At last week’s public hearing on FCC license renewal, both Patti McGettigan of WOOD TV 8 and Catherine Behrendt of WZZM 13 responded to the criticism of their stations’ broadcasts by explaining how their “online product” [websites] offered supplemental content that can help fill the gaps left in their newscasts. McGettigan described the internet as a “fabulous tool for us [WOOD TV]” and how it has allowed them to expand election coverage and offers opportunities for viewer feedback (to their credit, WOOD TV does place links to provide feedback prominently throughout their site) while Behrendt said that WZZM 13 uses their “online product” to “enrich our [WZZM 13’s] news coverage.” Consequently, Media Mouse decided that it would be a worthwhile effort to examine each of their websites.
Unfortunately, neither site provides the quality resources to offset the dismal state of their broadcasts, and even if they did, such a “solution” would not be sufficient to make up for the quality of their programming since many people still lack access to the internet. Both WOOD TV 8 and WZZM 13 post stories as direct transcripts of their broadcast stories and offer online video versions of their stories. There is rarely, if ever, linking to additional resources within stories, and instead both stations offer poorly maintained repositories of links relating to stories they broadcast. Where the stations do offer supplemental content, it tends to be truncated wire stories from either NBC, ABC, or the Associated Press. Moreover, both websites seem focused on becoming “internet portals” more than news sites and focus on keeping visitors on the sites for as long as possible, offering “services” like advice on buying used cars, recipes, beauty tips, classified ads, arcade games (the WZZM 13 news reader concentration is fairly amusing, if not indicative of the overall seriousness of the station), and celebrity news. No doubt, the focus on providing as many of these “services” is an attempt to keep visitors on the site for the purpose of advertising, which both sites liberally serve up in a variety of different ways throughout their sites.
The following is a brief evaluation of both stations websites based on their state on September 19, 2005:
WOOD TV 8
PRESENTATION OF NEWS
WOOD TV recently redesigned their website, and while only minor changes have been made for the most part, the changes have enhanced the usability of the site. News is prominently displayed in the center column of the site with a featured local story displaying on the home page and a list of recent local, state, and national news appearing on to the right of the featured story. Prominent links to related sections (local news, national news, news links, and contact) are placed immediately above the featured story. Below the featured article (following a somewhat obtrusive advertisement that appears to be part of the text), there are lists of recent video stories, news stories about Michigan, and national news.
Moreover, throughout the site a search feature is available that allows visitors to search through the site and view archived stories.
The WOOD TV 8 site, while featuring an extensive amount of commercial content, presents it primarily in an unobtrusive manner. For the most part, it is easy for visitors to determine what is commercial or advertiser content and ignore it. The notable exception is of course the large banner on the homepage for WOOD TV’s used car sales page, but most other content, including the schedule and promotion of NBC programming on WOOD TV 8, is placed behind fairly well-labeled menu options.
Furthermore, with the exception of the “consumer” section, most commercial content is placed at the bottom of the menu bar.
SUPPLEMENTAL ONLINE CONTENT
Rather than integrate supplemental content into stories or placing it immediately at the end of the article, WOOD TV 8 places online resources in a separate section of the site called “News Links.” The “News Links” section is little more than a list of websites and addresses related to recent stories from the station’s broadcast but no link
The advertising on the WOOD TV site is fairly minimal and largely unobtrusive. Most of the page ads are small and do not get in the way of content and as state previously, most commercial content is fairly obvious to any user viewing the site.
The simple menu bar is clear and appropriately organized to emphasize news over other sections of the site. A sitemap is also provided to assist in navigation.
The WOOD TV site fails to validate to the standards outlined by the World Wide Web Consortium with the homepage generating 282 errors, many of which relate to the use of Microsoft-specific HTML tags and invalid HTML mark-up. Adherence to the W3C standards would increase accessibility and improve the usefulness of the site. The site fails basic accessibility testing. This is problematic as the site may not render properly in some browsers and will likely be unintelligible for visitors using a variety of assistive devices.
Additionally, video content is only offered in a proprietary Microsoft format.
PRESENTATION OF NEWS
On their homepage, WZZM 13 presents news in a fairly logical manner. The column immediately to the right of the menu bar features stories categorized as “Top News” (the link to these stories is broken), “Latest Online Video,” “Greater Grand Rapids,” “Latest Headlines” (the link reloads the home page), “WZZM 13 Podcasts,” “News from Across the USA,” and “Sports.” In keeping with the importance WZZM 13 attaches to weather during its broadcast, the site prominently displays a rather large radar map of West Michigan and links to WZZM 13’s latest weather forecast.
As with their broadcasts, commercial content masquerading as news is commonplace on WZZM 13’s web site. The site features extensive promotion of ABC television programs, which while expected, is often done in a way that impairs the use of the site. The site also features sections devoted entirely to promoting commercial products including “Try it Before you Buy It” and “Technology.”
The site also features prominent links to the program “Take Five Grand Rapids” which appears to be little more than a vehicle for product promotion and advancing outdated notions about what interests women (“beauty tips”, “household hints”, and “celebrities”). For example, a recent series of entries in the Take Five weblog feature photos of a Take Five “reporter,” Stephanie Webb, musing in a rather star-struck nature about a recent trip to Hollywood where she interviewed ABC celebrities in order promote ABC shows that will be airing on WZZM 13 (this is consistent with her previous work at WGRD, where she was “the celebrity smut guru” for their morning show). Other links include pages devoted to the show’s version of “extreme mini makeover,” various pages devoted to the importance of decorating your home, and numerous contests.
SUPPLEMENTAL ONLINE CONTENT
One of the benefits of publishing on the web is the capacity to link relevant sites and documents within articles, a basic technical feature that WZZM 13 has thus far ignored. Similarly, during broadcasts news readers routinely tell viewers to “go to our [WZZM 13’s] web site” and “click on ‘news links’ for more information.” Unfortunately, the “News Links section of the site is little more than a list of insufficiently annotated links. WZZM does not provide relevant contextual links within stories as hyperlinks, nor do stories feature additional content beyond a transcript of what is read on the air.
As would be expected from a news organization that exists to generate profit, the WZZM 13 site contains a significant amount of advertising. While the advertising does not impair the site’s use on the interior pages containing news stories, with ads restricted to a single ad in the page header, the amount of advertisements for both WZZM 13 shows and programs on ABC on the site’s homepage make it difficult to navigate discern which links go to news content.
The menu bar is easy to use and features a logical series of menu options near the top (news, weather, sports, video, newslinks) but its usefulness lessens as it continues with prominent links to school closings (this should only be displayed when relevant), contests, recipes, and the “fluff” show “Take Five Grand Rapids.” To their credit, WZZM 13 does provide a simple sitemap (they refer to it as “table of contents”) on the bottom of each page that greatly improves navigation.
Like the WOOD TV 8 site, the WZZM 13 site fails to validate to the standards outlined by the World Wide Web Consortium with the homepage generating over 400 errors, many of which relate to the use of Microsoft-specific HTML tags and invalid HTML mark-up. The site fails basic accessibility testing. This is problematic as the site may not render properly in some browsers and will likely be unintelligible for visitors using a variety of assistive devices.
Additionally, video content is only offered in proprietary Microsoft or Real formats.