Kinsey Wilson, the editor who built USAToday.com into the powerhouse that it is, gave me a sneak preview of their redesign and rearchitecting, coming out next week: a big, five-month, 50-person effort that will continue in a rolling redevelopment effort. Inside, they called it the “networked journalism project” (and I’m proud to have contributed to their jargon, Kinsey tells me). It entailed new design and organization but also social-media tools and an effort to link out — to triangulate the news, in Kinsey’s word. They’ve even appointed a network editor whose job it will be to find opportunities to bring the audience in to elevate the journalism. Here‘s an image of the new front page.
On the mockups (keep in mind that they were put together by designers, who sometimes needn’t bother with dictionaries) you’ll see on the top of the home page a quote from the comments the site has under its articles (note that they don’t have forums — and their unruliness — but do have, Kinsey said, civil and valued discussions around articles). They want to emphasize interactivity and put the commenters out front. I said it will be interesting to see whether these out-of-context quotes will be compelling (I had trouble doing this with forum quotes in my prior life). Kinsey said it’s as much about valuing the commenters as it is about the quotes themselves. Much of this redesign is about such cultural change.
On this page, you’ll see the On Deadline blog front-and-center. It has been “enormously successful,” Kinsey said, for USA Today. I do like how papers have discovered that the incredibly light and easy content management tool called a blog enables them to publish faster and easier. On the lower left, they — like other papers — are now promoting lots of their own blogs.
Here they expose the most popular stories as determined by readership, commenting, emailing, and recommendation — note the Diggification. (I look forward to most-linked as well.) In their effort to link out to other sources, even competitors, see this example of on-page external RSS feeds, powered by Newsgator.
Here they begin to use tags (these are machine-generated; given the biorhythm of news, I wonder whether a folksonomy can take hold in time). We’ll be seeing much more of that on news site, I’ll bet, as they move away from strict (USAToday-like) taxonomy to an all-roads-lead-to-Rome structure to give you many paths to relevant news, via links, tags, and search.
And one of the cooler features is a personal page that is populated with, among other things, the comments you leave around the site. It is an effort to enable a social network on the site built around content, theirs and ours. (I said that I hope they will make this portable; I’d like to put up on my blog a feed of the comments I leave on a news site with reviews I leave at Amazon and so on: my distributed identity.)
It’s a good design and all the steps are in the right direction. That’s especially important because USA Today is, indeed, a powerhouse. I was amazed when Kinsey told me that a majority of their readers come back every day — multiple times a day, in fact. That is quite unusual for newspaper sites. Elsewhere, the daily habit has been broken. But not here. With the addition of social elements and the valuing of commenting and the willingness to link out to other sources, I suspect that they will increase their frequency even more.
From an uber-view, what strikes me is that we are seeing a coalescing among the news sites around a roughly common aesthetic. Look at the Times, the Times, the Telegraph, and the Post: They’re all less-cluttered with more white space (and, as a result, more scrolling) and they share an affection for the same shade of blue. I think that’s a good thing: We are establishing a visual grammar for news.
But I also think this means that someone can break out and push to a next generation of news sites. In fact, since most visitors to most news sites I know don’t even go to the home page in a day, I think the next frontier of design will be about exploding home pages and sites in a looser network of distributed content. But more on that later.
: LATER: Here‘s the USAToday.com announcement, just posted.