Some comments on the Atlantic redesign
It's been interesting watching The Atlantic's writers go to war against The Atlantic's online redesign. Ta-Nehisi Coates takes his shots here, James Fallows unloads here, and Andrew Sullivan really goes to town in this post.
As a blogger, I agree with them. I'd hate to be at a publication that paved over my blog in order to bring more attention to content-specific "channels." I'd be even more furious if my employer adopted a template that prevented readers from reading the front page of the blog all at once. Forcing the audience to click on each post individually (which Time also does) might be good for advertising impressions, but it makes for a terrible reader experience, and that has consequences for your traffic. I no longer read Time's Swampland frequently, despite really liking the people who write it. That also means I link to Swampland less often, which means they get somewhat less traffic than they otherwise might. I don't know if that sort of thing has a measurable impact, but it wouldn't shock me if it did, and I doubt it's something that the business side thinks about.
And yet, and yet, and yet. As things stood a week ago, there really was no Atlantic online. Instead, there was a respected magazine called The Atlantic Monthly that had agreed to offer web hosting to a certain number of blogs. You never heard anyone say "did you read the Atlantic online today?" Instead, it was whether you'd read Ta-Nehisi, or Andrew, or Fallows. The magazine designated them "voices," but the redesign suggests that it eventually realized they were the only ones being heard.
The problem for the Atlantic is that they were a monthly institution entering a daily medium. Some magazines, like The American Prospect and The New Republic, solved that problem by accelerating their publication cycle to include daily Web articles and telling their staffs to blog. But some, like the Atlantic and the Washington Monthly, held back on changing the actual institution, and instead hired bloggers with existing audiences to come create daily content under the magazine's banner.
That worked out fine until the magazine wanted an online presence of its own only to realize that their acquisition strategy had left them an audience loyal to the individual "voices" rather than to the brand.
The Atlantic's redesign seems like a bet to re-center the Web site around the Atlantic as an institution rather than leaving it as a web hosting service for a couple of bloggers. What's causing the outcry is that in order to drive traffic to the new channels, they're integrating the blogs (save for the traffic-generating beast that is Sullivan's Daily Dish) into the channels. That way the readers of Ta-Nehisi's blog, to use one example, will become readers of the culture channel, which includes Ta-Nehisi's content.
My guess is that this strategy will last all of a week. The outcry has been too ferocious. Fallows appears to be on some sort of blogging strike until the design is revised. But was it a bad idea? I don't know. This e-mail that the Daily Dish published from a former AOL content manager who participated in a similar experiment back in the late '90s suggests that it's failed before. Still, I see the appeal of making sure that the blogs are part of the greater glory of the Atlantic, as opposed to the greater glory of the bloggers.
If I were an editor, I'd probably chart a middle path by leaving my popular bloggers with their popular blogs, but forcing them to become much more aggressive shills for the content that appears across the site. If Coates had to publish a daily post linking to the best of the culture channel, that would probably get the channel new fans even as it didn't drive off the TNC audience. But who knows?
The current situation is obviously nice for the bloggers who benefit from it (and I'm one of them), but it's got drawbacks for their institutions. It also creates a sort of incumbency effect, where it becomes harder for new voices to emerge because the highest-profile outlets are single-voice blogs rather than institutions that can publish lots of young writers. Bloggers -- myself included -- want to defend it, and our blogs give us the capability to do so loudly. But that doesn't mean that it's a good thing.
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