Thoughts on the New

Earlier this week, my former employer The New York Times launched a major redesign of its Web site. There’s an interesting article about it over at Mashable, including comments from The Times’ digital design director, Ian Adelman.

It’s really hard, if not impossible, for me to offer any objective opinion about this redesign. I still have many friends at the company, including Ian. Also, perhaps as a function of having drunk its Kool-Aid as an employee, I still believe that The New York Times is something special, that it’s indisputably unique, and that comparing its actions with other news outlets or brands is often a counterproductive exercise. Finally, the most prejudicing of all reasons: I’ve seen what it takes to get things launched inside The Times, for better or worse, and this knowledge tends to make me alternately more forgiving and more critical than the average person might be.

Still, it’s worth commenting on one thing, at least. The Times appears to be shying away from describing this effort as a “redesign” in the monolithic sense of the term, a wholly formed “artifact” that will stand until the next redesign. Instead, they see it as an evolution, albeit a marked one, in a continuum of evolutions. The message is that what debuted this week is a start, and it will keep changing.

That is the nature of a company in its hundred-and-sixty-third year of life, making its way through its third century. Things don’t move suddenly, even when they might look like they do. In fact, taking a look at the new home page today, it’s not architecturally all that dissimilar from what preceded it for seven years. And as I recall my experience during the last redesign, there was a certain amount of institutional satisfaction in the fact that many users quickly forgot that the site had even been through a “major” redesign. Constancy is prized at The New York Times.

That promise of continual innovation, though, is where I believe the success or failure of this new will really be made or broken. It goes without saying that, given the realities of its industry, The Times needs to change, and so does its web presence. Is this new design going to be a suitably supple framework to allow it to reinvent the way it delivers its reporting, to rethink the nature of its user experience?

Take the template that underpins articles, for example. This actually debuted in March of last year, though it has been rolled out in phases, and with this week’s launch, now runs throughout the site. It’s beautiful work; the new design significantly cleans up the previous article template, adds some new navigational affordances, does away with the legacy policy of breaking long articles into several pages, significantly improves the typography, provides capacious slots for its photography to shine, and more. These are all wonderful improvements, and I am impressed by them.

But it’s not clear to me that they’re really game changing improvements. These changes don’t reinvent or expand my notion of what an article is, nor do they materially change the user experience of an article. (Though, to be fair, I didn’t much like their previous attempts at reimagining what an article can be.)

More importantly, it does’t seem to me that they address the fundamental question of how to grow The Times’ audience, and they don’t necessarily show a path forward for adapting to rapidly changing news consumption habits. They’re also desktop-locked improvements, for the most part, which might be seen as either a luxury or a distraction at a time when mobile traffic is the most urgent issue for content publishers. (The Times did recently optimize their article views for mobile browsers, though these questions weren’t necessarily answered with that change either.)

I’m sounding much more critical than I intended to, which is somewhat unavoidable because The New York Times, by virtue of it being The New York Times, can be critiqued endlessly. That doesn’t take away from its many significant, meaningful accomplishments though. The company faces so many challenges on so many fronts that the very fact of its continued operation, its continued production of top flight journalism, its continued ability to launch massive projects like this one, still make it a “daily miracle,” to use the language of its print heyday. This redesign was no doubt a huge undertaking and it produced a very good result, which was never a foregone conclusion, trust me. They pulled it off. There’s no respite, though; more work awaits.


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