A web-site redesign is often an expensive, time-consuming, over-hyped exercise in media navel-gazing: an expression of institutional ego over user need. So I will confess a preemptive shrug at news of the newest New York Times online.
But I retract my shrug. As I explored the new site and tweeted my reaction, I quickly warmed to this new haircut on an old friend. It’s neither revolutionary nor terribly disruptive and leaves me feeling as if the paper online has tried to pay tribute to the paper as paper (why did they feel the need to resurrect the mix of italic and roman headlines that was de rigueur a half-century ago?). Still, The Times does much right.
The redesign kills the irritating news-site habit of cutting stories into multiple parts. In print, we newspaper folk called that “jumping” from, say, the front page to one inside, and every reader survey ever performed told editors that their customers hated that. Newspapers continued to do it online not because scarce space forced us to but instead because we wanted to pump up our pageviews: The more pages you viewed, the more ads you saw, the more money we made — or so went the myth of old mass media carried over to online. That is also the economic genesis of sites’ slideshow disease.
The Times now lets us scroll through a story without clicking. But there could be an economic rationale for that, too. Web analytics company Chartbeat found that readers tend to let their eyes skip right past the banners atop pages — usually sold as the most valuable ads — and end up spending more time exposed to the ads embedded down within longer tomes. Time engaged can build greater value than pages clicked.
In an effort to increase said engagement, The Times has tried to make it as easy as licking your finger and turning the page to move to the next story … and the next. There’s an arrow on the right of every story that moves the reader to the following story displayed in a horizontal menu above. Once I figured the system out — I’ll confess it took me a few clicks to associate the arrow with the preview in the bar — I found it, well, engaging. But I also found this feature, like the ability to read today’s paper — that is, the stories as packaged in the physical artifact — a bit too nostalgic for the idea of editorial presentation and control.
Nonetheless, I salute The Times for putting less effort into its home page (which on The Times attracts more than half of its readers in a day but on many news sites draws as few as 10 percent) than into creating a satisfying experience around the meat of the matter: the article.
I’m also relieved that The Times did not follow the example of its much-ballyhooed — and so-often-aped — “snowfall” format, injecting animations and videos and sound and every manner of media into a simple text tale. There’s no digital Rococo in sight.
The new Times uses what geeks call the “hamburger button” (three parallel lines — two sandwiching the third) to get rid of the time-worn left-hand navigation bar. Speaking from experience running news sites, the nav bar became the basis of political turf wars, with editorial and commercial departments battling for more signage. With all that obvious information tucked away, there’s more room for what should be in a news site: news.
I’ll quibble that once one does mouse-over the hamburger (oh, what has become of our language?) the resulting menu is three layers wide (e.g., arts to books to best sellers) and can require the manual dexterity of a pianist to play it. But as I confessed, I quibble.
One other important change in this redesign is The Times’ ability to accommodate the next supposed media messiah after the pay wall: native advertising, which is code for fooling readers into thinking that marketing messages are actual content. We used to call these things advertorials — you know, those things you skipped past. Now media mythology has it that every brand should be media and all media need content. But the real question is: Do you find value in reading an opus from Dell about “Reaching Across the Office from Marketing to IT“? I don’t. I go to Dell to buy hardware, not words. As I recently warned a roomful of PR people itching to advertise natively: Content is a shitty business. Stay away! I predict that the fad will soon lose its luster.
But in the meantime, let’s at least give credit to The Times for doing native advertising right — that is, for being scrupulous about labeling it for what it is. “Paid for and posted by Dell,” says the warning atop every piece. “Written by Dell,” it says at the byline. “More paid posts from Dell,” it says to the right. Short of using the A-word — advertising — it can’t get much clearer than that. Now the question is: Will readers click and care? Will a 13-paragraph essay asking, “Can the Government Become Entrepreneurial?” sell more computers than a well-targeted coupon?
As former Times wunderkind Brian Stelter writes at CNN.com, much of the import of The Times redesign occurs behind the scenes in a new content management system that the paper says will make it easier to iterate with new technologies, obsoleting not the present site but instead the concept of the redesign. I argue that CMSes — like redesigns — are another expression of editorial ego. I’ll be egotistical enough to quote what I blogged on the topic:
It’s all about us, about our content, about how we want to make it, how we want to present it to you, how we organize it, how we make money on it, how we protect it. What we should be doing instead is turning our attention outward, from the content we make (surely after 600 years, we know how to do that) to our relationship with the public we serve and the ecosystems in which we operate.
The one thing missing from The Times redesign is me — or to put that less egotistically, you. I wish a news site would move away from its mass-production roots and devote just some proportion of its presentation to personal relevance, reducing noise and increasing engagement not through user interfaces but through delivering value. I’d like The Times to learn that I never read sports and often read about movies and devour media news and live in New Jersey and thus give me more relevance. Netflix knows what I like but my newspaper does not. Google knows where I live and work but my newspaper does not. Shouldn’t it?
This shift won’t require a redesign of pages and pixels or systems. It will require a rethinking of newsroom culture and commercial business models to emphasize service over content, outcomes over presentation, relationships over mass.
Oh, be warned: The Guardian is working on its own new systems and redesign.