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Sept. 12, 2011, 2:51 a.m.

Four observations (and lots of questions) on The Boston Globe’s lovely new paywalled site

It’s well designed, has a clear personality, and features great content. But is it what Boston readers want?

This morning, The Boston Globe took the cloak off its brand new website, BostonGlobe.com. And I really do mean “brand new” — this is no redesign. Years ago, rather than building its own separate newspaper website, the Globe decided to focus on building Boston.com, a site that featured stories from the Globe but also lots more, aimed at creating something more like a community portal than a traditional newspaper site.

The strategy worked: Boston.com is one of the most visited newspaper sites in the country, far ahead of most of its major-metro rivals. But for a company that still (like all U.S. newspaper companies) gets the vast majority of its revenue from print, the content created especially for print — newspaper stories — could get a little lost online.

So the Globe is creating a separate BostonGlobe.com that will contain primarily the same stories that run in the newspaper and putting it behind a paywall. BostonGlobe.com will cost $3.99 a week, once a free trial has ended on Oct. 1. But its main source of readers will be Boston Globe print subscribers, who’ll have free access to the site. Meanwhile, Boston.com remains free for everybody and loses most of the Globe stories it used to run. Most…but not all.

Confused? Understandable. Think of it in the terms the Globe itself used in a story about splitting the two sites last year:

Market research, meanwhile, showed Boston.com attracts two distinct audiences: casual and occasional visitors interested in quickly accessing listings, classifieds, and specific articles; along with committed readers who immerse themselves in stories produced by Globe journalists for the newspaper. That second group, [publisher Chris] Mayer believes, will be willing to pay for more extensive stories and other information.

For that first group, there’s still Boston.com. For the second, now there’s BostonGlobe.com.

To learn more about BostonGlobe.com, it’s best to just go over there and explore. Here’s some info on the site’s new tech features, with a couple of explanatory videos. The Globe has multiple stories about the move if you want the details or some marketing copy.

I’m most interested in how BostonGlobe.com fits into the newspaper industry’s larger thinking about paywalls and how its digital and print products differ. And I think there’s a lot that’s really interesting about what they’ve done, in terms of technology, in terms of design, and in terms of their business model. So, after having played around with the site for a while and talked with Globe leaders in the lead up to launch, here are a few thoughts on what I think works, what I think doesn’t, and what questions we’ll be looking to answer in the months ahead.

Without ads to worry about, less is more

Last month, we wrote about Ochs, a Chrome extension from ex-New York Times designer Michael Donohoe. Ochs reshapes the layout and design of nytimes.com on the fly to make it match up more with Donohoe’s tastes. Unnecessary navigational cruft disappears; web fonts are switched to match print typefaces; there’s more white space and a quieter feel.

In a lot of ways, BostonGlobe.com feels like someone has built an Ochs-style plugin to redesign Boston.com, which has the busy, graphic-laden, click-me-click-me-click-me feel of the pageview-driven portal it is. Outside of photos, which play bigger, the color’s been drained out of BostonGlobe.com in favor of the old newspaper/zebra joke: black and white and red all over. More stories get a sentence or two of tease text, so you have more than just a headline to judge it by. Nothing’s shouting at you.

To judge how much “cleaner” BostonGlobe.com’s design is than Boston.com’s, I started counting the number of links each offered up to readers.

— On my laptop, in the first full screenful of content on the front page, I count 49 visible things to click on on Boston.com. On BostonGlobe.com, there are only 18.

— Look at the entire front page of each site instead of just the first screenful and the final score is 312 clickable links on Boston.com vs. “only” 160 on BostonGlobe.com.

— Looking at article pages instead of front pages, the Boston.com story had 99 links, while the BostonGlobe.com story had 41.

Now, even 41 links on an article page is a lot of links — a lot of user choice, a lot of click-me marketing. Zen it ain’t. But nonetheless BostonGlobe.com seems to have chopped out somewhere in the neighborhood of half of the links on its pages. And when you’re a news organization that publishes over 120 items a day, just in the print newspaper, a certain amount of information density is both desirable and unavoidable. But BostonGlobe.com is betting on a quality reading experience over a pageview-wrangling one.

The tradeoff for that deal comes with advertising revenue. A busier page will tolerate more ad slots than a calmer one, and those slots make money. All those click-me links are aimed at keeping the user on site, generating more pageviews and, with them, more revenue. BostonGlobe.com has only two ad slots on the front page; Boston.com has around eight, depending on what you consider an ad. There are examples of sites that have taken a less-is-more approach with advertising — selling only one ad per page and doing it at a premium, say. But that line hasn’t worked with the mix of local and national brand advertisers news companies rely on.

(It’s not for nothing that one of Ochs’ main design changes on nytimes.com is cutting back significantly on the number of ads shown. Designer Donohoe’s to-do list for Ochs includes the item “restore ads but with consideration for UX [user experience]” but notes that that’s “a tough one.”)

BostonGlobe.com can get away with its spare look because it won’t be primarily ad-driven. By being subscription-only, it doesn’t need to play the pageview game. Just as Apple laid visual claim to the “premium” computer space years ago by not cluttering up its laptops with “Intel Inside” stickers, BostonGlobe.com is trying to differentiate itself through calm design — hoping it has a business model to support it.

