Radio Farda's new website creates the expectation in its viewers that they are at an online news website. But looking a bit deeper reveals that the site is not capable of sustaining this initial expectation but rather exposes key weaknesses both in its content and layout.
The following is a brief review [Persian text] of some of these problems. The time window for this review is during visits made to the site in the first week of July 2004. In brief, this review contends that the shortcomings stem from a lack of professional vision.
A) Lack of order and consistency in the appearance of the pages.
1. Images do not have a fixed size. One can easily spot this with a quick look at the Persian and English pages of the website. On the English page (Saturday, 3rd July) for example, there are 11 images with 11 different sizes.
2. Titles do not follow a specific pattern and are at times too long with no journalistic logic. For example, see the first headline of page one on 1st July.
3. News teasers do not follow any word limitation. Thus, they are lengthy and at times excessive.
4. Page templates can be termed as “elastic”, i.e. columns and other elements of the pages are not fixed and move arbitrarily as page elements change.
5. In some cases, one can see blank lines, and improper paragraph separation (e.g. see the last line of each column with the title of the column beneath it).
6. The design of the page is basic and the template is not properly contained (see 4 above) by the designer. (See also the details of the unprofessional style of design in the Appendix).
B) Wasting the space of the page
1. Missing headlines: The ticker which is welcoming the reader to the new website of Radio Farda can be easily replaced with the main three news headlines of the day. Also, the welcome message suitable for personal weblogs rather than one a professional and reference news website.
2. Empty spaces: Empty spaces in the pages do not follow an aesthetic logic and therefore make them unattractive.
3. Redundancy: Redundancy is a basic problem in the use of language and page design. Here, we just underline a few examples:
3.1. Voice/Voice: Using 'audio' (link) twice (in the links to different audio formats), for each story makes the page visually unattractive. Moreover, this may send a wrong message. The intelligent viewer learns easily that each news item has an associate audio link. He should not be told of this twice. A proper icon should be designed to do this.
3.2. Full text: Putting the phrase 'Full Text' is another example of redundancy. Any internet user obviously knows that reading the full text of a news story requires a click on the link or the image. This repetition is patronizing.
3.3. Date: Another example of redundancy is the use of the date and time of each story at the bottom of each news item in the main page. Such information is usually provided inside the link when it is opened. Using such pieces of information in the main page on the one hand lengthens the page unnecessarily and fills the page with tiring information.
4. Repetition of the exact piece of news in one page: On some pages, materials in the side columns are exactly the same as the materials in the main column. For example, look at the page for Science and Culture on Wednesday, 7th July: the first three items of the main column are repeated in the side column; (Diana's memorial site in Hyde Park, a film on immigration from an Iranian filmmaker, Moses's Ten Commandments in an exhibition in Germany). Surprisingly, exactly the same layout and order appears on all pages from World and Iran to Sports and the news pieces of the main column are repeated in the side column.
5. News photos: The site's ews photos currently seem to be decorative and without a web-oriented journalistic vision.
6. Section titles: Presently, section titles are crammed into the banner with small fonts which make them insufficiently highlighted. Also, some section titles such as 'About us' should not be on top of the page. These links are usually fitted at the bottom of the page. Generally speaking, the distribution of page and section titles show lack of journalistic weight.
C) Update issue
There are many examples. The most important one during browsing on Thursday 1st July can be seen in the Sports column. While the match between Greece and the Czech Republic had been over for 5 hours, the latest sports news on this page spoke about the victory of Portugal against Holland 2 days earlier. Either there should not be a Sports section or it should be regularly updated.
Among the political issues, one can mention the afternoon news story on Wednesday, 7th July on the main page, which remained unchanged until the afternoon of Thursday, 8th July: Warning by Iranian Defence Minister that Tehran would relinquish its nuclear commitments in if Iran is invaded. Keeping these in mind would users trust the site as a reliable source?
Materials on the side bar of the page are not changed regularly. This may be the result of skeleton staff or the periodical nature of these materials such as New Outlook' [Negaah Taazeh]. However, this is not true in all cases. Whatever the case the periodical nature of certain materials should be properly imparted to viewers.
In the English page, on Saturday 3rd July, the main news items belong to two or three days earlier and there are no new items.
