Recipe for an award-winning website

The Wingspan from Liberty High School in Frisco, Texas, won an online Pacemaker in 2016. The home page is very clean and easy to navigate.

I’ve had the privilege of judging high school media websites from all across the country. And it truly is a privilege. I’m always impressed with the amazing work being done by high school staffs.

As you head off to journalism camp this summer or just start thinking of ways to improve your publication’s website on your own, I wanted to share a checklist of what you need to make yours a top-notch website.

The first step is obviously to have great content posted consistently. Once you’ve mastered that, move on to this list of improvements:

  • Mobile first: The odds are your readers are on mobile devices. So when you take a hard look at your website, you should be looking at it on mobile first (and maybe mobile only). Is it a good experience? Can you find the best content? Does it encourage you to stay on the site for more than one page? Is the correct menu showing up for readers?
  • Multimedia: I’ll make this simple: there’s no excuse not to have quality audio and video on your website in 2016 and beyond. Your iPhone takes amazing video – in 4K! With a $13 tripod and a $20 lavalier microphone you’re ready to create quality videos to go along with any story.
  • Links: Links are the currency of the web. It’s how Google determines the best content out there. Every time you post an article, there should be at least three links – to other great content you’ve written on the topic, or to great content elsewhere on the web.
The Eastside Online in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, used photos, videos, graphics and pullquotes to tell this story about their principal.
The Eastside Online in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, used photos, videos, graphics and pullquotes to tell this story about their principal.
  • Formatted text: I see how much care student newspapers take to design great content for print publications. I expect the same for the web. That means you should be using bold text, lists, subheads and pullquotes. You should also be placing photos where they go best with each story, not just as a photo gallery at the top. And you should include graphics and sidebars.
  • Consistent design: Make sure you are repeating elements across your entire site. That means labels, fonts, font sizes, etc. There are some SNO templates out there that make your sites look very different from one page to the next – especially on mobile. Try your best to avoid that, or you’ll risk confusing your readers.
  • Clean up the home page: Take a good hard look at your home page. Are the design elements consistent? Are you using plenty of white space and not slapping a box around every piece of content? Does it look great on mobile? Are you using an outdated carousel?
  • Photos: If you mention someone prominently in your story, you should include at least a mug shot of them. Faces are important.
  • Photo galleries: Don’t post 20 photos take from the exact same spot with the exact same zoom level on the camera. Make sure you’re posting a variety of wide, medium and close-up shots.
  • Show off your best stuff: Make sure your best content is easily findable – both for your readers but also for judges who you’re trying to impress. Create an “in-depth” or “cover story” area so that it’s easy to put your best foot forward.
The Kirkwood Call from Kirkwood, Missouri, includes straightforward navigation to make it easy to find content.
The Kirkwood Call from Kirkwood, Missouri, includes straightforward navigation to make it easy to find content.

Navigation: Make sure your navigation makes sense. You may have a special name for a feature on your website, but your readers may not understand what that means. If the name of a page isn’t obvious, put some text at the top of that page that describes what readers are looking at.

Also, if there are sections of your site that you haven’t posted content to since 2014, remove them from your navigation. And have a great staff page and about page.

The M-A Chronicle in Atherton, Calif., used Infogram to create this interactive graphic.

Interactive content: Tools such as PlayBuzz, HSTRY and Thinglink are great for adding polls, timelines and other interactive content to your website. Google Maps makes it easy to create embeddable maps for your website, and many other sites allow for creating interactive content.

Social media: I get it – high school students are not crazy about Facebook. The rest of your world is. So get serious about using the social network to connect with alumni and parents (and don’t just share links on Facebook, but post natively there as well). Also make sure you’re active on Instagram and Snapchat – and promote those accounts prominently on your website.

I hope this checklist helps you think about ways to improve your website for the next school year. If you have any questions or need some feedback, please reach out to me at

Chris Snider

Chris Snider is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Drake University in Des Moines. Follow him on Twitter at

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4 thoughts on “Recipe for an award-winning website

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