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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.

By Ezra Klein  |  March 1, 2010; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Journalism  
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Comments

Ezra, can you please tell this to your fellow member of the Juicebox Mafia, Spencer Ackerman? I don't read his FDL blog because it's such a giant pain to individually open up each blog post. The fact that he titles his posts with indie rock song titles makes it even harder to read because you then, without the text, you never know what subject he's writing about.

Posted by: Isa8686 | March 1, 2010 2:24 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, I have to say that I never read much of the Prospect other than your blog when it was there unless I was really bored or you linked to something specific. Now that you're here it's a similar situation.

To take the "forced shilling" idea, I think maybe forcing the bloggers to write a post every once in a while that would appear in a shared section, be it a group blog or a "Culture" section or whatever, would be a decent idea. Of course, the blogger couldn't just repost it in his/her blog, but could only provide a link. That'd probably get me over to the other section. Maybe I'd add the section to my links if I liked what I saw.

On the other hand, blogs have always been about these singular voices that rose above the din of the 'net with interesting analysis and ideas. I don't read Think Progess, or the WaPo, or the Atlantic, I read MattY, Sullivan et. al., and Ezra. I still check in on TPM, but as it's expanded beyond Josh Marshal I went there a bit less.

Posted by: MosBen | March 1, 2010 2:27 PM | Report abuse

All the bloggers at The Atlantic also write for the print edition as well.

Posted by: wiredog | March 1, 2010 2:36 PM | Report abuse

I'm no expert but the Atlantic has some pretty decent content and I think the redesign does highlight it better. With the evolving state of journalism I would imagine we will see more experimentation in the future.

That said, I can see why some of their bloggers are upset. People like me (who steal a few minutes during the work day) can't see readers comments. And we can't peruse the different blog posts by scrolling. I was not a frequent reader of the blogs but would stop by occasionally. Now I just might bookmark The Atlantic instead of clicking on your Megan McArdle link which I guess is the whole point of the redesign! So mission accomplished!

On the whole, I think the new Atlantic site looks pretty decent.

Posted by: luko | March 1, 2010 2:39 PM | Report abuse

This is a problem? As you said, they're trying to put more focus on their long-form original content than their blogs, which I think is a good thing. Ezra Klein is an exception to the notion that bloggers are chipping away at real journalism, but Sullivan is pudding proof of it. He's an excellent essayist, but as a blogger, he just perpetuates the image of laptop-toting narcissists who get off on linking to and block-quoting each other all day. The Atlantic is right to showcase what it does best.

Posted by: jwellington1 | March 1, 2010 2:40 PM | Report abuse

"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"

I could not disagree with this more. I am big-time frequenter and commentor over at the Atlantic and the ONLY reason I bought a subscription for a friend, and myself, was because of the amazing blog content. I know for a fact I'm not the only one.

As for the "aggressive shilling" Andrew does that already and he's not the only one that has, in fact the large reason why I even bought the magazine is because of the "shilling." I know McArdle doesn't advertise the mag too much, TNC has "shilled" in a low-key way by frequently proclaiming his love for the print magazine in general. Perhaps they all should? Maybe if that would help.

Th blogs draw people to Atlantic and keep them there. You are underestimating the loyalty frequent readers like me have to the Atlantic as a whole, precisely because they are providing such amazing content which includes the blogs.

Posted by: silentbeep | March 1, 2010 2:41 PM | Report abuse

I've followed Ezra's blogging from Pandagon to his own named site to TAP and now here. I'll follow his writing wherever he goes next. I also read some stuff on the WashPost (though not many of their columns and voices). But I don't read Ezra because he's here, rather I've always found his writing and analysis interesting and useful, so I read his writing regardless of where it's published.

Posted by: jnfr | March 1, 2010 2:43 PM | Report abuse

I'm here for the Ezra. Unless Ezra links to it, I read very little at the WaPo.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | March 1, 2010 2:49 PM | Report abuse

agree about Swampland, haven't looked too closely at Atlantic lately. I also hate Time's online "in line clickable features" of the "want to know 10 other things people hate about Time?" sort that show up in the middle of blocks of text.

