"In print, your customers, the people who buy your newspaper, are readers. But when they consume your content online, they become users."
This from Khoi Vinh, the New York Times website's Design Director, who spoke at the most recent Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism.
It's an important concept. It's easy to look at the Web, see words and pictures, and assume that the people who visit your news website are looking for the exact same experience they have when they read your newspaper. Ie: "Tell me, newspaper people, what's going on in the world." In fact, however, they're not. The difference in the user's expectations is based on the tool.
Pick up a piece of paper, and your brain tells you: "This is a piece of paper. There are a few things you can do with this. You can read what it says. You can make notes on it (and share those notes with anyone to whom you physically hand the paper). If you really want to, you can fold this up into a paper airplane." But that's it.
Approach a computer, however, and your brain tells you, "You can use this to do a jillion things. Play a game. Give it information and get information back (eg: Orbitz). Post information for anyone in the world to see. Create a map. Etc... Oh, yeah, and you can read stuff too."
So when a reader approaches your news site, their brain is a priori telling them they should expect to have some control over the stuff on the screen, and they should be able to participate in what's happening there. A fundamental principle of design (any design: the design of buildings, tools, doorknobs, as well as computer interfaces) is: "If your user has certain expectations about how things will work, and you don't meet those expectations, you will lose your user."
Which means newspeople need to think differently about the stuff they put on their websites than the way they think about the stuff they put in their hard-copy newspapers. As I wrote previously, on the Web, content is not enough. You need to give your user control and ways to participate.
Image courtesy of b_d_solis. Creative Commons License