And the site is very heavy on that green.

Posted by Jay Small on April 17, 2003, at 2:30 p.m.:

Why in the world would you offer a folder-tab interface for what is, in effect, a promotional slideshow (the Flash banner) ? I wouldn't expect any poor souls to click through the tabs just to see plugs for the site's many subsites.

Posted by Julie on April 18, 2003, at 1:08 a.m.:

I'll confess: I thought the Flash banner was just an ad right up until I read your comments -- well in a way I guess it mostly is an ad, just for their own subsites/pages. Either way, I glossed right over it. And I'll echo the comments calling for onclick instead of onmouseover... it's very annoying to have to navigate so carefully to keep the info you want on the screen.

At the risk of sounding like some 89-year-old curmudgeon, the thing that really makes me dislike the redesign is that it just doesn't look like a newspaper site. When I go to a news site, I want the news, I want headlines ... and I don't want to jump through any hoops to get them. (Also not crazy about the abundance of muted teal)

Very commendable that they provided an open forum on the redesign though. Curious to see if changes will be made as a result of the comments. And as long as I'm on the topic of their forums, I never did figure out how to get back to the main site from the forums subsite without retyping the URL.

Posted by Rex Sorgatz on April 19, 2003, at 2:16 a.m.:

A- for effort; D+ for execution. This thing is a beautiful mess. It looks like a demo site, like they were trying out experimental ideas, just to play around. FIVE dhtml widgets, most of which are also navigation? This is like those obits accidentally appearing on CNN.com, right? Ha, ha.

Posted by Vin Crosbie on April 19, 2003, at 2:21 a.m.:

Its heavy institutional use of DHTML and Flash is a wonderful conceit if all of the site's users are, or will be, desk-bound users of the bloatware versions of IE. But someone else besides me please take a look at the site while using a wireless Pocket PC equipped with latest version of IE for that operating system: The site's elements render like one of those sliding tiles puzzles in which you've got to unscramble the tiles to find the original picture.

OK, few, if any, of the site's users probably are now mobilely browsing, but if the site had used standards-complaint XHTML, rather than DHTML and Flash, it would be viewable in anything.

Posted by Steve Yelvington on April 19, 2003, at 3:33 p.m.:

Vin, I looked at CJOnline with my Samsung phone's PalmOS Eudora Web browser, and while it could use some tuning, it renders (degrades) much better than most Web sites, including the one that employs Adrian. CSS layout lets you move the navigational clutter out of the way of the content for devices that don't support layout.

At the end of the day, though, handheld users don't matter economically. Not yet, anyway.

The site renders just dandy with Mozilla / modern Netscape / Galeon / Konqueror / whatever they call that new KHTML-based Mac thing.

Also, some more disclaimers are in order. Adrian's employer is not only a competitor of CJOnline; Adrian's boss Rob Curley and co-worker Dan Cox formerly worked for CJOnline and created the old CJOnline design that was thrown away this past week.

To complicate the issue, I work for Morris Communications, which owns the Capital Journal; my group, Morris Digital Works, formerly employed Curley and Cox, and we offered a job last year to Adrian. MDW designs some Morris sites, but did not design CJOnline. Everybody got all that? I don't think I left anything out.

Some of the posters in CJOnline's forums questioned whether the old site was broken. It was. We expect our sites to make money, and the old design didn't meet our business requirements.

One last note: If MDW had designed the site, it would work with NS4 at the expense of table-izing the entire layout. NS4 support is still on our list of business requirements. CJOnline is a separate business unit and Jim Debth is responsible for its P&L, so he can make his own decision about abandoning legacy layout support.

Posted by Dan Martin on April 19, 2003, at 10:33 p.m.:

I have to totally agree with Rex. I like the direction they were heading with this layout, but it was just not well executed.

When I first went to the site, all I seen was the big green circles that appeared to be a really bad use of a distracting background image. Once the page started to render the layout it was okay.

Julie also makes a valid point there is too much hoop jumping for a large percentage of viewers that are not tech savvy or the impatient.

Don't even get me started about promotional slideshow flash banner/ way to throw in more advertising. I'm all for making money on a website, but I do not believe that the front page should try to condense it's opening content into tabbed interface so that it can fit more advertising in. Even Gannett newspapers has more viewable content on the front pages of their websites.

