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 TheAtlantic.com editor J.J. Gould:
What if we described TheAtlantic.com 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.
A few thoughts about the new look:
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.
— Kathleen Kingsbury (@katiekings) April 22, 2015
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.”)
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 TheAtlantic.com 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.