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January 18 2011

17:00

New Yorker web editor: The site is “guided by what’s on paper”

In a 2006 post at Design Observer, Michael Bierut praised what he termed the “slow design” of The New Yorker: “the patient, cautious, deliberate evolution of a nearly unchanging editorial format over decades.”

It’s an apt description. As Jon Michaud, the magazine’s archive director, told me, “There have been slight design changes over the years — the pages are now a little smaller than they used to be. We put the bylines at the top of articles, no longer at the bottom. We introduced photographs in the ’90s.”

But “for the most part, the magazine has evolved slowly over the decades.”

The New Yorker’s self-conscious connection to its own past is undoubtedly one of its key selling points. But what about the more future-oriented component of the publication: the digital magazine that lives on the web? When you redesign your site — as The New Yorker did late last year, in its first online revamp since 2007 — how do you balance “a nearly unchanging editorial format” with the needs of transition to (an at least partly) digital existence?

One way: Even online, preserve an ethos of print. “Designers who’ve worked on the print magazine week after week were intimately involved in the web design,” Blake Eskin, The New Yorker’s web editor, explained in an email. So “there are all sorts of ways, articulated and unarticulated, in which the look and feel of newyorker.com is guided by what’s on paper.”

Indeed, the new update is — as The New Yorker has always has been — spare in its use of text, minimal throughout, and squeaky clean. It even makes more use of Irvin, the iconic, 1925 typeface designed by (and named for) the magazine’s original art director, Rea Irvin. Illustrations and other art have also been more integrated into newyorker.com, and can be found at almost every turn — clever, and reliably unpredictable.

Then again, not everything on the new site is print-derivative. The magazine’s vintage sensibility notwithstanding, it was actually The New Yorker’s iPad app that inspired many of the site’s visual design choices, Eskin told me — like the greater use of images, both thumbnail and full-screen. “Before, our website, much like the printed magazine, had been more sparing in its use of art, and the iPad helped pave the way for using more images,” he says. “We tried to optimize both digital formats for readability. Which is why the default font size is bigger — one benefit of removing the sidebar on the left edge of most pages.”

SEO was a factor, as well. “The removal of the sidebar made a more open page, but it should also help search engines to notice our stories,” Eskin notes. (Headlines, with the help of Typekit, are also searchable.) Likewise, “as we’ve added more writing that isn’t from the magazine, and more audio and video and slide shows, we outgrew navigation that largely followed the structure of the print magazine.”

The most telling change, though, is as much about philosophy as it is about design. On the re-launched site, “we put less of the magazine online than we used to,” Eskin says. It’s a choice that will likely become more common as The New Yorker’s fellow outlets make key decisions about paid content. “Especially now that ‘Information wants to be free’ is no longer an article of faith — we wanted to tell our paying subscribers that they can access everything,” he says. “And to tell our non-paying visitors that there’s a lot that they’re missing.”

September 14 2010

20:00

More growth for Gawker comments, and more power to elite commenters

We’ve written before about the commenting system at Gawker Media’s family of sites, which for my money strikes the best balance between complexity and simplicity, between encouraging good behavior and policing bad. (I also just like that Gawker’s a company that really thinks about comments, that doesn’t just treat them as an expected annoyance/pageview driver.)

The chart above shows the growth Gawker comments over time; I’ve highlighted the section on the right that represents the continued increase since I last posted these numbers in April.

So it’s noteworthy that Gawker announced today a couple small tweaks to their commenting system.

First, they’ve added a few more gradations to the kinds of discipline available to wayward commenters. Before, commenters could be banned, and individual comments could be disemvoweled (rendered less legible by removing the vowels — although some would argue disemvoweling does more to draw attention to the bad behavior than it does to punish it). Now, commenters can also be officially warned for straying from proper behavior (with a link to official commenting policy) or suspended for a week. I’d imagine that these lesser punishments might discourage bad commenters from going through the bother of creating a new false identity and continuing to stink up the joint. And it could also help people who genuinely don’t realize they’re being bad.

Of note is that these power don’t just rest in the hands of Gawker Media staff: These tools are also available to the army of starred commenters who have impressed Gawkerites with their work. So here, for instance, Gawker user morninggloria has warned a commenter for daring to say Lady Gaga looked like John Lennon in drag. (I’d like to thank morninggloria for giving me an excuse to create a “John Lennon in drag” tag here at the Lab.)

That kind of decentralization makes it tenable to govern the huge crush of comments these sites get, and it also sets a goal that encourages good behavior: write enough good comments and you’ll get a gold star and some authority to shape the site you love.

The second major change is what they’re calling thread moving. Here’s an explanation from Gizmodo’s Jason Chen:

Then, there’s thread moving. That’s what we do if we think a comment is so egregious that it deserves both a warning and a moving to a tagpage, so it’s not cluttering up the discussion. Here are the main five tagpages we’ll be moving to.

• #trollpatrol. Originally we used this tag for identifying trolls, but we’ll throw actual trolls in there as well. But please, continue using that as a place to show us where the trolls are.

• #fanboys. Another obvious tagpage. This isn’t for people who use and enjoy products, it’s for people who lose their damn minds over a brand or idea and are blind to any other options or dissenting opinions. You should know who these are.

• #timeout. A place where we send commenters that need a little time away from typing words into boxes in order to think about whether or not this is the right place for them. This goes with a 7-day suspension—something milder than a ban, but still serves the purpose of telling them that we don’t like what they’re doing with their comments.

• #phantomzone. If you make uninformed, stupid or otherwise lousy comments, this is where that comment will be. Say hi to Zod.

• #whitenoise. Offtopic discussions go here. If a post is about keyboards and you talk about picking out new curtains, we’ll escort you over here.

• #dev/null. I just came up with this one, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to use it quite often.

Essentially, it’s a way to apply tags to individual comments, have them detach from their native post, and live another life in the Gawker Media forums, which are tied to the tags. This could separate off-comment topics without killing them off completely; one suspects the bad-behavior tag pages will have their own regular denizens. And the change could work to liven up the tag-based forum pages, which it appears have gained traction in only a limited number of cases. (See Deadspin’s #iwasthere tag page, or Gawker’s #tips page.) I love the concept of comment tag pages — treating the comment as an independent unit of content, opening up new avenues for involved commenters to create and contribute — but I’m not sure how well it’s worked in practice. It may be the point where the system grows too complex for most users.

Gawker Media CTO Tom Plunkett posted the above chart today and added this about the changes:

At Gawker Media, comment growth continues to be strong — both in volume and quality. It’s good to see validation of the processes we’ve introduced.

This week we’ve rolled out new features that will allow us to further improve the experience. It is now possible to move comment threads from posts to forums (think “off topic” threads: we’re happy to let you keep the conversation going, but it’d be better to continue the discussion in a forum appropriate to the subject). We will utilize thread moving for many situations (off topic, inappropriate comments, bannable offenses, etc.), and think it will only improve our platform.

If you are paying attention to beta.gawker.com or beta.jalopnik.com, you will see more improvements we plan to roll out in the future. Remember – these sites are beta (alpha may be a more appropriate description)! Don’t expect everything to work perfectly all of the time!

So if you want to see what Gawker’s thinking about for the future, the beta site features a more magazine-like front page (as opposed to straight blog hierarchy — the most popular recent story gets top billing), non-standard fonts via Typekit, a wider story well, smooth page transitions, a stationary sidebar, and a more prominent footer. We’ll see how much of that reaches the production sites of one of the more adventurous new media companies around.

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