Responsive design might be a route outside the app funnel

Open up BostonGlobe.com on your computer, then shrink and grow the browser window to various sizes. On any page — most dramatically on the front page and section fronts — you’ll find the content resizing, realigning, and resorting itself as its viewport changes. It’s not just that things grow bigger or smaller — it’s that they change position and form. Shrink the front page and the top navigation — a list of the paper’s sections — collapses into a dropdown menu labeled “Sections.” Listing “News,” “Metro,” “Arts,” and so on makes sense if you’ve got 960 pixels to play with — not if you’ve got the iPhone’s 320.

This is called responsive design, a term coined by Boston (and ex-Harvard) web designer Ethan Marcotte, who worked on the BostonGlobe.com project. (For the web folks who want to know more about the guts of how responsive design works, I can recommend Marcotte’s book on the subject, which I read on a very nerdy Saturday afternoon this summer.)

The point of responsive design is not to be the world’s worst party trick — “Gather round, friends, while I resize my browser” — but to be a way to build a website that looks good and works well on a variety of screen sizes while maintaining one codebase. Instead of building a separate mobile site for smartphones (maybe several of them, since different phones have different dimensions), and then building something separate for tablets (vertical and horizontal, remember!), you get to build it just once and set rules for how it should gracefully change on larger or smaller screens. Since building different versions of a site is a huge pain, it rarely gets done, which is part of why the newspaper business is home to a collection of the world’s ugliest mobile sites. From what I’ve seen in my testing on laptop, desktop, iPhone, and iPad, the responsive design works well on BostonGlobe.com. (I was a little disappointed that it didn’t blow up to billboard-sized when stretched to full size on my 27″ iMac, but hey, that’s a niche audience.)

But the underlying biz-dev pitch for responsive design isn’t that it makes developer’s lives easier. It’s that it might be a way to create an app-like experience in the browser without having to go through the app-store choke-points in Cupertino or Mountain View. Both Apple and Google take a nearly one-third cut of app sales for their mobile devices, and Apple takes 30 percent of in-app subscriptions, a model the company is promoting with the weeks-away-from-debuting Newsstand.

News organizations — used to owning the customer relationship all the way to the subscriber’s front door — are excited to explore alternatives that cut out the tech middleman. The Financial Times has done exactly that, building an impressive web app that works well on tablets and phones.

The web app approach isn’t yet a perfect substitute for a native app. Things like scrolling often don’t work as well (although iOS5, coming soon, should help). You miss out on the platform of the App Store or the Android Market, which is where users expect to discover apps. Offline reading is harder to pull off. And even things like getting an icon on your iPad’s home screen take a few not-immediately-obvious steps. (Unlike the FT’s app, BostonGlobe.com does not run as a discrete, “app-like” process on the iPhone or iPad. That is, it’s always just another tab in Safari, not a separate app that you can switch to using Apple’s app switcher.)

Globe people I spoke with said BostonGlobe.com’s responsive nature didn’t rule out the possibility of building native apps for smartphones or tablets. But, as Dan Kennedy argues, it’s as good a hope as news organizations have at the moment to get the best of the app experience without the toll taker.

We still haven’t solved the what-to-read-next problem

Most news sites have low pageviews per visit and low time on site. Low, at least, compared to media sites whose content is more Internet-native. You know how, on Wikipedia or YouTube, you start off reading one article or watching one video, then end up clicking on another, then another, then another — and next thing you know it’s an hour later and you’ve forgotten what you were looking for in the first place? That feeling of being lost in a site, of swimming through content — you don’t generally get that from a news site.

A big part of that is the design of article pages. In the money-making parts of the Internet, designers pay a ton of attention to the call to action — the specific task you want the user to perform at a given moment. On a news site, you might think of this as the what-to-read-next problem: At article’s end, where does the site want me to go? Does it want me to click back to the home page? Does it have a related article to suggest? Or a recent one? It’s both a design problem and an algorithmic one.

Perhaps the most noteworthy (and copied) innovation in this space is the little slider you see on New York Times article pages, the one that slithers in at the bottom of the page when you’re near the end of your current article. And there are companies trying to figure out the right algorithms to feed users an optimized next-article suggestion.

BostonGlobe.com doesn’t innovate on the algorithm level, but I like what they’re doing with design to tackle the problem. When you scroll down near the bottom of an article, the page bottom expands, adding in headlines and the first sentence or so of all the other stories in its section.

What’s to like about this? First, the expansion at page bottom is (usually) visible to the reader; like the Times’ slider, it’s a visual cue that says, ‘Hey, have another story’ just when the reader might want it. Second, the visual presentation of headlines and ledes looks just like a slightly smaller version of the page’s main story; it makes the stories feel like they’re part of a unified section rather than just a list of decontextualized links. Third, the section’s stories are numbered — you see the number of stories and know how many more there are to look at. That could help create a print-like feeling of completion; you know when you’re done.

