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Combating Web screen limitations

Both TV and the Web are audiovisual media. Like television, the Web as a news delivery platform has a constrained "picture area." You can only get so much on a screen at once, and generally screen "real estate" is not very large. This limitation is at odds with one of the Web's strengths.

Because the Web is not time constrained as a traditional television newscast is, and because disk storage space to deliver news content is virtually limitless, you can put long stories, stories with many pieces, deep stories on the Web. Your Web news lineup can have many more pieces than a television newscast, or for that matter more generally than a newspaper.

But getting your audience to tune in to your entire newscast is a challenge when you have limited screen space. To solve this dilemma and a closely related one unique to the Web, news organization Web designers have come up with two strategies to deliver news on the Web: 1) indexing / excerpting and 2) chunking. Both of these strategies take advantage of the Web's ability to hyperlink content.

Indexing / Excerpting

We do excerpting with CNN does both indexing and excerpting. This is how it works. The news organization Web site has a "Front" page or a home page that serves as a constantly changing preview to what is in the Web site. There will be pictures (often thumbnails), headlines, and in the case of excerpting, there will be either excerpts of the story or teasers (or both). Each excerpt/teaser will have some kind of link to the full story. In the case of indexing, the headline is linked to the story.

Many news Web sites do some kind of combination of both excerpting and indexing. Additionally, they may organize their "front" page (home page, top page) into sections that treat similar topics. News "sections" within the site may in turn have their own home pages or section pages. The BBC site is very good at doing this, with news section pages organized by geographic regions.

Indexing and Excerpting, done well, permit the Web site visitor to quickly scan news items for what is available. Then the visitor can make choices about what to read or hear or view.

"Chunking" a story

The other part of this screen "real estate" conflict with news content has to do with longer stories or stories that have many parts. While the computers that deliver news on the Web make it easy to deliver large, multi-faceted stories, all the material still has to be delivered to a computer screen of a fixed height and width. Several studies have shown that people do not like to scroll through many screens to read / view pages of text.

The practical limit turns out to be about 1½-2 screens full for any story. So if a story is longer, the story is broken into to logical "chunks" that often can stand alone. This requires a story organization that considers each point where a transition might be used as a breaking point calling for a new piece of the story. So what might be a transition as simple as "on the other hand," or "opponents, however" becomes a signal that it may be time to break up the story. And the transition then gets reworded as something of a teaser that makes the reader want to click on a link that says "more" or "read the rest of the story" or even suggests the content of the next piece, such as "a court challenge."

When a story is broken into several pieces or naturally has several parts, Web editors often create a small navigation element (such as a table, a floating box, or even a navigation bar) that follows the story and goes with each chunk of the story. In this way, the viewer can move easily from one piece to the next. Sometimes major enterprise stories are planned out as special mini Web sites of their own, with their own home page and their own navigation systems.

Regardless, longer stories and stories with several pieces need to be logically tied together and logically chunked.