mail and guardian online reviewed

This post was written in August 2016. Content mentioned here may have been pulled or changed on mg.co.za since then

Preamble

We love the Mail and Guardian. The investigations, the critical edge, the way all stories in the paper are given reasonably enough due — there aren’t any 200-word throwaway articles here. We love the way they have (or had in AmaBhungane’s case) ‘centres’ for investigative and health journalism, and they get fellows from some institutions to write for them.

Hell, we even love the dimensions of the newspaper.

But online it’s a different story.

When the Mail and Guardian recently launched their new website, Editor-in-Chief Verashni Pillay wrote that it marks a “new way of thinking” for the organisation, saying that “it is part of an ongoing process of change and innovation at the M&G to ensure we position ourselves for the future.”

Well, the website — in terms of function — behaves similarly to the last: it’s still rather static and is seemingly first-and-foremost an archive for the paper’s content.

“Innovation”, you say? The new website did not bring with it practical changes that fall in line with news website trends — there’s no option to ‘favourite’ content for later, there’s little evidence of them doing interesting things with multimedia (more on this later), and it wasn’t released with souped-up apps.

The website wasn’t even put through rigorous beta testing — it just sprang up out of the blue. Unless, of course, it was beta testing was done internally, but that’s unlikely considering the many kinks the website comes with, discussed below.

So, still “ongoing” then.

On adding more bespoke online content to the new site, Pillay wrote: “Quick hits, wire content and breaking news defined a large part of our online output [on the old site]. There’s still a space for that, but for a few weeks now we have quietly launched our daily edition. This is a daily output of about 10 quality pieces of original journalism by M&G reporters, on the level of quality of what you will see in the newspaper.”

But these 10 items largely consist of things like curated Twitter reactions to happenings. Also, 10 is an awfully arbitrary number.

What’s more is that the website rarely looks like it’s been updated, apart from the content right at the top. One encounters roughly the same things every day, especially towards the bottom of the home page.

“The new site… is more visual than our previous sites, with slimmed down but punchier information about each article on the front of the site,” Pillay wrote.

We can’t work out what “more visual” means, but mg.co.za commits numerous design faux pas, which we’ll get into later.

She does get one thing bang-on: there really are “larger images” — boy are there larger images. But more on that in due course.

She says there is a “greater variety of choice of articles with far more spots to carry our content,” which again, we can’t really work out. But content is looked at below.

To wrap this up, she mentions a new breaking news “sidebar”, and promises the new site is a “breathing room in an increasingly manic online space and we hope our design choices reflect that.”

Design and Functionality

Editor Pillay wrote “The new website is just a change of skin. But if you pop open the hood you’ll see we’ve made a dramatic change in how we deliver the news to you,” regarding the new site, but it’s tough to make out what differences have been made.

Also, because of no public beta-testing, mg.co.za has many niggles that break the experience. On top of that, there are design issues that are quite questionable, like the font choices and the massive images.

Functionality

With the new website, M&G didn’t really improve an awful lot on its previous iteration.

The website barely holds itself together. It’s beset with basic problems like long loading times — website ranker Alexa puts page speeds of mg.co.za at 2.7 seconds, writing that 74% of sites are faster.

Pages often need to be reloaded for everything to appear, and there’s a whole lot of awkward content pop-in.

When we tested it, the page took 39 seconds to load fully.

At the time of writing the ‘load more’ button doesn’t work, so, for example, viewing a writer’s content that is older than a few weeks is impossible on the site.

On top of that, the website has not added anything new to help the user’s experience.

Simple things like there being no ability to ‘favourite’ stories or save them for later, there’s no customization options for the user to tailor the site to their interests.

All pages look the same, too, and there is no bespoke page design or functionality for stories that have multimedia potential — more on that below.

They don’t even have their own in-house comments section (rather opting to continue with a Disqus plug-in).

All of these negate the need to sign up to the website unless one is a digital subscriber, which is a bad thing from the M&G’s point of view.

To wrap up here, the new design was not partnered with a proper mobile app (there is still the old app which is a portal for e-editions and links to the website). Why they still don’t have one we’ll never know, especially since they’ve committed to releasing 10 new pieces of content a day — surely they will increase their reach with mobile.

The mobi site works. That’s that.

Presentation

From extremely pixelated images and uninspiring font choices to a general lack of colour, M&G’s new website is poorly presented.

There is just an overall lack of charisma or personality with the site, so sterile and monotone is their colour scheme.

Overall, the Mail and Guardian’s website design does something that we see many South African news organisations doing — they do not make attempts to naturally transpose the design of the paper (its colours, font choices, styles, and even personality — as discussed elsewhere on this post) to online platforms.

