A (brief) social semiotic analysis of theglobeandmail.com

This is an assignment done recently for class (ENGL 408C: The Rhetoric of Digital Design). The goal was to “Discuss the design of an online newspaper … Combine the terminology of newspaper design with the observations of social semiotics.” I chose theglobeandmail.com mostly because they recently did a redesign ‚Äî it got mixed reviews (exhibit A, exhibit B, exhibit C, Google the rest yourself!) and from an aesthetic standpoint, I’m not the biggest fan either ‚Äî which gave me quite a bit to talk about.

I’ll warn you that it’s not the best and/or most invigorating piece of analysis in the world; many of my points are either rushed and/or exaggerated and/or unnecessary. It’s not very thorough either; I only touch on various aspects of the site and ignores lots. Plus, it’s an analysis from a social semiotic standpoint which is not the most exciting thing in the world. Simply put, you should probably just pass on reading this. But, I figured I’d throw it on here anyway since some of the points I make are valid and/or interesting.

The existing structure and form of news websites today is very much a product of the cultural changes that various forms of media implemented over the years (Cooke 42). Despite recent technological advances, much of the look, feel, and messaging is a direct result of the influence of print and the early days of newspapers on the web. However, competitive and financial pressures have forced a rethinking of the presentation of news, leading to the introduction of various “original” elements. The Globe & Mail recently underwent a redesign, and while much of changes introduced are indicative of the changes sweeping across the newspaper and media industries, many elements are still rooted in core print philosophies. According to Dan Willis, web design is direct descendent of print design and as such completely “wrong.” (“Everything You Know…”). The differences between the two mediums are obvious. In print (ignoring style guides, of course), designers are presented with a canvas with (near) infinite compositional possibilities. Online, we see a large number of defined limits; given restrictions placed by software, it is often difficult, if not impossible, to reorient the composition of individual stories.

One of the key striking features of the new G&M design is its sparseness and openness relative to other newspaper sites; everything is less crammed. This seems to be the Globe’s response to the solution touted by pundits as the saving grace for the newspaper industry: add value or die. This content design seems to be G&M’s way of saying, “We provide a limited number of very high quality articles,” as opposed to many average quality articles.

Compositional Structure

At a glance, it’s easy to tell that the structure of the G&M site is grid-based with a 3-column design. The grid allows for easy modularization of content, a feature that Cooke attributes to changes in newspapers in the ‘80s that aimed to create a more scannable design.  This was done by increasing the number points of entry from the home page to the rest of the paper through “newsbite” pieces (34-35). Moreover, the grid allows for easy framing of content, which allows related content to be easily grouped together.

The applicability of the Ideal-Real/Given-New/Centre Margin paradigms are very much dictated by the compositional structure of the page. The case of the G&M site, a 3-column layout, is more likely to emphasize the Centre-Margin role as it is more apt to centralize content. Salience is used to identify and characterizes the important sections of the site, namely the center column that is more likely to have a larger width than the rest. In fact, the core content on the site consistently remains in the centre across the site.

The main content on the site is framed between two distinct red lines. Usage of the Globe and Mail name on both header and footer encapsulates the content, and connects the Globe brand to the content having been placed in margins in relation to the centre (content). This reaffirms to the user that the domain is that of the Globe & Mail and all content presented in the voice of the newspaper. Consistent use of the red also creates an overall image and connectedness between the website content and the Globe and Mail.

Much of the dynamic created by the Given-New/Ideal-Real/etc. paradigms are at a more micro level within the site and will be discussed later in the paper.


According to De Vries, a decreasing set of headline sizes helps indicate priority and importance on the web, another remnant of print (19). G&M presents a clearly defined hierarchy at the top of most pages, but this hierarchy becomes hazy lower down on the homepage and section pages.

Decreasing headline sizes and dedicated screen space highlight the relative importance of each content item presented.

Decreasing headline sizes and dedicated screen space highlight the relative importance of each content item presented.

One interesting thing to note is that the classification of featured content is not apparent. It is not easy to tell at a glance what topic or categorization has been imposed on the content. One can certainly make assumptions, but the omission of this data, which plays a big role in defining the navigation of the site and structuring the lower sections of the homepage, indicates that the classification of the features, in the eyes of G&M, is irrelevant. Having vertical prominence and larger screen space gives them a position that excuses this lack of qualification. Their relevance is more related to time than actual topic or subject; the inclusion of the publishing time stamp points to this.

Further down in the home page we see a break into content classified by section, making a 2-level hierarchy apparent. This pattern is replicated across section pages. While the hierarchical structure is yet another remnant of the print edition, it serves a practical function: prioritization of content. When dealing with a volume such as most newspapers do, it is important to provide a pre-filtered listing of content to ease the user’s reading experience. Additionally, it should be stated that not all content deserves and/or warrants attention and prominence.

Home and Section Pages

Home pages can be seen as launch pads for a website. Knox indicates that while non-linear texts such as website do afford users the ability to navigate the site at their leisure the content is still imposed by the institution (47), or in this case the Globe and Mail. However, recent trends giving rise to user-generated content is challenging this dynamic. In the case of the Globe and Mail, the “Most Viewed”, “Most Emailed”, and “Most Discussed” widgets on the right sidebar is one such avenue where the institution is handing over its control over the reigns of the content to the viewer. While the widget does not give a user direct control over manipulating positioning of, and as such importance of, the content, it gives control to the viewer-base as a whole. Systems like Digg and other link aggregators further extend this idea.