D) Not following rules of producing main news items
1. Visiting the website on different days, one can notice an over-emphasis on news items about Iran, which to a professional eye may seem unprofessional. We believe that the impression of those associated with the site is that in order to attract more viewers there should be more emphasis on news items about Iran — and this at the cost of more important major news of the day. For instance, on 1st July, the most important news of the world was Saddam Hussein's court hearing, but the Radio Farda website had this as a second news item on the first page and Geoff Hoon's remarks on British sailors (in Iranian territorial waters) as the top news.
2. In the layout of the front page, the place of the main news item and the manner of its presentation should be changed. In the website of Voice of America and the BBC, the first news item is clearly highlighted on top of all other news items.
3. The title 'News in Brief' for what it is other news items or world news seems confusing. There are main news items, news in brief and also world reports. Divisions should be straight forward, clear and free from repetition.
4. Although issues mentioned in this review relates mainly to the Persian website of Radio Farda, the major concerns raised here also apply to the English website. For instance, in terms of classification of news items. Here, we just mention one point: Classifying news items into “diplomacy”, “trial”, “controversy”, “dialogue”, “pilgrimage”, “nuclear” and “legal” (based on a visit on 3rd July) is not based on journalistic principle but are arbitrary.
E) Lack of Professional Vision
We believe you would agree with us in saying that the points mentioned show that the main problem of Radio Farda's website is the absence of a professional vision. Moreover, this lack of professionalism more or less reflects itself in the layout, arrangement, choice of design and images and even the language used. The predominant vision in the site apparently suggests a sort of tabloid oriented trend rather than a serious journalistic vision.
A clear example of this sort of vision is the 'Free Subscription' tag on the first page. Many news and non-news websites encourage their users to visit them by inviting them to register in the site for e-alerts on the users' e-mails; but none of these sites ever speak of a free subscription and almost in all cases even if they do so, they would never advertise it boldly on their front page flag banner. (See: Tajik website of the Radio Liberty which shows this kind of subscription at the bottom of the page).
We mentioned earlier that the value and weight of titles and sections of Radio Farda's website are not clear and this is in fact an evidence of the lack of a professional vision.
The most obvious example in this regard is the frequent mistakes seen in the reports of the site. For example, in the Science and Culture page on Wednesday 7th July, the first headline reads: “Commemoration of Princess Diana by the Queen of Britain and the Memoirs of Sean Connery”.
In fact, the webmaster has inserted two different pieces of news under one title. The interesting point is that even in the text of the report both news items are incorporated without any space and at first glance one imagines that this is one piece of news. This mistake has apparently occurred — or justified — because the reporter of both news items is one person!
It appears that the problem of the incorrect distribution and arrangement of news items as discussed above lies mostly with those keeping the day-to-day affairs of Radio Farda's website rather than the organization's radio reporters and producers. In other words while Radio Farad uses the expertise of professional and experienced reporters and producers, this is apparently not the case with its website. Radio and the internet are different carriers. A piece for radio broadcast is not necessarily suitable for online posting. Each medium has its own specific features which should be properly addressed.
Radio Farda's website is currently an audio-based news website. This particular feature should be defined clearly at least in short term and as long as the site remains an extension of the radio service of Radio Farda. And the site's viewers should be “trained” accordingly.
In medium term, the best solution perhaps could be the gradual separation of the website from its mother i.e. the radio, to become and independent internet entity rather than a secondary source for those who have not managed to listen to the news and programs of Radio Farda.
However, one can also think of interim solutions as well. If the website of Radio Farda is to be fed by its radio programs, this policy can be kept while at the same time spending time and energy (such as creating simple single shift schedule) to produce proper up-to-date news items.
Even if the existing policy is to be continued, committing to certain simple rules is vital; for example no program should be merely an audio item, but it should also be accompanied by a text which gives a synopsis of the item.
Finally, this simple point has to be indicated once more that the language of radio is different from that of writing and particularly web materials. Any reconstruction of the site towards a professional one cannot ignore this fact. Language is the backbone and basis of credibility of any news website.
1. Redesigning the website of Radio Farda taking into account all professional, aesthetic and applied factors.
2. Taking advantage of an experienced team of journalists familiar with the language and world of the internet in selecting and using materials for the website. Such journalists ought to be sensitive to news and news language and familiar with the web and creative photo journalism.