International websites like the aforementioned Guardian, and likewise the newyorker.com and nytimes.com managed to replicate their print forms, both design and content-wise, online without skipping a beat.

Images

A design choice for the new site was to make images that accompany articles much bigger, giving birth to horribly pixelated photos. This page, for example, is pixelated image after pixelated image.

It’s only because old photos are stretched to fit the new dimensions, you say? Nope — this story from July 2016 has a grainy photograph.

But why make images big at all? Why make it so, for example, that the cartoon in the middle of the landing page requires the user to scroll over it to see its entirety?

Images are important online — but they don’t need to dominate the page.

And sometimes articles have no photo, like this one.

An infographic is used as a thumbnail image to an article. They are not interchangeable with photographs.

Moreover, M&G seem to think images that accompany articles are interchangeable with infographics.

And while we’re here: their infographics are badly done for online. Infographics like this one are far too complicated and look awkward on online articles. Online infographics should be short, sharp, and to the point, with a bit of responsive animation if possible.

Images are also recycled like nobody’s business — see this page by staffer Craig McKune, for instance.

Some photos are also used inappropriately — does this article about Brexit’s possible effect on South Africa really need a photo of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan?

This article on at the start of the 2016/17 English Premier League season used a photo of Leicester City winning the league the previous season. Why? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to use something fresh?

Fonts and Colours

The website uses just a few colours, namely grey, black, white, and red.

They seemingly refuse to tap into the potential that colour can offer a user.

They’re current awkward capitalised writing of ‘news analysis’ and ‘comment’ before the start of stories can be negated through colour-coding these article types.

Colour-coding types of stories (comment, general news, features and so on) can be effective, as seen in the brilliantly designed guardian.co.uk, who have intelligently used colours to make story types recognisable at a glance.

Overall, M&G online makes no use of any visual cues to suggest the importance of the article or its type. Strange, seeing that they do use little logos to brand stories in the newspapers that come from their Health centre for journalism, or recently during Local Government Elections.

‘Columnists’ block on the home page. Just look at that empty space

As you go down the home page, there is a large grey box that houses work from M&G’s columnists, but the use of light grey text against a dark grey background makes it not very inviting. The photographs of the columnists are too small and inconsistent (some have their faces, some have full body, one is an eagle.) There is also empty space at the bottom of the box. Ditto the ‘most read’ box.

They also made the strange choice of using a sans-serif font, which makes for robotic-looking text, especially when italicised. Header fonts are also uninspiring, and there really isn’t much variety with font choices, either.

Misc

Okay, what else.

Staff profiles are neglected.

New staff members, like, say, Education Editor Prega Govender have no staff profile or photograph.

Staff who have not been at the M&G for years still appear in their profiles as if they are still active contributors. To name a few, Nic Dawes, and (current one) Verashni Pillay are both listed as Editor-In-Chief. Adrian Ephraim is listed as Online News Editor, even though he has left for Independent Online.

The M&G also seemingly ask staff to send over their own photographs to accompany profiles, resulting in blog-like staff photos which make for an unprofessional and inconsistent look and feel.

Staff profiles themselves are long winded and attempt to be witty, which is not appropriate for the website — leave that for social media. This chap’s profile, for example, mentions nothing about his role at the company. (FYI, he is their ex-social media manager). This is not a design problem, but, well…

Okay, so to wrap up there’s also…

  • Different items on web pages are poorly spaced out, making everything look cluttered.
  • Body text is floated to the right (adverts and related content to the left) which is a strange design choice seeing that English is read left-to-right.
  • There are no hyperlinks in the more recent content
  • Authors of content are credited with bylines and also on the bottom of the page, but when two different authors are credited on one story, the page does not know what to do for the bottom one, so it just credits the first person, like here.
  • The Zapiro cartoon somewhere in the middle of the home page is too big and needs to be scrolled over to see it in its entirety.

Content

We are not criticising the quality of the M&G newspaper’s journalism here, but rather how they make it online-friendly (they don’t). We’re also considering bespoke online and multimedia content.

Transforming print content & other things

When it comes to importing newspaper items, the M&G makes no attempt to change it to be legible online.

