TheAtlantic.com: Sailing with a Sneer
The Atlantic, that long-tenured magazine for the thinky set, has updated its Web site. It’s one of the better recent magazine site re-dos I’ve seen. It suffers some surprisingly obvious usability issues, but overall it’s a smart renovation of a smart publication.
Fundamentally, theAtlantic.com renews the online experience for the emerging bigbrain reader, adding blogs and reader comments yet managing to maintain (even upgrade) the magazine’s tone and intellectual integrity. While it’s extremely dynamic (largely via high-IQ bloggery, which the authors seem to be cranking out by the hour!), the site resists the faddish lurching you see on so many 2.0-era updates.
Its prudery about 2.0, however, exposes a serious character flaw. More on this below.
The new home page is topped with a visual five-tab module that presents dynamic ledes in (I think) 6-second rotation. I didn’t expect visuals as the main entry point for the known-for-its-prose Atlantic. But it’s great: Each image drives readers to one of the current issue’s key articles. The images are strong and interpretive (with one odd exception–what’s with that my-senior-in-art-class-kid-could-do-that illo of Ira Glass?). The new site’s above the fold anchor mixes highbrow eye candy with substantial content.
But a key flaw here begins to expose the site’s weakness: Those features are sometimes free and sometimes three-graf teasers to stories whose remaindeer is available only to subscribers or other cash customers.
It’s hard to describe the feeling this generates–I’d say it’s somewhere between “contempt” and “apoplexy.” Atlantic: I know you need some way to pay the bills. Coercing me to put up cash after hooking me with high-quality content is manipulative, small, even mean. New Tobias Wolff fiction? Read two grafs, then cough up $2.95 to finish. One wishes for an extended-middle-finger emoticon.
Below, the site is organized into three vertical columns, badly labeled: “This Just In”, “Featured” and “Atlantic Voices”. Since the Voices are usually the authors of This Just In, the two offerings immediately baffle. Look, Andrew Sullivan on the left, under This Just In! But look, Andrew on the right, under Voices, with an entry that’s newer than the one in This Just In! Gentlemen, synchronize your watches. Or something.
The middle column should be titled “From our Latest Issue” or some such. Otherwise, a reader of good faith is left to wonder how those “features” are different from the five features rotating above in the visual module overhead, some of which are indeed duplicates. The centr ring at this point seems to be “stuff we want you to see, most of which is from our most recent issue, and some of which promotes our franchises, like the fiction issue.” That column needs a strategy–or a new name.
That middleware also includes “Editor’s Picks.” This represents a bad decision, made obvious throughout the site, to limit user’s participation to comments-only.
Yes, theAtlantic.com is a mashup-free zone. I, for one, would actually want to know what Atlantic online readers are viewing the most, e-mailing the most, commenting on the most. I certainly want to know those things from Atlanticians more than from those chin-drizzles over at Digg.
But theAtlantic.com doesn’t let readers play. There’s something smug and disrespectful about this–this containment policy of reader involvement—that’s inappropriate for a publication with such a smart and engaged group of readers. The Atlantic seems to be underestimating its own audience. That rarely ends well.
As James Bennet’s editor’s note explains, theAtlantic.com is a work in progress. Good. At this point it’s done a very good job looking inward and finding sharp ways to adapt to a changing media environment and reader. But they haven’t looked outward, even at their own readers.
To paraphrase a politician who has been the subject of many Atlantic articles over the years: It’s time to ask not what you can do for your readers, but what your readers can for you.