Understanding the real design challenges facing today’s news organizations
Catching up on Twitter last night, I came across a link to a visual design re-imagining of the New York Times website done recently by an interactive designer. Aside from the fact that I can’t imagine seeing a version of a Times headline NOT set in Cheltenham, it got me thinking about contemporary news design and what the keys challenges really are.
By no means am I trying to disparage interesting, exploratory visual design work. Do I think something like this would fly in the real world? No. But that doesn’t mean young designers shouldn’t take on heady challenges in the interest of establishing themselves and exercising their design chops.
I do take issue with the fact that a visual redesign like this misses the boat on the real challenges facing news organizations in 2015 (and beyond). In the nearly three years since the Times upended the online reading experience with the Pulitzer Prize winning “Snowfall”, a number of news organizations across the country and around the world have made significant strides in improving the reading experience, particularly for long-form journalism. I was fortunate to help lead one of those major redesigns, for my hometown news site, The Seattle Times, last year as a part of the Mule Design team.
So if an improved reading experience isn’t the answer that turns the corner for online news organizations, what is? It’s a focus on, above all: 1) the mobile user, and 2) monetization and revenue. Likely even more important — the intersection between the two.
News organizations get the importance of mobile. As a traffic source, mobile readership is quickly overtaking desktop viewing for most major publishers. The New York Times recently experimented with blocking employee access to the desktop version of their homepage with their headquarters, specifically to drive home the importance of the mobile experience and the fact that the majority of their readers are now accessing Times content on mobile devices:
The first two decades of online news has relied on increasingly invasive display ads, everything from interstitials taking over the screen before finally (“just 10 seconds to go…”) revealing an article, to menageries of ad units of every size cluttering the screen and resembling a NASCAR driver’s fire suit. These have all become less effective over time, and none of them are effective on mobile devices.
Is better display advertising on mobile the answer? Is it subscription support and paywalls? Is it some heretofore unimagined new revenue model? Who knows. But that is the key problem to be solved for news organizations to be successful and financially viable in the future.
Without a solid revenue stream, even the most interesting, well-designed news platforms can’t survive for long. Take this week’s announcement of the “indefinite hiatus” for mobile news app Circa, or the 18-month run, and subsequent shuttering, of our own Evening Edition project. Interesting ideas, interesting twists on news delivery and consumption, but unfortunately not financially viable.
To paraphrase my former boss, Mike Monteiro, professional design is about solving real world business problems. Therein lies the value. And here, at the intersection of mobile readership and sustainable revenue, is the key problem to be solved. How do you create an engaging, high-value advertising experience (or other revenue model) that can sustain and grow a 21st century news organization?
That is the design challenge at hand, and one most definitely worth solving.