  • They don’t use proper SEO headlines. M&G mostly copy/paste newspaper headlines, rendering them meaningless online (where they’re viewed in isolation). Their headlines are sometimes devoid of key words, making them impossible for search engines to find. Example: an actual headline on mg.co.za is “Lunch and Life: The Way We Were”. Yep
  • Accompanying images are often badly chosen (as discussed earlier) — Lunch And Life can help us out here, where the image is a photograph of the writer. It may be a column of her’s but that doesn’t mean it is an appropriate image to accompany the story
  • There is evidence of poor copy tasting of what content from print should be included online. Rather, they put absolutely everything online — we can’t work out why this is even on the website.
  • They seem to have stopped using hyperlinks
  • Articles don’t get many tags and tags themselves are questionable: There is a tag called ‘Houghton’ — it refers to Nelson Mandela’s home, and so wouldn’t it be better to add ‘Nelson Mandela’ to that tag? ‘Houghton’ on its own could mean anything. (Oh and also, ‘Houghton’ sends you to an ugly page where an infographic is used as an accompanying image)
  • Ther’s no real cross-promotion of content from M&G’s centre for Health Journalism, and both are designed differently. Also, they don’t really cherry pick the Thought Leader [hyerp] gems, which could prove useful.
  • Recommended stories are often badly done, and the sidebar that has suggested content rarely gets changed. In fact, it’s stagnant for long stretches of time. Whether this is lazy or absent minded online editing or poor coding, we don’t know.
  • Parts of the home page seem to be neglected — more on that below
  • The ‘in the paper’ section is great and convenient, but surely there’s a better way to present it. Also, it comes back to design once again — one big image denoting main story then lots of picture-and-headline blocks. Zzzzzzzz

The Home page

M&G’s home page has a number of poor design decisions (some already mentioned) and some questionable editorial decisions.

(As mentioned above, the home page also suffers poor loading times and awful pop-in of content.)

  • For a start, there is too much on the home page — there is far too much scrolling to get to the end of it.
  • This is not helped by the fact that, say, each item within ‘Latest News’ is presented with the same sized photo-and-headline format, therefore making hierarchy of content unclear
  • Sections are not colour coded, making them difficult to recognise at a glance
  • These may seem to be nitpicking, we know, but there is no real way to see what is an essential read apart from the one with the biggest photo (i.e. the main article). This makes it difficult for online readers, who don’t really spend much time overall on news websites or apps
  • ‘Business’ is way low down on the home page for some reason (nitpicking, we know)
  • So is Multimedia content
  • Most of the meatier things on the home page are paywalled, limiting real incentive for non-subscribers to be there
Found on the home page, these headlines link to M&G’s sister websites

The ‘Long Read’ section

This deserves its own section in this post — The ‘Long Read’ section (which can be found near the end of the home page, and which is presumably a riff off the Guardian’s excellent ‘The Long Read’, a series of lengthy features) is rubbish.

For a start, there is poor identification of what constitutes as a long read by the online editors — things that are standard M&G length have found their way there. Like this and this.

They did nail it once (at the time of writing, anyway) with this, which wouldn’t look out of place in the Guardian’s series.

Bespoke online content & multimedia

M&G’s online content strategy seems to mainly revolve around curating tweets that reacted to something. Over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over again. Seriously, there is at least one a week.

  1. Does it really matter what the average person makes of something?
  2. Why does the M&G, whose brand is more about in-depth journalism, use what is basically the online equivalent of vox pops?

It’s a weird strategy and makes for click-bait-ey content that ultimately dilutes the otherwise excellent things from print.

They even once copy/pasted a story from Wikipedia about a Japanese porn star killing a Yakuza boss, accompanied with a horribly grainy photograph. That article concludes: “This article was originally published on Wikipedia under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0 license.” Wonderful.

And just look at this horrible ‘Breaking News’ page.

And:

  • Galleries like this one makes the user cycle through photographs. Yawn. If Facebook or Instagram have taught us anything, it’s that people would rather scroll through photos. The New York Times and the Guardian show the effectiveness of that
  • This article on mg.co.za links to another story that is on another website. Why?
  • Surely they could have used multimedia to present this better. This is far too prosaic for online and we don’t presume many will remain to read it in its entirety. At the end of that article is a 13-minute (!!!) long video that M&G didn’t make.
  • And this.
  • This video about condoms is a nice idea, but a bit too much introduction. But we think it’s nice to see the writers and hear them talk. Don’t judge — that’s our job

Conclusion

mg.co.za would be forgiven for most of these problems if all that was wrong was general niggles that come with a new website — sure, they could have (and should have) beta tested it, but, whatever.

But they make the same mistakes we see most, if not all, other South African news websites making. The bespoke content is shallow, they don’t really use proper SEO, they don’t use any kind of clever or interesting design, print content isn’t migrated online in a way that makes it online-friendly, and there are some articles they have done with genuine multimedia potential that just went unrealised.

What’s more is that the website’s design suffers a lack of charisma and personality — a shame, since the M&G is a publication known for that; it’s one where we’re sure all its readers actually take notice of who writes the articles.

What’s sad is that there is little evidence they’re having fun with the entire thing, and rather just seem focused on making further ways into the online realm by shooting out 10 pieces of content a day and launching a new website.

That surely can’t be all it takes.