Why the New York Times “wins the Internet,” and three things you can do to catch up

by Jason Preston on April 29, 2008

This morning Bob Stepno’s Other Journalism Blog pointed me to a giant QnA type piece with the New York Times‘ Design Director Khoi Vinh.

Given my basic interest in design (both for print and the internet), and my complete admiration with the New York Times website, I dove right in.

While most of his answers are more vague than I’d like, it’s 100% clear to me that Vinh’s understanding of internet design vs print design is one of the big reasons that the New York Times web site is so far ahead of other papers.

If you read carefully, Vinh offers several good takeaways for other newspapers:

Design for the web, not for print

This might seem like a no-brainer, but usually the thought process doesn’t go much beyond a quick eye-tracking study or dividing content into a big column and a little one, adding scrollbars, share buttons, rounded corners, and calling it “web 2.0.”

Here’s what Vinh had to say:

This means we pay a lot of attention to how people use our content online. That is, not just how they read it, but how they make use of it: how they might scan the page haphazardly rather than diligently reading from top to bottom; what parts of the page they look to first and last; what they expect to change from visit to visit; which visual cues are meaningful for them and which design flourishes they find useless.

What he’s really saying is that there is a whole different set of behavior that exists online that doesn’t when you’re reading a print newspaper. Designing your site to emphasize and encourage those behaviors will undoubtedly help your user experience.

Use WordPress

Why re-invent the wheel?

If you’re going to be journoblogging, there’s no reason to put yourself through the massive headache of adapting a dinosaur-sized Content Management System (CMS) to do poorly what a lightweight, open source (read: free) solution already does well.

I’ve written extensively before about my experience with clients who are sometimes surprised by the issues facing people who decide to roll their own blog engine.

If you’re worried about security, don’t be. The New York Times isn’t.

If you’re worried about adaptability, don’t be. It’s open source.

If you’re worried about control, don’t be. It’s all on your servers.

In fact, if you’ve got any concerns about using WordPress as your blogging architecture, e-mail me directly and I’ll do what I can to help clear them up. At the Parnassus Group, we build and support custom WordPress installs for all kinds of companies, so I’m pretty familiar with its capabilities and its limits.

Hire a Design Director

Who is running your web site?

If you don’t have someone, or preferably a team of people, who are responsible for the user experience on your web site, you will undoubtedly suffer. One of the questions asked of Vinh was, essentially, “what do you do?”

The answer is long and well worth reading, but here is the key bit:

Though we do work with these teams in a support capacity, it’s not the core of what we do. If you think of their work as design for the content that appears on our site, then you can think of the work that my team does as design for the framework for that content. Which is to say, we create the underlying platform on top of which the content sits.

More broadly, Vinh and his team are responsible for laying out the way in which people interact with the New York Times on the internet, from a conceptual level to a nuts and bolts level.

You don’t want your typesetters doing A1 layout. So why do you want your programmers doing home page layout?

Vinh’s team is there to provide the grammar and the framework that enables the writers and editors at the paper to best communicate with their readers.

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