Posted by Kasekopf on April 21, 2003, at 8:09 p.m.:

In his zeal to establish his alpha-male status, Steve dodges the more interesting and relevant issues.

How does the redesign meet the "business requirements" that were not satisfied by the design that was, as he so graciously puts it, "thrown away"?

Kasekopf found the old design far too busy and therefore difficult to parse. The new design in some ways goes to the opposite extreme; it's oppressively monochromatic and achieves visual simplicity in navigation at the expense of functional simplicity.

Purely from a usability standpoint, the question of which design is less "broken" is a wash, if you don't take into account the horrendously slow load time, which I believe I read has something to do with the ad server rather than the design per se. But that load time is a killer. If the "business requirements" include discouraging people from reading online in hope that they will buy the print edition, then the new cjonline is off to a smashing start.

Posted by Chris Heisel on April 22, 2003, at 4:03 a.m.:

Let me also voice my dislike for the gratuitous use of onmouseover events...

I also am not a big fan, as a user, of the fly-out menus.

I know that Web developers are not happy with the page-transaction method that the Web is built around but, as a user, there is something singularly satisfying about a click.

When I hover over what I expect to be a link and I get a menu jumping out of it I'm set back for a moment. I like that you can click on the section name that spawns the menu, but would just as soon see them go away.

I agree with Julie, it just doesn't feel like a newspaper Web site.

It's easy to forget that, if done properly, design is content and CJOnline's design says "green, moving zooming thingy that's 'cool.'" Maybe I'm just not 'cool' enough to be in their target audience...

Posted by kirkaracha on April 24, 2003, at 1:53 a.m.:

The temperature and "Topeka, KS" appear in the body of the home page and in the News/Weather DHTML menu. (At least they show the same temperature.)

In the DHTML gizmos in the main content area, the dark green color means "this is the active tab," but in the left menu, it means, ummm...something.

The HTML title for their Breaking News page is today's date, not something like "CJOnline Breaking News." Bummer for bookmarks.

Posted by Arkaid_81 on April 24, 2003, at 3:31 p.m.:

I'm absolutely impressed that CJOnline has taken this route -- It's nice to see a regionally dominant news site take such a leap into modern web design that isn't boring. Only, I'm really sad at the implementation of it; it just seems to frustrating to first- (and second- and third-) time users.

But I maybe over time, (wishfully) CJOnline will evolve into a more usable site. We'll see. Then again, the usual trend for a new site design is, sadly, to bloat and clutter itself. So, I'm going to have to go with "I doubt it" on this one. Rare is a site that has the self-discipline needed to only improve.

Thanks Adrian for pointing this one out to us. I'm adding this one to my list of sites to watch evolve.

And on a side note...

Reading all the disclaimers being thrown around like feather-filled gauntlets has made me curious enough to ask around about that developing side-issue of who-employs-who. Turns out, two sites Adrian has posted this month alone (honestly, I haven't checked the archives to see if there's more) have been related to Morris Digital Works in one way or another. So, is this an emerging agenda that Adrian has developed since going to work for LJWorld? Or is this site becoming the mouth-piece of his new employer?

I hope not. Hopefully, the only politics on this site will be the usual pro-CSS stuff we've all grown to come here for.

Posted by Adrian on April 24, 2003, at 5:38 p.m.:

Arkaid: Please don't worry; I have no such agenda. If you take a look at this site's articles over time, you'll find the agendas I *do have* are to promote fairness, ethics, and high-quality journalism and coding practice. I couldn't, with sound conscience, argue so adamantly for these ideals while harboring a negative agenda at the same time.

I wanted to point out the CJOnline redesign, because that site is one of the most-watched in the online journalism industry and no other trade publication/site had written about the change. I couldn't care less whether the site was owned by Morris, or Gannett, or Knight-Ridder, or whoever.

Hope that clears things up for you.

Posted by Mortally Offended on April 30, 2003, at 8:30 a.m.:

I don't know exactly what the site looked like before, as I'm just a Minnesota-based stumbler, but honestly, this site is currently a cramped-up, trash-compactored piece of totally unusable garbage.

Gee, it wasn't making money before? I can't freaking *wait* to see how much money they've lost over this bastardized redesign. What a waste. I'll say it again; _totally_unusable_.

Posted by anonymous on May 2, 2003, at 11:39 p.m.:

Here's a salute to CJOnline for taking such a bold leap in telling surfers to get with the program.

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