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April 17, 2012, 9 a.m.

The New York Times’ Well blog gets more vertical with a redesign

In expanding the healthy living blog, designers wanted to find way to give non-timely stories prominence and get readers to come back more often and for longer stretches.

What you might call the verticalization of The New York Times continues today with the relaunch of Well, the healthy-living section edited by Tara Parker-Pope. Like DealBook and Bits before it, Well has grown in prominence enough to get its own branded identity and look — one that stands out from the 60-plus other blogs the Times offers. (Compare its look to The Lede, The Caucus, or India Ink, which all use variations of the standard Timesian blog look.)

Well’s new look makes it look more like an independent website than another Times blog that might get linked from the nytimes.com front page now and then. Along with a single top story, the design promotes four editor-selected stories up high, pushes comment-heavy posts in the sidebar (“Well Community”), pushes tools, quizzes, and recipes up high, and lets readers slice Well’s content by subtopics (Body, Mind, Food, Fitness, and so on). Most stories get bigger and bolder art than the old design allowed; text excerpts are shorter, allowing more stories per vertical inch. Twitter and Facebook sharing tools are prominent on each post, even on the front page.

Like Bits and DealBook, Well’s new look and feel is more reminiscent of what we associate with a blog and not a topic section of a newspaper website. As with Bits, The New York Times logo is shrunken to a mere 123 pixels wide, greyed in the upper left corner; the Well logo gets the big, 540-pixel-wide play.

Along with the new look, Well is getting additional resources. Aside from Parker-Pope, Times writer Anahad O’Connor will join Well as a full-time reporter, and the site will still have writing from other Times contributors and staffers Jane Brody and Gretchen Reynolds.

The transformation of Well has been in the works for several months and was first announced by James Follo, the Times chief financial officer, during an earnings call in February, where he said the company’s digital strategy called for expanding “some current content to drive increased engagement levels and additional points of access and create some entirely new homes for content.”

Well, with its inclusive view on health including fitness, medical care, dieting and more, seems like a logical choice for the Times to try to build off their existing work to grow a new audience. It’s a topic area that has the ability to develop a following as well as attract advertisers; it’s been a pageview standout at the Times for years, with Well stories regularly hitting the most-emailed list.

When I spoke with Ian Adelman, director of digital design for the Times, he said it was important for Well to develop its own identity independent of the Times while still being associated with the paper. “That balance between giving room for that specific content to breath, exist, and surface more and maintaining a consistent presentation of the Times a is a little tricky,” Adelman said.

That’s why Well, like Dealbook and Bits, has what you might call “light branding” from the New York Times, and why the navigation bar and other visual cues found on the rest of NYTimes.com are mostly missing. It’s also why there’s more elbow room on the page, on the Well home as well as story pages, giving art, multimedia, or discussion from readers a its own prominence. Adelman said the design is informed by editorial needs and doesn’t follow the templates you find on the rest of the site. For sites like NYTimes.com, those common templates are useful because of the sheer volume of information that moves across their pages each day. But the newer microsites within the Times architecture require more freedom, Adelman said.

“When an entity is contained within the bigger shell of The New York Times, there’s a little less room for things that are unique to that content environment to surface and breath in ways that make sense,” he said.

What’s unique to Well is that the content may be more disconnected to the day-to-day news cycle than Dealbook or Bits, where analysis and essays are intermixed with daily reporting. Well has seasonal recipes, fitness tools, and health quizzes, the type of material that can easily be tied into a news cycle and trends. But it also has stories with a long shelf life that can draw eyeballs over extended periods of time. (A piece on what works when trying to lose weight is guaranteed Googlebait for years to come.) Adelman said they redesigned the site with that in mind. “There are a number of new features that will be added — things that are not so much about news, but about the Well experience and creating a platform for people to get that and stick around longer,” he said.

It’s likely Well is not the last section from NYTimes.com to be turned into its own mini empire. As the Times continues to work on its digital subscription framework, the incentives are stronger than ever to create dedicated audiences who want to keep coming back to a part of the site. The Times has a long history here: It was Abe Rosenthal back in the 1970s who expanded the print paper by adding so-called “soft sections” — Weekend, Sports Monday, Living, Home, and the like — that would appeal to specific niche audiences. That strategy, despite initial misgivings, has made the Times a lot of money over the years. So while building verticals online may be associated more with the Huffington Post, Gawker Media, or Vox Media than with any newspaper, the Times realizes the need to structure appealing containers for specific kinds of content. For the developers and designers at the Times that translates into more experimenting with how the company presents its journalism, Adleman said.

“We’ll continue to evolve how we provide really great experiences for readers and finding new and better ways to incorporate more interesting materials into the story experience,” he said.

POSTED     April 17, 2012, 9 a.m.
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