Posted by: bdballard | March 1, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

I found that the links that used to be to the right on Andrew's blog would tempt me into the channels. Now, there is nothing there and I have to think about going to each channel to see what they have after reading through DD. I often don't. I think it was a big mistake to do that. I think they could have solved the problem with a different kind of frame and MORE sidebar temptations into the rest of the online Atlantic and its staff and blogs. It does not feel like an online creature. It feels like it was designed by a print designer.

Posted by: robinshuster | March 1, 2010 2:56 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Isa8686 (2:24 PM) - someone needs to tell Ackerman to change his format. Just like Eszra with Time's Swampland, I would read it more often if it had the traditional blog display.

Posted by: neilinottawa | March 1, 2010 3:04 PM | Report abuse

jnfr, wow, somehow I'd forgotten about the Pandagon days recently. That's totally where I started reading Ezra, and after Jesse left I stopped reading Pandagon unless they were involved with some controversy (which, frankly, was fairly often for a while there). And yeah, I followed him to his solo site, then to the Prospect, and then to here. And when he leaves the Post (he's young, it's bound to happen eventually), I'll move on to that.

I have little faith in news institutions. I only trust individuals who have earned that trust through consistently high quality analysis.

Posted by: MosBen | March 1, 2010 3:14 PM | Report abuse

Well, if we want to talk about terrible web design, why talk about another site?

washingtonpost.com is atrocious. It has always been atrocious, and seemingly no matter how often the company tries, each iteration is more atrocious than the last.

Just one example: the fact that the article comments system is *so. much. worse.* than the one we use here on the blog.

I could go on, but I won't. For the record, I read TNC via G-Reader and click over for comments. I do the same thing here. I clicked over to the "new" atlanticmonthly.com and thought it was just fine for a magazine site.

Frankly, their employees <> their audience. Get over yourself, Sullivan.

Posted by: ajw_93 | March 1, 2010 3:31 PM | Report abuse

As someone who abandoned the Atlantic Politics Channel because the cost-benefit ratio wasn't where it needed to be for me, I believe this Channel direction is the wrong one for them to take. Whether or not I agreed with him much of the time, I found Marc Ambinder's stuff at least relatively informative and thought-provoking. His Politics Channel compatriot--a poo-flinging, press-release-passing monkey--not so much. The press-release monkey was (by nature of his carelessness and thoughtlessness) prolific while Ambinder was less so. And since I was unable to choose only one, out of my RSS they both went. Cost-benefit fail.

I'm fairly sure that the same thing will happen if TNC and Fallows get subsumed in my RSS feed by their Channel compatriots who value quantity over quality. Eventually, they too will get the boot and my feed will be Atlantic-free. It's almost inevitable.

People are busy, and while we don't always have to agree with what we read, we have to at least find value in it. And when you increase the noise by adding more content while simultaneously taking away people's ability to select the content of value to them as individuals, you will lose readers.

And like Kevin_Willis, I think the WaPo is an information desert in which Ezra Klein is a tiny oasis.

Posted by: slag | March 1, 2010 3:55 PM | Report abuse

OK, I stand corrected: the loss of my G-reader full feeds TOTALLY STINKS, Atlantic Monthly.

But the new front page is still fine.

Posted by: ajw_93 | March 1, 2010 3:56 PM | Report abuse

There are business advantages to the redesign, which attempts to monetize otherwise non-revenue-producing chatter. Ultimately, both the public and the writers will need to realize that non-revenue-producing elements have little value in a for-profit enterprise: regardless of popularity, at some point the non-earners have to be dropped in favor of brand-building (and thereby sales-building) endeavors.

Posted by: rmgregory | March 1, 2010 4:18 PM | Report abuse

@ Isa8686, thanks for caring. I stopped with the lyrics-based headlines for just the reasons you cite and now my blog has auto-summaries & visible tags for each post (when viewed through the site directly), as well as full-text RSS, so it's not as maddeningly obscure/self-indulgent anymore. I want you back!

Posted by: spencerackerman | March 1, 2010 4:21 PM | Report abuse

'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.'

I have to disagree. First, a quick point:there's no difference between how people recommend bloggers and how they recommend, say, a columnist ("Did you read Krugman today?" as opposed to "Did you read The New York Times where that charming grouchy liberal fellow said XYZ?"). Names are names.

But I certainly have read much more of The Atlantic than I otherwise would have thanks to the stable of always-interesting bloggers they've collected. And folks I know who also read those blogs are well aware of the host site's brand.

