A newspaper website redesign involves a lot more than simply changing a page layout. There are the demands of different platforms to consider, as well as making the site appealing to both readers and advertisers.
Staying relevant, readable and profitable is more critical than ever for newspaper websites in the constantly changing digital space: E&P weighed in with several newspapers that launched major redesigns in the past year. They include Cox Media Group, whose sites include the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC.com) and the Austin American-Statesman (statesman.com); The San Francisco Chronicle (SFChronicle.com and SFGate.com); The Day (theday.com) in New London, Conn.; and UK’s The Guardian (theguardian.com).
Doing the research
The Guardian, whose in-house redesign took 20 months, began by targeting a select group of readers (about 5 percent) who then got to see a beta version nearly a year before the official launch. They rolled out the new site first in the U.S., then in Australia, and then the UK and beyond.
“Before launching the site, we had already received more than 140,000 pieces of structured feedback,” said Wolfgang Blau, executive director of digital strategy, who served as editorial lead on The Guardian’s redesign. “Involving such a large share of our readers early on allowed us to make much more dramatic changes to the site’s design and information architecture without running the risk of alienating our most loyal users on the official launch day.”
He added, “We didn’t just re-design the Guardian, but introduced a different section structure and a completely different information architecture, font, color language and design system to more than 40 million readers.”
By contrast, The Day’s redesign took only eight months and they also did it in-house. “We did all the work ourselves,” said executive editor Tim Dwyer. “We had two Web developers work on it along with one of our newsroom designers. We created a committee with representatives from the newsroom, marketing and advertising. That committee met twice a month for the first couple of months of the process and then once a week as we go closer to launch.”
Dwyer said The Day’s research process was more “informal,” involving a controlled focus group drawn from subscribers and registered users, whom they communicated with via email. “We did an informal survey and gave them early looks at portions of the redesign for feedback.”
Cox Media Group turned to Atlanta-based design firm CSE for their massive four-site redesign. “The process was about 18 months from conception to implementation,” said Mark Medici, senior vice president of audience strategy and group lead at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We engaged in a tremendous amount of research, and a tremendous amount of usability throughout the build process with CSE. They also assisted in designing USAToday.com, so we felt confident that we had picked a good partner.”
CSE helped Cox conduct usability test and Magid Associates of Sherman Oaks, Calif. did their fielded research. “We really had a lot of people on that part of the project,” Medici said. “The project was a very collaborative one: The organization, technology, advertising, audience, marketing, and obviously the newsroom all weighed in on their priorities.”
When it came to inspiration, Medici said they were influenced by websites like BuzzFeed, Upworthy, Vox, and the Huffington Post. “Not just from a design, but from a content creation perspective,” he said.
Cox Media Group also looked to social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, “They’re changing the way that consumers define what content is. Newspapers have always done a great job at presenting journalism; we just haven’t done a great job of changing at the pace that the consumer wants to consume that journalism.” He added that the changes were “dramatic” and that the site is now “very, very visual” instead of the list-driven and text-heavy former site that hadn’t had a redesign in 10 years.
At the San Francisco Chronicle, Karen Brophy, vice president of digital product at Hearst, cited the same influences for SFGate.com’s redesign, as well as Mashable, Daily Beast, and the Los Angeles Times.
“Our original concept was to explore a design with an infinite scroll to increase engagement and move away from a traditional headlines-based news design,” she said.
After unveiling the redesign, Brophy learned that the scroll wasn’t working as hoped. “In our next iteration, we are moving away from the infinite scroll feature. Very few people got past the third scroll, so that obviously wasn’t something that was that engaging.”
Guardian’s Blau noted that, unlike other traditional news sites, Guardian was already heavily visual and video-driven: “We publish more than 500 items—text, videos, live-blogs— per day. To present such an amount of stories plus the wide variety of tones across news and non-news journalism, and then to create a responsive design system for this across platforms was a huge task for our creative director Alex Breuer and his team as well as for our user interface experts and developers under the leadership of Anthony Sullivan and Shannon Maher.”
There’s also the power of the content management system.
“I can’t imagine building a globally competitive news organization and not developing our own CMS,” Blau said. “Someone said recently that the CMS is the social contract a news organization has with itself and between its various departments. A CMS is a very powerful manifestation of how a news organization defines journalism.”
Medici said, “We have a homegrown CMS, and we are looking at various options that will allow our journalists and content producers to publish content faster, with less friction. We want to make sure the system is as responsive as the site demands. To think that we can move at speeds that audiences need us to move in the technological space, that’s a real challenge. That’s why we hired a firm like CSE to help us. There’s no standing still.”
Who needs a home page?
While 30 percent of Cox Media Group consumers still have those home pages bookmarked, Medici said, “Facebook and Twitter have become today’s home pages,” and social media drives more traffic than the traditional home page these days.
Brophy said, “Our websites absolutely still need a home page and I would expect most strong brands would. While, like everyone in the industry, we’ve seen declines in direct-to-home page traffic, it still represents our brand and is one of our biggest funnels to engage users to explore our content and keep in touch with the latest breaking news.”
Blau said that the fact that the Guardian’s home page traffic has stayed at 30 percent over the last few years is “a direct expression of how strong the Guardian’s brand is and how many readers trust us as a destination.”
To retain “sideways” traffic driven by a single page or link, the concept that “every page is a home page” has come into play.
According to The Day’s Dwyer, “More and more people are coming to our site for the first time landing on an article page rather than the home page, so we wanted our new article page design to be a sticky as possible. Once we had someone on our site, we wanted them to stay awhile. The redesign was intended to offer the reader more than what they initially came for.”
