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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Page numbers add context for online readers

I notice the Guardian has added a nice little feature at the bottom of stories which shows which page the story ran on in the paper, if it did, where it was first published and when it was last updated online:

"This article appeared in the Guardian on Saturday February 23 2008 on p1 of the Top stories section. It was last updated at 02:17 on February 23 2008."
It's a nice touch giving that context - where a story appears in the paper effectively reflects how many 'Diggs' it got at conference, how relevant or important it is. Stories considered most important are at front of section and top of page. Less important stories further in and lower down. So page numbers are a useful guide.

The Guardian's 'article history' doesn't appear to be working uniformly across the site yet, no doubt another feature of their recent redesign that's going to take a while to bed in. And it's not alone, the San Francisco Chronicle also includes page numbers, (thanks to Editor on the Verge, Yoni Greenbaum, for the link). I don't know if it's entirely automated or requires human intervention, but I hope it's resource-light and will catch on.

There's a lot of talk these days about the role of editors in news and whether it becomes defunct online because readers can now do the job of sorting important stories from weaker ones by voting on them, linking to them or ignoring them.

Readers can do those things, of course, and can find information directly and bypass news sites altogether if they want. But not everyone is that motivated and most of us don't have the time.

We still want editors to sift through the tide of information that surfaces daily and tell us which stories are most worthy of our attention. Their take on what's important is in itself useful information and I think their role remains crucial.

I was reminded of this the other day while talking to someone who regularly reads several online newspapers around the world. He said he wouldn't want news homepages to become lists of readers' favourites: "I like to see what the newspapers think is the big news of the day." The difference in style, priorities and political leanings of various news sites adds still more context to the daily parade of stories.

This is something those of us focused on redesigning news delivery should keep in mind. I love the community side of digital life and think it's essential for news organisations to dive into it. But not at the expense of exercising their own news judgement.