Hot topic: organising news online

While going through the layout and structure of some of the UK’s online papers, I noted something interesting in telegraph.co.uk – their HOT TOPICS section.

They aren’t particularly making a song and dance about it – it’s not in their site A-Z, and a search of the telegraph.co.uk site only brings back pages which feature the HOT TOPICS bar (at the bottom of the page). And neither are they unique in using it – hot topic sections can be found on thisislondon, and the mirror, – but telegraph.co.uk is the only online broadsheet trying this (at the time of writing).

Still, you will find it hard to miss on the telegraph.co.uk hompage – it’s directly below the persistent navigation, offering a range of news themes to look at – but only a handful, that’s the key.

I’m not sure how long they’ve been experimenting with this, as I can’t check in the waybackwhen machine (thanks to telegraph.co.uk’s long-established use of robots.txt – I just hope someone somewhere is storing this stuff for posterity – or the development of online journalism right now is going to be pretty hard to pin down for future historians).

But it strikes me as an interesting take on web-native navigation within a news site, which raises some serious issues for how people now find things online.

It comprises a mix of (editorialised) running issues (today it’s banks and finance, the ashes etc.), in addition to key (or popular) areas of the site set out for promotion (James Cracknell’s column). It is taking the traditional newspaper notion of a ‘package’ to it’s natural conclusion online – offering a simple way to present long-running news events, organised around (perceived) user-need, rather than high-minded ideas of how to organise information.

Speaking of which, this simple overview of content soon gives way when you click on any story within the site (say Migrants to get tips on claiming benefits on path to citizenship). HOT TOPICS is now relegated to the bottom of the page, and the reader is presented with no less than four rows of navigation across the top of the page, comprising:

  • A top row of global navigation, followed by;
  • A thorough list of sub-divisions in local navigation, followed by;
  • An alternative, and more news-driven (as opposed to conceptually unified) level of local navigation, followed by;
  • A list of section breadcrumbs, suggesting a simplified, and alternative, top-down route to the story.

Compare it with guardian.co.uk’s two simple rows of navigation; a colour-coordinated global list, above a shade-graded bread-crumb-like local navigation, and it looks incredibly busy.

So is this deep-structure navigation within the site a reflection of their readers’ needs? Do the Telegraphs’ generally older hardcopy-readers require more signage when it comes to getting around the website, than the Guardian’s comparatively younger (and more web-savvy) hard-copy readership? Or are these different levels of access aimed at different user groups within the telegraph.co.uk community? Hard to say…

But back to HOT TOPICS – where has this idea come from? A cynic might argue this is a top-down take on Twitter’s bottom-up Trending Topics – that it represents a visual (as much as a conceptual) corruption of the ‘democratic’ idea of user-determined news we are becoming increasingly used to.

But that would belie two factors; the (likely) possibility that these topics are informed by web and site search/traffic trends, and the fact that other web-native news aggregators have been doing something (admittedly more complicated but) similar for a while now – see NewsNow with it’s Hot Topics, or Yahoo News with it’s Hot Topics.

Regardless of where the idea has come from, or indeed how ‘hot’ the topics in question actually are (Swine flu still features, despite news it has likely plateaued breaking on the 30th of July), it has one very powerful advantage which might make other online newspapers sit up and take note.

This particular method of organising content will make it easier for telegraph.co.uk to mould it’s navigation to changing events in a way which is impossible while maintaining an intellectually rigid, top-down interpretation of subject matter – (as hardcopy publications have been using since Caxton).

And that is an invaluable advantage when you risk being scooped by the man on the street as much as by your commercial competitors.

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