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How do you play the print-edition stories online?

It started out simple enough. I saw mention of the Connie Schultz article about Elizabeth Edwards and the front page of today’s Cleveland Plain Dealer.

I haven’t been reading the PD as closely since I’m no longer in the region. I was never a huge PD fan anyway, preferring the more hometown feel of the Beacon. The Indy Star has pretty much replaced the time I used to spend reading the PD as my regional paper of choice. Makes sense since I’m now in an entirely different region.

But, seeing that Connie Schultz wrote that article made me want to read it. If only I could find it! And trust me, I tried.

You’d think the dominant story in your print edition would at least still be on the radar somewhere on your Web site, even at 9 p.m. But it wasn’t anywhere on the homepage of Cleveland.com. I even did a find on the page for “Edwards” to make sure I wasn’t overlooking it.

I found a photo gallery of photos from Edwards’ visit to Cleveland, including the one prominently displayed on the front page. But it had no link to the story. (A huge pet peeve of mine. Why would you not link to the story from the photo gallery? As with polls, I’ve already expressed interest in this topic. Make it easy for me to find out more. Yet many places omit that simple step.)

My next stop, figuring, OK it is late in the day, they’ve had a lot of news that bumped the story by now, was on the main news index page. No luck there either. Not even in the box labeled “TODAY’S PRINT EDITION NEWS.”

I did another find on that page to make sure my eyes weren’t just tired after working all day. I found Sam Fulwood’s column about the Edwards visit. I was hopeful that perhaps his story would have a “related links” section and, finally, I’d be able to read the actual story I wanted. No such luck. And no refer back to the photo gallery even.

You got me. I’m going to click on the “More from the Plain Dealer” link at the bottom of the print edition box and hope. A las, it is a hope quickly dashed. Presented with a laundry list of headlines, I opted to skip the skim and search for Edwards first. The only hit on that page was the photo of the day, which after clicking to enlarge presents me with links to other galleries, including the Edwards gallery on the front page.

I already established that was a dead end.

I decide to check the Local page, thinking well perhaps it landed there because Schultz is a columnist. Nope.

My next thought was opinion, except I didn’t readily see an opinion link in the menu at the top of the page. (Which strikes me as quite odd, since I would assume opinion is one of more highly read sections?)

Instead, I went for the Living & Travel section on a whim. Only here, with my handy find feature, did I finally find the story I began looking for half an hour ago. And even on this page, the day’s most prominently played story in the print edition plays about 10th fiddle to all the other content. You have to scroll a few folds down to find the headline “Elizabeth Edwards finds little rest — from media” topping a list of other stories. Finally.

Way to bury your star columnist and your centerpiece story in a place nobody would ever think to look.

But this does raise the question, how do you play your print-edition stories online?

Some papers, like the Lansing State Journal, will entirely bump the top print headlines from the index as news updates are fed. Still, you can find those headlines under the list of news updates by clicking on the News link in the menu.

The J&C has a separate section on the index page for Breaking News Updates (a term that, I’ll admit, bothers me. I prefer the less important sounding “news updates” or simply “latest headlines”). The rest of the front page is pretty static with the top stories of the day and story chat links and counts. Though, if you read both the print and the Web edition, you’ll notice that often the dominant story in each edition is different or the main photos aren’t the same. I’m not sure why that is, but it’s something I’ve noticed. Occasionally, when a story warrants it, one of the print edition stories are swapped out or bumped down in prominence. For example, when a big story is developing, it might bump the centerpiece story out of the number one slot. The developing story then gets timestamped and dominant play.

There are other ways to tackle this, of course. The Beacon, whose page sadly is still a relic from the days of uniformly boring Knight-Ridder homepages, puts its latest headlines at the top of the column and bumps the rest of the news to a spot further down but still readily accessible.

I’m sure there are as many different ways to handle this as there are newspapers. And there really isn’t a right way. But here’s my two cents, for what it matters:

You shouldn’t have to click more than one layer deep to find the day’s top print stories — no matter what. I don’t care how much the news has changed or what’s gone on in your community that day. Many of your visitors, yes, even at 9 p.m., are only going to hit your site once each day. They should be able to easily find and discern the top stories of the day. If it was important enough to land on the front of your paper that morning (and I’d even throw in the top stories on your local/metro page), the news value should hold another 24 hours. It’s still going to be important when I stop by that night. If it’s something that’s changed, then update the story or leave the link but add another to the new developments. Either way, leave your top stories in a spot that’s easy for your readers to find. Don’t make them think and search to find the most important news. Regardless how many Web updates you push through that day, I should be able to skim your site like I would the front page of the paper and know the biggest news of the day, then go from there.

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