News no longer a static once-daily occurrence (Knox 42) and the inclusion of dates beside most content signify the ever-changing nature of the content; the state of the news is always in flux. This has given rise to the idea of timeline-based news, and something we see presented on some of the lower subsection pages (such as National > Ontario). This lessens the control of the publisher even more, though not necessarily giving control to the user. Importance then is characterized by freshness, which is indicated by proximity to the top. However, the Publisher does still retain control over the publishing cycle and this control enables them chose when to release what content.

On the home page and section pages, the user is still removed from the content. The content is still viewed as non-perspectivally (Kress & Van Leeuwen 202), as the positioning and placement of the stories is still defined by the publisher. We see gleans of viewer perspective break through on story pages through invitations to the viewer to interact with the content. The placement of the article abstract on the left (Given) and the prominence of the tools high up in the page and to right (New) can tells the user that the New is their sense-making of the content, be it through sharing it with friends, a recommendation or saving it for later.

Blogs break the head-tail, top-bottom/fold dynamic of websites. Rarely is content differentiated on importance by size. All content is usually presented in the same structure, size, and format. Unlike with newspaper, vertically lower stories on blogs are simply less “fresh”. Some of the category subpages, following timeline-like structures, follow this paradigm, where the content is allowed to extend out vertically, creating a clearly defined scanning and reading path for the viewer. This is an interesting contrast to earlier newspaper designs that tried to minimize the vertical weight of the page through more modular designs (Cooke 38).

Article Pages

The headline, abstract and interaction tools are all physically separated from the content/comments giving indicating an Idea-Real relationship between the two sections.

The headline, abstract and interaction tools are all physically separated from the content/comments giving indicating an Idea-Real relationship between the two sections.

The visual has always been less appealing to the journalist (Cooke 30) and still seems to be. Visual aspects of stories were typically not thought about until far into the planning and execution processes (De Vries 24). Similarly, on the web, there has been little room for planning; multimedia asides act more as tack-ons rather than add-ons. The Globe’s challenges this significantly. Normally with most news sites, multimedia is visually separated from the content, either under a separate tab or often grouped together at the top of the story. On the G&M site, all forms of multimedia add-ons are treated as elements of the story and introduced within the content rather than separately. Multimedia becomes part of the experience instead of a nice aside.

Similarly, the Globe‚Äôs design places story content and user content on the same level giving the same level of saliency to both. (It should be noted that a conventional view of comments ‚Äì i.e. below the content — is still enabled). Typical placement of comments and other user-generated content below the actual content can be seen as a statement from the publication that viewer-produced content is subordinate to the voice of the publication. Giving user comments more vertical prominence gives them more weight. From a Centre-Margin standpoint, comments are now placed as a closer margin to the centre. From an Ideal-Real perspective, if the Ideal is seen as the article headline and abstract, the content is presented as the Real, the facts and details that expand on and build the Ideal. The positioning of the comments in the same placeholder as the content grants the comments this also positions them this same privilege. Kinsey Wilson, editor of USAToday.com, said of their 2007 redesign, which incorporated samples of user comments in the main header of the website, that the practice of the redesign is in itself an act that prompts cultural change (qtd. in Jarvis, ‚ÄúUSA Tomorrow‚Äù, par. 2). G&M‚Äôs move to place comments on the same level as their own content acknowledges the reality that newspaper journalists alone are no longer the authorities, and in fact, the definition of what constitutes a journalist is indeed blurred.

Few emphatic devices used within the textual content (Kress & Van Leeuwen 205). The article still is proposed and shown as a linear structure. However, hyperlinks are present in some cases and open avenues for (often related) tangents from the current content. In the case of the Globe and Mail though, we see breaks in the content by these hyperlinks and added visuals and multimedia. However, this proliferation of hyperlinks in news still seems limited. To Willis, the addition of hyperlinks is more driven by the “publisher’s intentions than the user’s” (“Everything you know…”). However, the inclusion of embedded hyperlinks within content in the context of the Globe seems very much a genuine effort to provide further context to the text.

The drop shadow on the article page is reminiscent of a physical paper-like structure, connecting the reader back to the original roots of the publication as a newspaper, and the legacy and integrity that accompanies the image of the newspaper and traditional journalist. Outside of this, there no distractions other than content. Most other news sites enjoy cramming every piece of peripheral content and hyperlinks they can conjure into the sidebar as a means of maintaining interest in the reader or retaining them on their online properties. G&M forgoes this and instead presents a clean sidebar with a wall of pure article content (outside of the occasional ad), furthering the idea that their goal is to present meaningful and valuable content for their users.

Works Cited

Cooke, Lynne. “A visual convergence of print, television, and the internet: charting 40 years of design change in news presentation”. New Media & Society. 7.22 (2005): 22-46.

De Vries, James. “Newspaper design as cultural change”. Visual Communication. 7.1 (2008): 6-25.

Hart, G. Hierarchies in online information: balancing depth with breadth. Intercom. November 2007:38–39. Retrieved June 29, 2009. <http://www.geoff-hart.com/articles/2007/hierarchies.htm>

Jarvis, Jeff. “USA Tomorrow” BuzzMachine by Jeff Jarvis. February 28, 2007. Retrieved June 29, 2009. <http://www.buzzmachine.com/2007/02/28/2559/>

Knox, John. “Visual-Verbal communication on online newspaper home pages”. Visual Communication. 6.1 (2007): 20-53.

Kress, G. & Van Leeuwen, T. Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. London: Routledge. 2008.

Willis, Dan. “Everything You Know About Web Design is Wrong”. Presented at SXSW2008. March 13, 2008. Retrieved June 29, 2009. <http://www.dswillis.com/sxsw/everything.pdf>

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