Oct 23, 2013

[Web] Rappler: The Fluffy News Site

When independent news agency Rappler first came along, I had to admit I was rather curious about the whole thing. I mean come one, here we had a group that was directly associated with any of our traditional media outlets trying to be some sort of new voice in local journalism. Plus you have Maria Ressa as the site's CEO and Executive Editor, which has a certain degree of pull for folks who care about where their news comes from. I love her, but it's not like she proofreads all the articles and videos that the site releases.

With Rappler being the supposed social version of a news site, it frustrates me even more what a horrible user experience the site presents. A lot of the social features that the site is proud of really don't serve serious news readers. And thus it ends up feeling like it's overloaded with too many gimmicks.

You know it's bad that when you first arrive on the site, you pretty much get the image above - a glimpse of a headline and then that huge box for today's highlights. And don't be surprised - every day the Editor's Pick is most likely going to be the daily Rappler newscast. Go figure.

So let's discuss why this and many other site features are counter-productive for a news reader.

First, the site does not support the speedy and efficient consumption of news. A lot of folks turn to online news sources to get past the inane commentary we get in local news stations. Thus to force users to consider viewing videos right away is really a bad idea. Plus they're videos hosted on YouTube, a site that is blocked in most corporate environments thus more often than not what you end up seeing is a blacked out box saying that the URL was blocked or something to that effect.

Second, the site design actually makes it harder to find the rest of the headlines instead of helping users get there right away. Most news site know to have a Top Stories widget floating high up in the page so that it's visible upon arriving at the site or with a minimal scroll down. Beyond the beyonds, you have to jump through a number of hurdles before you can get to any semblance of a summary of the top stories of the day.

The closest you can get to an overall summary of trending stories for the day is the Mood Navigator, tied to Rappler's blatant attempt at being social with their Mood Meter. The Mood Meter is nothing more than an exercise in stating the obvious. Run a story on government corruption - people will be angry. Post photos of a natural disaster - people will be sad. How does everyone's supposed mood help me understand the news better?

And if you try to navigate with the Mood Navigator, it's another horrible UI experience. Hover over a circle and you'll get a full snap of the headline (they get truncated in their visual circles), and then you need to click that link. If you don't hover over the precise spot (usually the headline text), then you will either remain in the first circle you triggered or at another smaller circle in the same area. And for those who like to load multiple news articles in new tabs all at once, your middle mouse button click won't work here. It doesn't play nice with the Rappler Mood Navigator.

If you do get to select the right circle, you might not actually end up at the right article immediately. You see, Rappler also has "The wRap", which is a more editori-curated lists of the top ten stories for the day. If the article you picked in the Mood Navigator is also on The wRap, then you'll end up at the page dedicated to The wRap, which only consist of short summaries of all the news stories. It could have been a great way to take in the day's news at a glance. Instead it's another hurdle that you have to jump over in order to get to the actual news article. See the screenshot above? The irony is not lost on me that to read the full article you're being told to "Read more on Rappler". I thought I was already at the site!

Then we get to the Thought Leaders articles. Oh where do I begin? Images can go a long way to sell a story. Repeated images not so much. Repeated images of the person who wrote the article, even less so. Are Thought Leader posts just opinion pieces? Are they more journalistic essays? What if I have no idea who the Thought Leader is - will seeing their image really matter?

I feel bad for Marites Dañguilan Vitug, who appears to be the most prolific of all Thought Leaders. I feel bad since her image thus becomes the most common in the section, normally occupying 3 out of 4 possible image slots on any given day. Does seeing her picture make me better appreciate what the article is about? Do I immediately understand that today she's talking about corruption and last time she was talking about the Pope? Every time though, it's her image (which thankfully has been updated after more than a year of the prior photo).

And you stumble across Thought Leader style articles all throughout the site. Thus when you share these articles on social media (which is clearly a key goal for the site), the preview image is, well, Vitug. Or whoever else wrote the article. And statistically speaking, we get a lot of write-ins from Filipinos who don't even live here, but are talking about local issues. I'm not saying that they can't, but I'm not sure why they get full feature space. Are we looking to bring back the Ilustrado culture of the Spanish era?

Then you get to the articles themselves, which are riddled with typos and factual inaccuracies. The frontline journalists with full credentials (read: experience) do well. But a lot of the random contributors are really just blog-worthy (and yes, I know what that says about my own writing here). But hey, I get leeway with my typos and lapses since I know that I'm not a full member of the press. I don't know what their excuse is.

And then there's the dogfooding - the need for Rappler employees to constantly share Rappler articles over their personal social media channels. It makes the Huffington Post look downright conservative in contrast. And sometimes I see folks share articles with nothing to contribute or being unable to relate to the topic. Blind re-sharing for the sake of some vague social media engagement metric is just wrong.

Rappler tries really hard to be hip, modern and blatantly "social" - just look at the over 120 social media share buttons across the front page. But I don't think they truly understand what the term means - what more the responsibility all of the writers need to live up to in order to be a true news agency in this country. And while individual news articles can be pretty fulfilling at times, as a whole the site is a mess and not at all fun to navigate for anyone trying to catch up with the events of the day.

I'll save my discussion related to their app for another post. That'll be a different story entirely.
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