We've just launched our Newscoop Theme Contest and to help you get thinking about your entry, we've pooled together a few decades of news site design knowledge to come up with some top tips for structuring your site.
Publications can have multiple types of content: editorial copy, interviews, graphics, photos, audio and video recordings, and other digital assets. When designing pages for these types of content, you should keep focused on the vision and style you want to convey. The importance of good design cannot be valued highly enough, because it creates the readers' emotional response to your publication. This has been proven on numerous occasions where the redesign process dramatically changed a site's traffic, even though the content remained the same.
Typical desktop and laptop computer displays have a resolution of at least 1024x768 pixels. 960 pixels is very close to the minimum limit of monitor resolution and is also divisible by lots of other numbers. This makes it a highly flexible base number to work with.
With Newscoop and with most news sites we recommend using a template that is 960 pixels wide. Fluid templates can provide more flexibility, but they defy the purpose of having a grid. A 960-pixel-wide grid (http://960.gs/) can help you divide your design structure into Newscoop's template elements like header, article area, sidebar and footer. This grid can also provide enough space for photographs and videos, things most media outlets use in great quantities.
An important part of defining the template grid is using the golden ratio. The value of the golden ratio is 1.618, but approximations can also be used, such as a ratio of 5:3. The golden ratio is most often found in nature. Nautilus shells are a perfect example; the spirals get smaller and smaller in the same proportion to each other.
Using the golden ratio can provide your readers with a clear perspective over your content. To give you a good example of how the golden ratio can be used for template design, you can set the content area to 600 pixels wide and the sidebar to 360 pixels wide, so that the ratio between the content area and sidebar is pretty close to 1.6 (600 divided by 360).
Aesthetics can be measured and more importantly can be constructed, even built from the ground up. Following a few guidelines can help you make sure you're on the right path to having a publication that not only is compositionally balanced, but also aesthetically pleasing, so that people can enjoy reading each article or part of the site. Designing a template grid doesn't have to be exact math, it's more of an experimentation of ratios and white space along with text and images.
When putting your design into HTML, you should follow web standards and the common uses of HTML tags. This is important to make your content machine-readable, which will enable search engines to understand your content and rank it higher.
The use of headings (H1, H2, etc.) for titles and subtitles, DT for dialogs, CITE for citations, BLOCKQUOTE for quotations can be seen as limited, but they can provide a very clear definition of the elements that should be designed and then styled in CSS. Usually H1 is kept for the site title, which is positioned in the header area. Remaining headings are used for article titles and subtitles of the other parts of a story.
A good way to design the article content would be using only the inline elements mentioned above and also paragraphs for the text, keeping block tags like DIV only for the presentation layer. You'll find more information on the use of tags and their importance in the chapter titled Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). The template grid defines what goes inside an article and what goes outside of it. The same conventions established for the site's design can also be used for article design; don't try to reinvent the wheel. The ratios, subdivisions and modularizations should be the same across the entire site.
You can find out more about Newscoop's templates and themes in the Newscoop Cookbook, from which this post was adapted. The Newscoop Theme Contest is now open. Enter and win a trip to Sourcecamp Prague 2011.