Is it perfect? No; for one thing, it sometimes suggests the exact story you’ve just finished reading as the next article you should read. But I like that the Globe spent time thinking about the what-to-read-next problem, and the setup they’ve come up with works better than just about any other news site I’ve seen.

Rip it up and start again

The punk motto — an ode to starting over, tearing something down to its basic elements and rebuilding from there — might not seem to have much to do with a website whose design cues reach back to print, one designed specifically for an audience that isn’t interested in a lot of the things we’ve come to associate with digital content.

What I mean is that many of the best things about BostonGlobe.com derive from the fact that it is being born fresh, without direct antecedent. Sure, Boston.com had its own design language, which Globe stories on Boston.com naturally borrowed. But BG.com is a new thing, which meant that design discussions could be less about how a site should change and more about how a site should be.

At The New York Times, the many talented designers who work there have had a hard time making a lot of changes to the site’s front page. Here’s nytimes.com on April 2, 2006. And here’s nytimes.com last week, five-plus years later. Not a lot of change there.) So a lot of their work has gone into subdomains and sections and special projects that nibble at the corners of the core design grammar. BostonGlobe.com shows the merits of just rebooting the whole thing once in a while.

Lots of questions remain

As I’ve probably made clear, I like BostonGlobe.com. I think it’s a good step forward for the Globe from a technical perspective and an embodiment of a reasonable series of bets on user behavior. But there are a lot of things we still don’t know that will contribute to whether or not, in a year or two, we’re calling it a success or a failure. To name a few:

Will BostonGlobe.com really attract a significant number of paying digital subscribers? I have my doubts. I believe it will give print subscribers a great argument for not giving up home delivery, despite prices significantly higher than just a few years ago. And it might convert a few guilty digital readers into Sunday-only subscribers, which would be a big win for the Globe, since the Sunday paper’s its biggest money-maker.

(A Sunday-only print subscription costs $3.50 a week and includes BostonGlobe.com access. BostonGlobe.com access costs $3.99 a week. So, like the Times, the Globe is essentially paying you to take the Sunday print paper.)

But will the digital product itself — a digital product aimed specifically at people who want a newspaper experience, remember — actually reach any new audiences?

Will Boston.com be hurt by losing lots of Globe content? Boston.com editors will be able to pick five Globe stories each day to post on the site, along with a set of content that’ll always be available (like most sports stories, for instance). Will the slideshows and party photos and blogs that will remain on Boston.com sustain the big audience the site has built over the years? Or, to argue the other side, will being free of newspaper stories allow Boston.com to summon up its inner HuffPo and become an even greater pageview magnet?

Will Globe reporters be thrilled that their stories are now being placed in a more aesthetically pleasing environment? Or will they be mad that lots of people who used to read their stuff on Boston.com can’t any more? Globe execs promise the paywall on BostonGlobe.com will be leaky to social media, but you can only share stories you read in the first place — and there will be many fewer people doing that.

Will advertisers want to buy those few remaining ad slots on BostonGlobe.com? Will reaching a richer, more educated audience on BostonGlobe.com be appealing enough to cover for the fact there won’t be nearly as many of them as on Boston.com? Will losing some of its most dedicated readers to BostonGlobe.com have an impact on Boston.com’s appeal to advertisers?

Will Globe content by itself be compelling enough as a freestanding digital product? Will it seem stale and fusty, even to print-minded readers, without blogs and other digitally-oriented content around it? Will there be a counter-reformation to bring some webbier elements to BostonGlobe.com?

Will the two sites figure out smart ways to cross-promote? Or will users get frustrated having to think too much about which site the story they want to read is on?

How will other Boston news sites respond? From WBUR to the Herald to NECN to WBZ to WGBH, there’s no shortage of local news brands in town, and if the Globe’s new paywall ends up gobbling up too many news stories, they’ll be eager to peel away readers.

How will breaking news be handled? Globe officials have said both Boston.com and BostonGlobe.com will feature breaking news, but figuring out the optimum way to divvy up those stories will require trial and error.

What will Boston Globe Insiders turn into? Set to launch Oct. 1, it promises “access to exclusive editorial content, events with editorial staff, offers and events from Globe advertisers and other businesses and services. The program delivers experiences that will engage our readers with The Boston Globe in the community and about topics they are passionate about.” Will this evolve into something like the value-added content the Times built into TimesSelect? It’s worth noting that BostonGlobe.com promotes Globe staffers more than just about any newspaper; click around the staff list and you’ll find many journalists have short, humanizing video vignettes on their staff pages. Here’s page one editor Charles Mansbach, for example.

Will a print-minded user base figure out even how to use the cooler tech features on BostonGlobe.com? The site’s save-articles function, on an iPad, is brought up by a two-finger tap. From a tech perspective, that’s cool — I don’t know of any other news site that is using multi-finger gestures in a browser. But are people actually going to figure that out?

Will Globe staffers (and potential advertisers, and area readers, and Nieman Lab writers) drive themselves crazy by having to keep Boston.com and BostonGlobe.com separate in their minds?

POSTED     Sept. 12, 2011, 2:51 a.m.
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