Today, a very familiar thing happened.
I’m reading a story about Tina Brown by Peter Stevenson, the former executive editor of The New York Observer. He was born to write this piece. It does not disappoint. (“Under a black suit, she wore a white shirt unbuttoned enough to display the cleavage that inspired Private Eye to dub her a ‘buxom hackette’ when she was 25.” Nice.) And yet, I’m left wondering, what does this piece look like in the magazine? It’s not that I want to see a pdf (yuck!) of the magazine version or that I’m yearning for the tactile comfort of the printed page. It’s that I’m bored. Not by the content, mind you, but by the design. It’s a 5,000-word profile that probably involved weeks, if not months of work, and cost the Times a nice chunk of change to produce, yet it’s squeezed into the same template as practically every other piece of content on nytimes.com. (Witness my incredibly helpful side-by-side comparison of the Stevenson article with a 750-word piece about Michael Bloomberg.)
The why is fairly obvious—ease of production and speed, advertising constraints, cost, competing functionalities, etc. Templates serve an incredibly important function in online publishing. It’s an integral part of any website that hopes to keep up with a daily news cycle. And there’s nothing wrong with the template per se. It’s the philosophy around templates that is wrong. Templates need to be more flexible to allow for the kind of creativity we have come to expect in print and, at this point, online.
How can we expect readers to treat online content with the same amount of respect and reverence as we do print content, if we don’t even try to treat it with the same amount of attention to detail online as we do in print. It’s time editorial sites start experimenting with more flexible templates.
This is not an issue of time, mind you. At this point, a trained front-end developer, knowledgeable in CSS, could lay out a custom article design as quickly as someone trained in InDesign.
It’s an issue of money. (Isn’t it always?) Publishers don’t want to pay for the personnel. They are expensive—just like their print counterparts. They are also worried about the return on investment, which is entirely fair. Why invest in more personnel when even the most optimistic advertising projections can’t cover the cost? The reason is that this is how you increase the value of your product.