The Los Angeles Times unveiled its "new, completely redesigned" website today.
The site no longer looks like the top half of a newspaper wheat-pasted to your screen, and it implements some smart thinking. The Times now recognizes more than ever that people often come to news outlets through one story found on Facebook, Twitter or Google. The new look is meant to treat articles as "entry points," the paper says.
And, it says, the site is now "mobile-first," a cliched catchphrase meant to recognize the predominance of smartphone and tablet readership:
The publication even uses that most Silicon Valley of terms, disruption. All we need now is to hear that latimes.com is changing the world.
Emily Smith, senior vice president of digital, gets even more Mountain View about it:
In building the new site, the L.A. Times radically rethought how design and technology affect the consumption and delivery of news, information and advertising. The result is a truly exceptional platform, built to expand sales opportunities and alternative revenue streams, and to adapt to future distribution models.
If newspapers were really to radically rethink what they do for the digital world, they wouldn't have business, sports and entertainment sections. Who in their right mind would launch a digital-only publication today and think that it should house such an array of newsprint-like content?
There's still print DNA here. If you use the left-hand navigation bar on the home page (it's so cool and black) to look for local news, what you get is what's least important to online newshounds: The print-like "local" page that's nestled under "sections." Sections?
The place where all the fluid, vertical news action resides, the L.A. Now blog, is buried down the nav bar, though there are prominent ways to get to it, including via your old local news section.
That said, the paper is getting some things right here, at least in philosophy. We particularly like the "neighborhood-level geocoded news and dining information, as well as crime data," as the Times put it in a statement.
That's cool. People in L.A. love to read about their own neighborhoods almost as much as they love to ruminate about themselves. And frankly, the Times has the right resources to do this kind of journalism.
It's sharp of the paper to recognize this advantage and exploit it. (And, speaking of exploitation, the new site immediately asks for your location. Advertisers want to know.)
However: The look of the new site is underwhelming. It still has a print feel to it. And it seems to take a page from other well-worn news sites (Gawker, FiveThirtyEight) that now emphasize a few selected high-traffic stories and the try to lure you to read more with navigation
and what the Times calls "sharelines" or similar stories, slideshows and features. [Added: It looks like "sharelines" are simply different ways to tweet or post on Facebook the story you're reading].
And much of the innovation touted here has the publication playing catch up. Everyone, it seems, particularly web-only news outlets, has been treating each story as a hook to come into their sites. And nearly everyone seriously in the game is mobile-first.
The result is well-focused but a bit boring.
The Times is on board with best practices as the online journalism world knows them today. It's just that the winners in this fast-moving game will be moving the ball forward and taking risks with payoffs that can't be foreseen but that will seem obvious in the future.
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The redesign is formulaic. If you took a class on digital journalism last year, the professor would have told you this layout is what works.
It's not easy predicting which way the wind will blow in this business, and some old print journalists' teeth were probably pulled to get even this much done (which is a big part of the problem with slow-to-evolve newspaper sites).
But a West Coast publication that has been online since the mid-1990s should be a tastemaker, not a follower. The new latimes.com reeks of compromise. It screams, Me too!