I spent a lot of my career in media and publishing on the web. During that time one of the things that I came to appreciate more completely was the unique journalistic voice that news organizations have. Being responsible for the websites of a number of these sites, I felt it was absolutely critical that whatever Content Management Systems (CMS for those in the business) and other publishing systems we had must allow the journalists to express that unique voice to the reader, via the website. To this end I coined something that I called the Two Second Test.

The Two Second Test is simple. You should be able to show any person the front page of a news website for just two seconds and they should be able to have a feel for what is happening at that moment. Is there big news? Did something great just happen? Something bad? You should be able to intuit it from just those two seconds.

I was reminded of this concept recently when Larry Kramer shared How 9/11 looked on a newly created Internet on that day. His article includes pictures of two framed screen grabs of the MarketWatch page from that day.

I looked at those in Two Seconds you knew something big was happening.

This might seem easy, but the vast majority of news websites even today fail this test. Pick your favorite sites and go to them, look for two seconds, and see what you know. Ask yourself if you know anything? Mostly you don’t.

Most organizations fail this test because of the constraints of their content management system. In order to make their sites work, they have dozens of templates, and they flow articles and blurbs from their CMS into various templates. They change the template for what is going on in the world, but they are always working in a template.

In order to pass the Two Second Test you have to give your newsroom a canvas to work on, not a color-by-numbers template. Along with that power comes risk. The newsroom could put something on the site that has a technical flaw of some sort. Having a strong operational connection between the newsroom and the technology team limits that risk though.