Why news sites don't use XHTML and CSS

Written by Adrian Holovaty on August 2, 2002

A reader who noticed the "XHTML and CSS" note at the bottom of my site e-mailed me asking why most top online news sites haven't made the switch to XHTML code and CSS-driven layouts. I think they haven't done so for the following three reasons, none of which is acceptable:

  • On average, many Web producers at news sites are slow to adopt new technologies and/or don't want to change their work habits. Although learning XHTML and CSS is easy -- I daresay even easier than old-school HTML -- producers don't want to learn it because that would mean learning something new. Online news producers are journalists, not programmers or Web designers. They care about breaking news, not necessarily about Web standards or clean code. I don't mean that as an insult; I'm just telling the facts. There's an unwillingness in the news business to adapt new technologies right away -- even when the technologies would improve products tremendously. (Of course, there are exceptions to this; I'm just echoing what I've seen and heard from others in the field.)
  • Many Web developers are simply unaware of Web standards, XHTML and CSS-driven layouts. The Web Standards Project's FAQ page is a good place to start, as is the New York Public Library's Online Style Guide.
  • Webmasters are scared of losing readers who use old browsers that don't support this technology. This point is somewhat more logical than the others, but it's invalid nonetheless. The easy solution is to design pages that are still accessible in all browsers -- like this site, which is completely viewable in browsers without strong stylesheet support but just doesn't look as pleasant. The only CSS-limited browser still in use by the general public is Netscape 4.x, which recently turned five years old. In Internet time, that's ancient! It's wrinkly, wobbly and ready to die. There's no reason it should hold us back. From a business standpoint, what makes more sense: Having designers and programmers spend precious time developing specialized code and different versions of pages in order to look pretty in Netscape 4? Or having designers create standards-compliant pages whose content is accessible in all browsers and whose design is forward-compatible?


Posted by Nathan on August 2, 2002, at 8:49 a.m.:

I certainly agree that Netscape 4.x should die, but I think in this blog entry you underestimate the interest news sites have (and, in my opinion, an interest they should have) in preserving their "look and feel" in that browser. Even if less than 10 percent of site visitors are using Netscape 4 these days, at large sites that can still translate into millions of pageviews per month. To take one example, a crucial innovation in news site usability like the left navigation rail is about as old as Netscape 4. I don't think people still using that browser would find moving to XHTML/CSS and putting the left rail at the bottom of the page (as holovaty.com does in a browser without CSS2) to be an interface enhancement. I'm not arguing with the eventual goal of moving to CSS-based layout, but I think cutting off all style and layout from users of Netscape 4.x would be a big step backward at least for the next year or so. Knowing how long redesigns take, though, maybe site designers should get started with their XHTML now.

Posted by Adrian on August 2, 2002, at 6:09 p.m.:

A site's "look and feel" can never be preserved across browsers and platforms. Anyone who tries to make Web pages look the same everywhere should retire and be a print designer. It's just not how this medium works.

Specifically, in the case of Netscape 4, I've come to believe evangelism is our duty -- for the sake of the progress of the Internet, and our collective sanity. If Web designers continue to pander to Netscape 4, users of that browser might never upgrade. (If the shoe fits...) I want to know when the heck we're going to take some initiative and encourage those people to get better browsers. Otherwise, we could very well be at their mercy for years more.

Before anybody draws parallels between this stance and presenting user-hostile "Flash required to view this site" messages, I should point out that the type of Web design I'm advocating still allows for content to be accessible in all browsers. (In fact, it's even more accessible in some, such as text-only browsers.) Politely encouraging users to upgrade from Netscape 4 in order to make the pages look better is not the same as saying, "You can't see this content unless you have Flash." The latter case is flat-out silly.

Posted by Adrian on August 2, 2002, at 6:13 p.m.:

Also: This site displays the left rail at the bottom of the page in non-CSS2 browsers for accessibility reasons. (See Presenting your main content first.)

Posted by Alex on August 4, 2002, at 6:03 a.m.:

I think that could actually be a benefit of Flash, annoying though it may be -- it forces "compliance" on the user via the Flash application. A Flash movie on one browser will be the same flash movie on the other. There is no choice in Flash -- either you upgrade or you can't see it. Is it obnoxious? sure. But at least it forces progress on the user end. Just my opinon here. I might be totally alone on this one ;-)

Posted by Ben on August 5, 2002, at 4:06 p.m.:

For one, it's much tougher and slower to do point #1 when you have a group of producers instead of just one. And as far as technology and layout go, it seems very unfair to compare this site and how well things are handled, to the complex layouts and issues of most news sites.

Posted by Adrian on August 5, 2002, at 6:34 p.m.:

The complex layouts of most news sites can indeed be done in CSS. It's just a different way of designing, and it takes some getting used to.

Check out CSS Challenge, which presented a complex layout and challenged people to replicate it in CSS. Within a day or so, the challenge was met.

Posted by Ben on August 5, 2002, at 7:51 p.m.:

I'd also say it's unfair to compare the CSS Challenges with a full news site's complexity as well. I would agree that complex layouts are indeed possible, but would venture that "getting used to it" takes more time and effort than people are giving news sites credit for. Most have trouble just keeping up with the demand of daily news and features, so something like changing all the code (in both the templates and in all the producers' skillsets) is a bit more involved than just flipping a switch.

