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Do readers actually care whether a publication’s website resembles its print version? Perhaps not. Growth in online news reading has been robust, despite the cluttered and unpredictable appearance of most online newspapers. Some 43 percent of people with broadband Internet connections at home turn to the Internet for news at least once a day, while only 38 percent pick up a local newspaper, and a mere 17 percent look at a national newspaper, according to a 2005 survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. On the other hand, online viewership might have grown even more briskly, and penetrated other, older audiences, if websites looked more like print publications.

It is known that the Web’s limitations are a huge bother for designers, who have struggled for a decade to create print-like layouts within the generally meager limits of HTML, written by computer scientists, which was never intended to support sophisticated graphic design. “PCs may have opened up the door for anybody to be a designer, but they’ve also put in some huge restrictions, in terms of HTML and what somebody can actually do,” says Sarah Quinn, a member of the visual journalism faculty at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, FL.

There are many ways to convert print layouts to electronic form. The most popular is Adobe Systems’ Portable Document Format (PDF), designed to ensure that a page of text will have the same appearance whether it’s viewed on a computer screen or printed out on paper. Technology companies such as Zinio use PDF as the underlying format for online periodicals. (Zinio produces Technology Review’s digital edition.) But PDF-based documents have their own limitations; text does not reflow when a window is resized, for example.

To some commentators, the Times Reader project, Zinio editions, and other efforts to replicate the look of a print publication online are throwbacks to a pre-Internet past in which newspaper editors spoonfed news to the public. “Why not design the next frontier for the sharing of news [to take] advantage of all the new opportunities technology permits – linking, conversation, multimedia, search, selectivity, depth, currency? Oh, yeah, it was already invented. It’s the Web,” writes Jeff Jarvis, a critic and columnist who writes the popular blog BuzzMachine. Jarvis characterizes the Times Reader and alternatives such as the British Guardian Digital Edition as attempts to “grasp desperately onto a past that is disappearing.”

But with Microsoft’s new presentation technology, Web-like interactivity doesn’t have to come at the expense of the design wisdom of the past, say designers. “If a newspaper or a book or a magazine or a billboard follows the classic principles of design – dominance and hierarchy on a page, and particularly designing on a grid – that’s very helpful to anyone looking at it,” says Quinn. “This new technology enables the flexibility to use some of those principles online.”

Microsoft says it will eventually release software development tools so that other publications can create their own versions of the Times Reader. Test versions of the Reader will be available to Internet users this summer, the company said.

Home page image courtesy of The New York Times.

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