We just don't have a whole hell of a lot of time to sit and read long articles anymore, is the thing.

Posted by: scrubsie | March 1, 2010 4:54 PM | Report abuse

I subscribe to the Atlantic and one thing that drives me crazy is that they post their magazine articles on the web two or three weeks before I receive my printed copy. I'm not sure of the rationale for that decision, and it will certainly make me think hard about extending my subscription.

Posted by: rlplant | March 1, 2010 5:24 PM | Report abuse

I read Sullivan, Ezra and two dozen other blogs every day -- and I have no idea or interest in what any of their home pages look like. RSS, baby.

Posted by: kaivles | March 1, 2010 6:53 PM | Report abuse

Archive-viewing blogs into submission should be disqualified as a profitability option.

I hope that media publishers have paid close attention to this whole event, because at least the Atlantic listened to their staff/readers and restored the blogs to their innate format. Plenty of times those complaints fall on deaf ears and we all go just a little bit dumber as a result.

For instance, why doesn't Swampland's honchos pay attention and take this opportunity and revert a bit. Make Ezra happy before he tells Diane Sawyer to crack some skulls.

But I also disagree that the Atlantic had nothing else to offer other than the Voices section. There is a lot of good content on there and it is/was not being delivered well enough - something they seem to have been trying to address. That's a good idea. The problem is that Voices is their best foothold into new media, and to not at least involve someone like Andrew - one of the format's most successful innovators - in their discussions towards a redesign seems pretty counter-intuitive. Seeing him unload and also seeing (ex-Atlantic) Yglesias's comment also makes me a little worried...

Bottom line, they should take what works (Voices) and expand upon it. Stop assuming something like The Dish is an anomaly rather than one of several possible (proven!) ways forward. Add bloggers to the teams conceptualizing redesigns. Develop a beta group of loyal readers (Like TNC's commenter community). And stop thinking that broadsheet content aggregation ala HuffPo is the only way to go. Ten years ago barely anybody read blogs and ten years from now the sky won't even be the limit because we'll finally have hovercars.

Posted by: chasdanner | March 1, 2010 7:09 PM | Report abuse

I read them all on politics.alltop.com.

Posted by: Calgal | March 1, 2010 7:55 PM | Report abuse

I don't follow The Atlantic "channels".
I follow "a writer".
Particularly true with Andrew and James.
Andrew should just go out on his own.

Posted by: davebarnes | March 1, 2010 10:13 PM | Report abuse

I use Google Reader to read your blog and Daily Dish and James Fallows. Google Reader shields me from all design changes. All I see are the title and text content of each post.

Posted by: philipc2000 | March 1, 2010 10:43 PM | Report abuse

I used to read the business channel every day. Now they have Megan McArdle's ugly mug at the very center. The end of my tolerance for her was her inane 'argument' that not having health care insurance had no impact on death rates from health conditions or accidents. What a dimwit, of the worst kind: that looks for ways and reasons to make the American people suffer. Anyway, I avoid that page now.

Posted by: mminka | March 2, 2010 1:56 AM | Report abuse

@spencerackerman

"I want you back!"

You might want to take a cue from TNC. He started 'serenading' errant commentors with a Marvin Gaye YouTube video of "distant lover" live - some people left due to re-design issues. He wants them back too, I don't know if it worked, but the rest of us sure liked the love song sentiment. Perhaps you should try the same thing or something similar. Another Marvine Gaye song? Teddy Pendergrass? I'm just saying...

Posted by: silentbeep | March 2, 2010 3:32 AM | Report abuse

I find the redesign pretty ugly so far, especially as applied to the format of the blogs, and the way it handles the various posts on each blog. The old system of having a group of posts with titles allowed me to pick and choose more easily.
I can't say I find the Atlantic interesting enough to buy the print edition very often. As for the blogs, I read Sullivan, Coates and Fallows. McArdle is a selfish glibertarian brat, while Crook seems to know nothing about the US or its politics, to judge from his infrequent "analysis". Ambinder is OK, in his stodgy way. Goldberg strikes me as deeply paranoid, and a slightly less venomous version of Marty Peretz. Overall, three blogs keep me coming back to the Atlantic, and without them, I doubt that I would notice its existence.

Posted by: palarran | March 2, 2010 10:05 AM | Report abuse

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