by Andrew Sullivan
I know I'm on vacation, but since this debate has started with some sparks (see Fallows here and here, TNC here, Goldberg here and here, Ambers here), just a few words. I never saw the whole redesign before it was launched and I was not included in the process at all. It has all sorts of bells and whistles which people tell me are great - including a new "content management system" and something called Disqus which is a way cool commenting device with avatars and such.
I don't like what was done to my own page much, as I have said, but I signed off in advance (except for the abrupt removal of the Dish's search engine). The unnecessary new fonts, the loss of framing for the photos, the exploitation of the Dish as a relentlessly throbbing promotional tool for the Wire (a Dish duplicate with more staffers) has interrupted its flow and made it less easy to read. The biggest loss is the absence of the boxes of the most recent posts for the other bloggers. Now, you cannot use the Dish as a hub for the other bloggers (which was probably part of the point) but I fear it will reduce their traffic - and will certainly make me miss good stuff I otherwise would have clicked on.
Certainly at no point was I ever asked what I would like to see improved on this page. My requests over three years, often suggested by readers - for a continued-reading feature that does not require a new page (the new one sends you into a mass of prose where it's very hard to find where you left off), for a much more user-friendly search function, for one-click running summaries of long threads (torture, gay rights, Obama, health reform, Window views) etc, have all been turned down, even as just three people produce 300 posts a week to the point of exhaustion and generate between 55 and 60 percent of the Atlantic.com's entire traffic.
But in this redesign, we should be grateful for the usual neglect. Our page is by far the least messed up - and priority for undoing the blog-messes rightly goes to those poor souls like TNC whose blog has been all but, in the words of one of his readers, "spiked". Maybe it takes actually seeing a design live and online that brings this into focus (because TNC approved the changes beforehand). But that's because a blog is inherently a live process and conversation and anyone who actually understands blogging's intimate relationship to its readership - and the critical importance of conversation to the endeavor - would never have dreamed of turning it into a series of headlines. That's what worries me deeply. Not the inevitable transitional glitches but the philosophy behind it.
I know the designers meant well and worked very hard. Like everyone else, I deeply appreciate their hard work. Maybe some agree with Goldberg that this HuffPo/DailyBeast/Gawker type melange is, in fact, "a thorough reimagining of what a magazine's website could be: Current, topical, intellectual, earnest (and ironic), but rooted in the culture and history of one of America's most indispensably important magazines."
I understand that advertisers like "verticals" to pitch certain kinds of products, and are allegedly leery of individual bloggers with style. I also know in this media climate how vital advertising is, and how our survival online is critical to our endurance in print. I am not a businessman. And I deeply believe in the Atlantic, as readers well know. If this keeps us afloat, that sure is better than going under. If there is business genius here, congrats to all involved.
But treating blogs as a series of headlines, designed to maximize pageviews, is a deep misunderstanding of blogs, their reader communities and their integrity. I hope they get restored to their previous coherence, and these amorphous "channels" gain some editorial identity. I hope writers like Fallows and Goldberg aren't treated as random fodder - anchors! - for "channels". I believe in the Atlantic as a place for writing. The redesign seems to me to ooze casual indifference to that and to the respect that individual writers deserve.
The redesign also makes the Dish's role at the Atlantic even more anomalous than it has recently become. The Dish once fit into a bevy of bloggers as a kind of unifying hub for all of them. In the new design, it's clear the Dish fits in nowhere. It has always been an experiment fitting a blogazine like the Dish into an online magazine like the Atlantic. But the experiment is clearly failing.
Still the Dish will survive, however estranged from the rest of the Atlantic.com's content; and relatively benign neglect is probably better than the alternatives. We may even get some more help soon - even our own unpaid interns - that will lighten the crushing workload.
But give us back our search engine!
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