3. Being mindful of the principle that any radio material is not necessarily an internet/written material. Materials for the web ought to be 'selected' and 'edited' accordingly.
4. Removing the English website and devoting the entire energy to the Persian website. With regard to the diversity and variety of English news websites, it does not appear that the English website of Radio Farda would really have a lot of visitors particularly in its current state. Therefore, probably the best solution, at least in medium term, would be to forgo the English website and spend all the energy on improving the Persian site.
Criticisms of the Page Design
Although studying the structural weaknesses of the internet website of Radio Farda includes various major and minor issues, all the items addressed in the following as defects or technical problems together form a single spirit which is suggested by the website in the first encounter and later use of the website to the user. The purpose of mentioning these items is merely to change this overall structure.
Overall appearance and setting
The overall appearance of the website, design and setting of different elements and the choice of colors are extremely unorganized and dare we say, upsetting. Any news agency and website which has the objective of informing its audience should create a sense of confidence in them. Thus, the level of this confidence can determine the qualitative degree of the website.
The viewer who wishes to obtain information needs to have confidence in the material and believe that the source is a stable and consistent source. This characteristic has to be reflected in all aspects of the website and its services. News production and its presentation on the website are factors which give confidence to the referred that one can trust the news produced on this website.
This point (i.e. instilling a positive sense) is an important principle in a news website which is generally producing news and has to be taken into consideration in web design.
After a comparison of the websites of BBC Persian, Voice of America and Radio Farda, one can easily grasp the structural differences of Radio Farda website with the other two sites. Crowdedness, inconsistency, strong colors and overall the disorder of page elements are among the major differences of Radio Farda website with the other two.
* The absence of tabling and orderly divisions: Divisions in the BBC Persian site are so organized that one can easily take its template for the purpose of publication and designing a printed version for a newspaper.
* Tabling in a manner that the eyes and mind of the reader automatically distinguishes between major and minor items and proper use of space. The page space in the websites of BBC Persian and Voice of America are fixed, the table of the main page does not change with different resolutions. This item has been ignored in Radio Farda website by putting a 100% table which contributes to the instability of the pages and further suffocation in the pages. In 1024 resolution the entire page is filled from both sides and there is no empty space in it.
* In confirmation of the previous point, the upper half of the first page uses one form and the lower half uses another form. None of the halves have a specific theme.
* The menu is not located in an appropriate place. Main menu does enjoy the appropriate location and is placed somewhere which falls out of access by scrolling the page. In the other aforementioned websites, the menus exist in their customary locations and they are in a form that traditionally the eyes of the visitor expect them to be. A reference website must remain faithful to classic principles of web design as far as possible.
* Extremely bad design of headers: For example, the photo for the 'Negaah Taazeh' column depicting feminine eyes more than anything else resembles the designs, shall we risk saying, behind road trucks in Iran and Pakistan! You would never find such illustrations in any of the pages of BBC Persian and Voice of America. Wild and careless use of colors in an attempt to show the page to be lively and attractive is one of the biggest problems of the page which has turned it into a mixture of different colors.
* Main color theme of the site: One can ask the question, by looking at the other two websites, why both the BBC and VOA websites have used a blue theme of color along with a background of gray and white in a neutral way? Why have they not used a combination of blue and orange or blue and yellow which are known as reviving in primitive books?
* Disarray in all elements: Disarray is such that the photos of the main page and photos of other pages each follow a different size pattern. For example, the size of one photo is 112X150 pixels and the photo below it is 114X170 pixels.
* Use of Flash pictures which is constantly moving on top of the page in the live section buttons next to the logos of Windows Media Player and Real Player. Which credible news website really uses animated gifs of flash files in the website? Has the use of these animated pictures been really necessary?
* Colored bar on the right hand side of the page does not really seem to have any function. The bar is right next to the small and big photos such that there is no space between this coloured bar and the photos.
* In spite of all the disarray, a box exists for sending messages with a free size and out of the page template. Was there really no better location for placing this box?
* The welcome ticker of Radio Farda's new website has made it very, shall we say immature. Novices of HTML and FRONTPAGE are among the most frequent users of this technique.
* The website logo which is expected to play the main element of communicating and cast its shadow on the other aspects of the website is really weak. Looking at the logo of BBC Persian, for example, one can see the integrity and professionalism in the header and logo design, which is missing in Radio Farda. [Persian text]
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