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The New York Times website redesign is great, as far as it goes — which isn’t very far

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Having worked for many years on the web side of a large national newspaper, I know that a website redesign is a huge undertaking — and it must be even more gigantic and time-consuming when you are the New York Times, with all that that implies. Not only are there hundreds of moving parts, but everyone is watching you, ready to criticize at the drop of a hat, or the tilt of a typeface. So let me begin by saying that the New York Times site looks great: it’s clean and fresh and has some new features, and that’s great.

What it isn’t, however, is ground-breaking or innovative or even experimental in any way, with the possible exception of the introduction of “sponsored content.” But even that is more of a sign that sponsored content has hit the mainstream, rather than a sign of something new. In a laudatory piece, CNN said that the design “points to the future of online publishing,” but if it does this at all then it does so very faintly — almost imperceptibly, in fact.

NYT newspapers

The tweaks that have been made are mostly welcome, as Jeff Jarvis and others have noted, including a move away from the page-based model to stories that scroll on to the end, rather than making you click 15 times for the whole article. And design director Ian Adelman has made it clear that the redesign was intended to provide a platform for further experimentation, rather than remaining fixed where it is now. That’s a positive sign, given the speed with which readers desires and needs seem to evolve online.

That said, here are a few of the things that I wish the Times had explored a bit farther, and/or things I hope they will explore in the future:

Personalization: Like Jarvis, I am disappointed that the Times didn’t do more around the idea of personalizing the news for different subscribers. Personalization is one of the things that could theoretically make subscribers even more devoted to the newspaper, and could be one of those perks that members get when they pay. There are “recommended stories” in a sort of timeline view at the top of the page, for users who are logging in, and after a bit of hunting you can find your recommended stories page. Why not give me an option to see that page instead of the front page, with the stories ordered based on my interests?

NYT recommended1

Community: The New York Times has such a wealth of engagement potential with its hundreds of thousands of subscribers, and yet it does virtually nothing to encourage that to occur out in the open. The late, lamented TimesPeople social network may not have worked, but it was on the right track I think — as a way of encouraging readers to connect with like-minded individuals and explore related interests. Comments on stories, which could be a potential entry point to such a network, are now hidden and can only be revealed with a click, which has the effect of smothering potential discussion even further.

Demand vs. supply: By demand vs. supply, I mean that I would like to see more acknowledgement that just giving readers what a handful of nameless editors think are the most important stories isn’t enough any more. Again, the NYT makes a passing reference to reader interests with elements like “most emailed,” but this is the tip of the iceberg. If you click on the tiny menu item on the scrolling timeline, you get a page that shows you the most tweeted, most commented, etc. But why not make this more prominent? The Times could even generate a “front page” that re-ordered stories based on that kind of input.

NYT recommended2

Ideally, I would like a newspaper — especially one that I pay money for — to know a lot more about me than the New York Times seems to, and to cater to me in some tangible way, either by showing me things it knows (or thinks) I might be interested in, or by giving me access to tools that allow me to do so. For my part, I would like three versions of the “home” page: one that shows me what editors think are the important stories, one that gives me a personal version, and one that shows me an amalgamation of all the other readers’ versions of what’s important.

Not everyone is going to want to see those things, of course — but even a few nods towards the uniqueness of individual readers would be nice, rather than the “same soup for everyone” approach that most newspapers take. It might be a lot to ask for the Times to do a massive redesign and also push the envelope in these other areas, but at the same time, what better opportunity could there be?

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Rani Molla and Getty Images / Mario Tama

14 Responses to “The New York Times website redesign is great, as far as it goes — which isn’t very far”

  1. was working fine on chrome on a mac until today…today the comments column is blank excpt for the words “undefined comments”…. yes I rebooted, yes I did a hard reboot, yes I cleared my cache….and yes my computer is plugged in…well, actually, it isn’t – it is a laptop that isn’t plugged in unless it needs to charge…oddly my husband, sitting 2 feet away, using chrome on a mac – same OSX and everything – is having no trouble at all

  2. Welcome to publishing

    As a longtime journalist, I’ve got to say the endless push for “personalization” of the news sickens me.

    Perhaps the biggest factor in the polarization of the public today is constantly being fed only the news you “agree” with, rather than news in general — whether you agree with it or not.

    You may not be entitled to your own facts, but you can certainly get them spoon-fed to you daily through partisan, segmented media without consideration of what’s true in the rest of the world.

