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

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