“We are working to optimize our other entry points like article pages,” Brophy said. “Social is having a huge impact on user attention and on our traffic patterns, so we have to align our design and our programming in response to that shift.”
Medici pointed out that the shift affected advertisers as well. “As sideways traffic becomes more and more the norm, the home page has become less and less a premium piece of real estate for advertising. We need to educate our advertising partners about that change.”
According to Medici, “a tremendous amount” of Cox Media Group’s overhaul was designed with advertisers in mind. “I would say that we focused on the advertising requirements for the better part of six months. We were really trying to understand it from a programmatic perspective, making sure we were paying attention to IAB review-ability and how we wanted to mix in sponsor acquisitions and, of course, native advertising content was a big piece of the equation as well.”
Dwyer said The Day has greatly increased its native content. “We created two spots on the home page for native advertising content and two on the article pages, as well as section front pages. Those spots only display when there is native content; if the spot is not sold, the bucket is hidden to the reader.”
Creating attractive space for advertisers and keeping readers engaged is always tricky. “I think it’s a fine balance,” Medici said. “We didn’t do any custom non-IAB ad units. I’m not as concerned with the advertising per se as I am in the overall performance of the site. We want the site to load quickly on a smartphone or a tablet.”
Brophy reiterated that fact. “The biggest consideration to balance is to ensure we don’t overly tax our page load and make the experience cumbersome or problematic for our users.”
The benefits of free and paid content
When offering both free and paid content on his website, Medici broke down the benefits of having both for readers. “One site is a very heavily monetized digital-only subscription and the other one is there to serve the top of the audience funnel that really drives the advertising and brand messages of the site.”
At The San Francisco Chronicle, the paid and free sites have two very different identities.
“Since SFGate is a breaking news site and ad-supported, we rely on advertising revenue solely to fund the product,” Brophy said. “Our fully responsive premium website— SFChronicle.com—is created for subscribers and advertising there is minimal and non-invasive.”
Blau suggested that advertising versus content is a false dichotomy: “We didn’t think this was a question of either/or. It is in the interest of our advertisers that our readers enjoy reading, viewing and interacting with our journalism and that we don’t use intrusive or downright annoying ad formats.”
He described how The Guardian’s three teams—editorial, product and commercial—have worked together to design a product that benefits each department. “The new modular structure has many editorial advantages while it also allows for much more flexibility in regards to where we can insert ads. For us journalists, this holds the promise of having a more collaborative relationship with a reader, while our commercial team has a chance to make more relevant offers to this reader.”
Designing across different platforms
Newspapers are still discovering all the ways they can and should be customizing mobile content. “You can program and package content in a way you might not prioritize on desktop,” Brophy said. “On mobile, we need to offer users alternative options to the UX. Some users want a rich visual experience, while others—generally news junkies—really just want headlines and speed. We’re working on features to allow our users to select their preferred UX going forward.”
She also found that users access the content differently, depending on the platform. Mobile users want more updates on the weekend while the “core” desktop audience is busier on weekdays. “We are mindful about keeping the desktop site fresh and headlines updated as we know people are coming back looking for new items multiple times during the work day.”
Naturally, newspapers want to keep the same editorial and brand message across all platforms. “Broadly speaking, the challenge is to present the same editorial agenda and editorial importance assigned to each story in a consistent manner across platforms while also making the most of each platform,” said The Guardian’s Blau.
Newspaper readers often don’t like change, so a redesign is usually met with harsh criticism at first.
“User response to the redesign was mixed, but that was expected,” Brophy said. “The site had not been updated in about seven years and users were very comfortable with the old design.” She added that they are still tweaking the design based on reader feedback. “The home page will be more streamlined, with improved page performance and more opportunities for rich content packaging.”
“Some of the feedback has been great and some of it has been not so good,” Medici said. “The feedback that we’re paying the most attention to is the feedback from the audience that we’re getting in that free space, that Gen X audience and that millennial audience. We had to make sure that AJC.com leans more towards the audience that we need to grow with, hoping and knowing that the consumers who are passionate about the journalism will adjust to the redesign.”
Blau suggested there was an easier way to avert a user meltdown: Get reader input upfront. “It’s important to get concepts in front of real users and get feedback from them directly and to pay attention to the analytics. I would advise developing the site out in the open and show your first half-way presentable iteration to a small percentage of your users. Not only will you learn a lot from your readers’ feedback and usage data, you also minimize the risk of alienating your most loyal users on launch day by getting them used to the new site over many months prior to the actual launch.”
Is traffic the ultimate measure of a redesign’s success? Brophy reported that traffic on SFGate has been up 10 to 15 percent since the redesign and that traffic remains steady with a “healthy” pattern of growing uniques.
Blau reported “double-digit growth in unique browsers” without suffering any “launch dip” while Dwyer said desktop numbers dropped slightly after The Day’s launch, but mobile numbers increased dramatically.
In stark contrast, Medici said, “We have not seen a rise in traffic and we weren’t necessarily expecting one. The old site was a pain to navigate, so we knew that we were generating page views because people couldn’t find their way around the site.” But he did report a positive Scarborough study on AJC.com. “So while site traffic hasn’t increased, the reach of the brand and the awareness of the brand have increased significantly year to year.”
Cox Media Group has a quarterly budget for usability and design changes, so as Medici put it, “A redesign doesn’t mean you stop redesigning… The design is just the beginning.”