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April 22, 2015, 11:29 a.m.
Audience & Social

The Atlantic redesigns, trading clutter and density for refinement

It wants to be a “real-time magazine” on the web, connected to its print heritage. But stripping out the visual noise won’t please everyone.

The Atlantic — has any general-interest magazine navigated the print-to-digital transition better? — redesigned its website last night, doing so entirely in-house and without months of public buildup. Here’s editor J.J. Gould:

What if we described as a direct, dynamic, digital extension of our core identity in journalism — as a real-time magazine?


We created a site that makes a new priority of visual presentation, that offers a cleaner reading experience across digital devices, and that gives us the flexibility we need, both in our articles and on our homepage, to join the speed and urgency of the web with the noise-cutting and impact that have always been central to The Atlantic’s ambitions.

The new homepage is composed of full-width modules each representing either one big story or a constellation of connected stories. We can move these modules up or down the page, allowing us, among other freedoms, alternately to lead with the urgency of our news coverage or the impact of a big feature, according to the needs of the moment.

It also allows us to give full play to the same urgency and impact below the top of the page. As you return to the site, you’ll find different homepage modules in different orders with different kinds of stories in different combinations. What you won’t find, we hope, is the impression of diminishing importance as you scroll down.

(Old-timers will remember that The Atlantic used to publish online under the moniker Atlantic Unbound, a name Gould recycles for the headline on this piece.)

A few thoughts about the new look:

  • It is indeed very magazine-y, visually speaking: lots of lovely big photos and nice type (Lyon). Article pages can go big and feature-y (looking a bit like the recent New York Times Magazine redesign) or tighter and more restrained. (Compare what that article looked like yesterday; for an operation that did so much right, the old Atlantic had a lot of clutter and remarkably bad type. Though even the new site still hates curved quotation marks.)

    One downside of all those big photos: They make for a heavy page. The homepage was 8.7 MB for me this morning on desktop and took 5 seconds to fully load on a fast connection — though DOMContentLoaded fired in about 2.

  • The increased magazine-ness does make the whole operation feel less newsy. Gould emphasizes how the homepage’s increased modularity will let them be responsive to breaking news, and writes that “an enhanced News section, drawing on and supporting all our topical sections” is coming. But link density continues to be the bête noire of 2015-era web design. On my big iMac, I count only 11 stories linked within the first two screenfuls of the new homepage. Compare the previous version — I count 44. (As Matt Thompson helpfully points out, there’s a more scannable reverse-chron view too.)

    Comments on we-just-redesigned articles are hardly representative, but this one — “It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that the new main page looks like a Table of Contents for the Illiterate” — is getting some Disqus love at the moment. As is: “Single column, vertical scrolling lists of articles with unnecessarily huge images interspersed are an internet cancer. It’s been done a hundred thousand times before, and rarely has it worked.”

    Also, for my taste at least, too many homepage headlines err in the direction of magazine obliqueness. (My fellow Canada nerds may have been able to guess that a story headlined merely “Canada’s Contender” — no dek or tease copy — was a Justin Trudeau profile, but for most I bet it’s as cryptic as “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative.”)

  • All that said — while decreased newsiness might not be appealing to news nerds like me, it strikes me as a very reasonable business choice. (See also The Wire.) While The Atlantic’s traffic is still growing, run-of-the-mill online advertising faces as uncertain a future as ever, and a redesign that classes up the joint would fit with a continued push upmarket. (The Atlantic describes its online audience as INFLUENTIAL, CONNECTED, AFFLUENT, and EDUCATED.) The Atlantic is never going to win a scale war with the BuzzFeeds of the world, so doubling down on an appealing core demographic — and looking a little less Huffington Post — makes sense.

    Sponsored content is more omnipresent on the new site than ever, though the ads themselves look less like editorial copy than before. (That’s been an issue before.)

  • Finally, one of the pieces about online news design I think about most often is this one by Bob Cohn, now The Atlantic’s president and COO. His argument: In an age of social traffic, a homepage is less about traffic triage — directing lots of direct visitors to the content of their choice — than about presenting an image of your brand. It’s an interesting re-read in the context of this redesign:

    The homepage is the single best way for editors to convey the sensibilities and values of their websites. Everything about the page — the design; the selection of stories and images; the treatment of features and widgets; the language and cadence of the headlines; the typeface; the frequency with which the page is updated; even the ads — is a statement about what matters to the publication. With one glance at the page (literally, a 10-second glance), a reader can get answers to these questions:

    — What’s this site about? News? Analysis? Service? Gossip?

    — What’s the sensibility? Serious? Playful? Quirky? Geeky?

    — What are the subject areas that matter most to its editors? Washington? Wall Street? Hollywood? Silicon Valley?

    For these reasons, the homepage is, as the marketing team would put it, the ultimate brand statement.


    There’s one thing, though, that the homepage is not much good for: driving traffic. While I don’t have data on this, it’s my sense, anecdotally, that many editors continue to believe that one of the primary goals of the homepage is to guide readers to the articles on the site. I know that’s what I long believed. But the evidence — and here there is data — suggests the homepage is overvalued as a mechanism for generating visits to interior pages.

    Across The Atlantic sites, the fraction of visits that begin on the homepage is surprisingly small. About 13 percent of visits to our flagship start on the homepage. That figure is about 8 percent for The Atlantic Wire and 10 percent for The Atlantic Cities. That means, of course, that roughly 9 in 10 sessions begin on an article page or, much less frequently, a channel or author landing page.

    Cohn wrote that piece back in 2012, and I’m willing to bet that homepage share of visits has dropped further in the meantime. (Here at Nieman Lab, it’s 6 percent.)

    For many modern media sites, the homepage is as much a brand showcase as anything else. The Atlantic’s old one looked like 50 pounds of modules stuffed into an 8-pound sack; it looked low-rent. The new one does a much better job of communicating a brand identity in that 10-second glance — The Atlantic is thoughtful, beautiful, and high-end.

    Sure, that may make The Atlantic seem less newsy to folks like me or those commenters above. But it also seems like a tradeoff that probably makes sense to make.

POSTED     April 22, 2015, 11:29 a.m.
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