Posted by Adrian on August 6, 2002, at 12:18 a.m.:

Ben: I completely agree. You just proved this blog entry's first point.

Posted by anonymous on August 6, 2002, at 5:09 a.m.:

As I read point #1 again, and the point I'm trying to make (there is one?) is that from my experience there is no unwillingness, slightly because the decisions of technology and display are not made by the producers, but by the technologists. The producers and journalists I work with could care less what happens behind the scenes, and if you talk to them about changing the technology or display for the betterment of the end product, there's no reason to argue against it.

Posted by Adrian on August 6, 2002, at 5:31 p.m.:

Ah, I see what you're saying...In your case, I think your site is the exception rather than the rule, based on my experiences. But I'd be very interested in hearing other sites' takes on this. To what degree does production staff experience influence design and technological decisions?

Posted by Ramachandran on August 7, 2002, at 7:37 a.m.:

It should depend on the browsers used by the visitors to your site. The decision has to be made on

the basis of the actual numbers and percentages - the numbers of Netscape 4.x and even

Explorer 3.x users could make up more than 10 per cent of the visitors in some cases. I feel there is no

point in sacrificing their interests at the altar of cutting edge technology.

Yes, it is quite difficult to make sites look identical across browsers and platforms but they to look

similar, within acceptable limits. If your site attracts a significant number of people who arent

interested in upgrading their browsers because they are comfortable with whatever they are

using, go slow!

Posted by Adrian on August 17, 2002, at 2:01 a.m.:

Dan: Good point about others developing the site. The degree to which Web producers mess with code depends on a site's content-management system, of course.

For example, ajc.com lacks a CMS, and therefore Web producers have to do all the coding by hand in static HTML files. As a result, it would take a long time to train everyone a new markup language.

On the other hand, the content-management system at washingtonpost.com allows non-technical editors to manipulate stories without having to know too much code. So my first point is applicable to varying degrees, depending on the site.

I also agree about the CSS hacks. In the words of Mark Pilgrim: "Apparently we've traded a big stinking pile of table tricks for a big stinking pile of CSS tricks. It's not more semantically pure, it's not more accessible, it's not easier to maintain. Why is this progress?"

Posted by Carl on September 19, 2002, at 6:47 p.m.:

Like many things, motivation is the key ingredient. CSS is a great tool. XHTML and XML's ability to be poured into various containers (web pages, wireless hookups, braille...????) is extremely important for the future. But now, right now, this minute, there is very little motivation to use the newer standards.

If you learned HTML and used it to create websites, you need a clear-cut reason to change. I can tell you how nice it is to have an HTML page with (almost) nothing more than div's and text in the body. I can wow you with download times that shame many regular HTML pages. I can change an entire site's look and feel by very minor changes to a CSS file. But until there is a BIG reason to change, you aren't going to do so.

Who wants to go from being an HTML guru to a CSS novice overnight? Especially if it's what you depend upon for a paycheck?

So in my view, it isn't about standards for standard's sake so much as your point 1 above - motivation to change.

Posted by Matt Robinson on February 19, 2003, at 2:35 p.m.:

I don't know where this "10%" statistic came from. Depending on the site, the numbers vary quite a lot (blogs about web design tend to have a lot more Opera and Mozilla users, for example; up to about 20%) but the number of Netscape 4 users on all of my sites hasn't been above 2% in the last 2 years (and I suspect that at least half of those hits are from myself making sure the site is still readable)

Bollocks to Netscape 4. It has so few users these days that it's not even worth discussing. I'm more annoyed at being held back by Internet Explorer these days. :)

Posted by David Naylor on March 10, 2004, at 11:28 a.m.:

One reason why xhtml shouldn't be used yet, imho, is the fact that there is no good way of sending an xhtml document with the correct mime type (application/xhtml+xml). If you do so, only Mozilla will know what this means. If you don't, all browsers will treat your code as messy HTML (Which is the opposite of what you want to acheive.)

XHTML is good, but the browser public (read Internet Explorer...) is not reay for it yet...

Posted by JE on July 12, 2004, at 1:08 p.m.:

Follow up to David Naylor's comment, check out the interesting document;


Posted by dekinski on August 21, 2005, at 1:27 a.m.:

The reason table layouts are still used so much is mainly due to the extra cost of developing otherwise. Give a client the choice of with or without tables and then present them with an estimate and they'll choose the cheaper option every time.

XHTML and CSS may well be the future but we're still a long way off (they've been saying it's the future for a while now as you well know!). It just isn't reliable enough right now, for instance the CSS Challenge examples fail in Konqueror which is the yard stick I use. If Konqueror can draw a page, anything can.

Posted by Boda on March 5, 2006, at 3:40 p.m.:

Web designers are scared of losing readers who use old browsers that don't support CSS is a good point. There should be a tool or filter on the web server available which checks the browser capability and translates new CSS standards backwards into HTML tables for older browsers.

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