  3. Pam Horovitz

    Yep, ChrisK and dieseltaylor hit the nail on the head – I don’t ever want to live in an echo-chamber, and the NYT is the only real ‘fair and balanced’ news entity out there.

    As for the redesign, I like it, though I do think the idea of three home pages is a good one.

    PS I’m on a Mac and on Chrome and it works fine for me.

  4. dieseltaylor

    Agree totally with ChrisK. When reading the Economist I pay attention because I know I will not necessarily like what is said but it is pretty much guaranteed to be a well-written and thoughtful piece.

    I think it is waaay to easy in modern life to shape your on-line world for comfort rather than for alternative views.

  5. I like the cleaner look but also liked the previous incarnation with its more crowded, more like the print version look. But this is okay, too. I disagree with Mathew, though, re personalization. While I understand the appeal of customizing topics of interest, I think one of the values, and perhaps responsibilities, of a major news publication is to provide an editorial voice that chooses what the editors think ought to be read. A danger of the internet age is that it can be too easy to disappear into the echo chamber of one’s own views, thus contributing to the apparent lack of ability to carry on discourse that might challenge or, heaven forbid, change one’s mind.

    • Gabriel N

      Kudos! I’m reading The New York Times, not something catering to my specific taste, for that I would use Flipboard or my Twitter feed

      It’s clear to me that the decision to push the user created content and the emergence of patterns based on Social Media traffic to a second or third level of importance, was deliberate and correct.

      Also, Mr. Ingram does not mention other ways that the has that can address his need to get a more personalised view of the paper: Have you tried the New York Times Skimmer?

  6. tim schreier

    On Communities, it appears that The Times has made a conscious decision to ignore the potential it has. The Times is in a very unique position to create communities according to interests, as opposed to “The Times People”, a self serving and myopic “Times Centric” entry point for engagement. They are uniquely positioned to tap into a wealth of knowledge provided by their readers. If the entry point is based on hobbies, interests, social impact issues, The Times has a true opportunity to expand it’s own coverage by tapping it’s vast readership’s resources. Sadly, the paper (as do most) chooses to preach from “on high” and using comments as it’s primary “Social” point of engagement. If the paper does want to participate as a Social Enterprise, they certainly have the resources to start.

    Overall, however, I like the new format and design. It flows. It is a bit more intuitive and it does balance privacy well (in other words, I do not feel as though it is watching my every move). I think it is a better interface and more user focused than the prior.
    Tim Schreier
    New York, NY

  7. Evidently, one-third of the Times’ digital readers use smartphones and tablets. That number probably is growing, so the redesign seems intended to ensure the pages display well on small screens. That’s speculation on my part as I’m an old fogey who does not own a smartphone.

    What about the redesign irritates me most? The tiny headlines. Yes, they’re in boldface, but some are actually a smaller size of type than the typeface used for the body text. That makes no sense, and strikes me as what happens when an ambitious graphic artist decides to make a statement that he thinks will improve his resume.

    What delights me most? No more page splitting,

  8. The NYT site may be far from perfect, but it is head and shoulders above that of its principal national newspaper competitor, the Wall Street Journal. The site requires you to click “back” twice on many, but not all pages; its page-top menu gets replaced by a different menu when you go to “Market Data” or “Tech”, so you can’t continue browsing the paper without going back. Its “Business” page insists on popping up a large and annoying ad for new site features at the bottom of the page every time. Even before the latest update, was vastly better than the WSJ site. Now it’s even better.

  9. Who cares? I don’t. I use the NYT app on BlackBerry 10 and seeing as you tech media types love preaching the death of BlackBerry I’ll never have to worry about an update. Right?

    • Tarun Mitra

      that nice Craig! stay where you are … blackberry is good for you. The world will change anyways and make some products, services, business and people irrelevant..

  10. bayesrules

    With Chrome, on a Mac, the website does not work properly for me. Some articles just won’t open, some comments can’t be brought up and today (not on Chrome, on Safari), I attempted to “recommend” a comment, but the website required me to log in, even though the page said I was logged in. I logged in, but when I attempted to “recommend” again, it asked again for a login. I was having this problem earlier when I attempted (a few weeks ago) to email a recipe to myself…again, a demand to log in, logging in, and another demand to log in.

    This site is not “ready for prime time”, in my opinion.

    I don’t particularly like the new comments format. I preferred them at the bottom of the article.

    I do approve of not having to click to get the rest of the article.