When it was announced last fall that Newsweek, after nearly 80 years as a weekly news magazine, would ditch print and go all digital, it seemed to many like an ill omen--the first step toward an inevitable demise, sort of like when a network unceremoniously boots a faltering TV show to a Saturday night time slot. And indeed, the prospects for Newsweek's survival as a subscriber-supported, tablet-first magazine looked grim; consider the fate of News Corp’s much ballyhooed iPad-only mag The Daily, which was a complete and utter dud despite considerable resources and ringing endorsements from Apple itself.
Thankfully, that isn’t quite the path Newsweek is headed down today. Its new lease on life doesn’t just come in the form of a tablet app but a website, too, built with the help of Huge, the digital agency whose successes include the beloved HBO GO app and Google Think Insights. What they’ve managed to cook up for Newsweek is both compelling and, in terms of web publications, simply a little bit different from much else out there. The new Newsweek is a handsome digital experience that taps into the social and multimedia opportunities offered by the web, sure, but it’s also the rare website that shuns the Internet’s breakneck news cycle and sticks to the magazine’s original raison d’etre as a curated collection of relevant stories. And it’s going to do it at the same pace as its pulp predecessor: once a week, every week.
To readers who’ve grown accustomed to a constant flow of new stories from their favorite pubs--even the ones with staid print origins, like the New Yorker and the Atlantic--Newsweek's model of putting out new content every Wednesday, but only every Wednesday, might seem deliriously out of touch. But from the start, Newsweek and Huge were set on doing something different. And the throwback publishing schedule is just a part of that plan.
For the last few years, Newsweek's presence on the web has more or less been an unglamorous existence as a sub-section of The Daily Beast, the popular news site that merged with Newsweek in 2010. "It hasn’t really been able to breathe on its own," says Eric Moore, managing director at Huge NY. The new site gives it some room to breathe, certainly. But for Baba Shetty, Newsweek's CEO, the redesign was also a chance to do an entirely new type of web publication--something more like a magazine, really, than a traditional news site.
That meant staying true to Newsweek's original mission: giving readers a curated selection of stories from the week. In a digital media landscape dominated by speed and volume, Shetty hoped to preserve the idea of the "issue," he says, "and the coherence that brings to the reading experience."
"I think there’s actually a beautiful restraint with what Newsweek is," he explains. "We felt there was still a place in the media landscape for taking a step back, reflecting, and framing the week…this idea that there’s been a set of editorial decisions about what the most important things are to focus on."
But Shetty thought there was another way Newsweek could stand out from the pack, in addition to editorial outlook. The real opportunity, he thought, was in user experience.
"Most of professional media on the web has been crafted from a couple of conventions that work for the business but aren’t particularly good for the end user," he says. Here he’s talking about the irritating, pageview-grabbing tactics like splitting long articles up into a dozen smaller chunks, hiding visual content behind endless, slow-moving slideshows, and throwing any and all news against your screen in the hope that some of it will stick.
What it all amounted to, Shetty says, was "a tremendous white space in the market for an iconic media property that devotes itself to user-first publishing."
One way the new Newsweek, which launched last week in beta form, can be seen as a user-first product is simply in how nice it looks. The site is a highly visual affair, built for engagement and enjoyment, not pure news-dumping efficiency. Upon arrival, readers are greeted with a cover story, complete with Newsweek word mark, that stretches across the entire width of their screen. The rest of the week’s stories pour forth below, though they’re arranged by importance, not by chronology. As Megan Man, the Associate Creative Director at Huge who led the project, explains, "We definitely didn’t want to make another daily news website."
The site was designed to showcase Newsweek's long form content, a format that’s "not typically done well digitally," Man says. The story pages themselves are clean and visual-heavy, like the homepage, with full-width banners up top and dynamic "image windows" interspersed throughout. The text runs in a clean column on the left-center of the screen, rendered in a generous 21-point font. Ample images interject from the right side of the screen, breaking up the lengthy blocks of text but never distracting you from it. That, Man says, was particularly important.
"We’re telling a story with this page, and that’s not just through the words," she explains. "But the supporting content, and the images that help draw your eye down the page and keep you engaged, shouldn’t actually be interrupting what you’re there to do in the first place. Which is reading the article. Readability was always first in our minds."
Other clever details can be found throughout. There are some that draw from Newsweek's print past, like a table of contents that can be summoned from any page on the site. Features that are commonplace on today’s news sites, like social-media sharing tools, are still deployed in thoughtful new ways. Instead of just dropping the stock-sharing widgets on every story page, for example, Huge created a gorgeous full-screen pop-up that gives users massive, click-friendly buttons for sharing articles. The way these buttons are presented--not as third-party doodads but as part and parcel of the Newsweek product itself--are just the type of considered details that lend the overall experience a cohesive, magazine-style vibe.
The result of all that care is a series of long-form pieces that are bold and beautiful--similar to the types of immersive, digital-first experiences we’ve been seeing more and more of lately, like the New York Times' celebrated digital opus "Snow Fall," published last December. That article, an incredible account of a fatal avalanche at Tunnel Creek in Washington, was a stunning marriage of first-rate reporting and bespoke, multimedia-heavy presentation.
But Huge wasn’t just tasked with creating a one-off digital extravaganza. It had to come up with a design that would work week after week. And as remarkable as "Snow Fall" was, Man points out, it took 15 designers to complete. "We just don’t think that’s a sustainable model," she says.
What they did instead was create a template that can work every week, regardless of what the lead story is about, how long it is, or what kind of multimedia material comes along with it. "We wanted to make sure this was something that could be maintained without too much editorial effort," Man says, a directive that became the "highest priority" as they fleshed out the design.
That, of course, meant that some ideas had to be left on the cutting room floor. "There were lots of features we came up with," Moore, the Managing Director, notes. "We tried to select the best that also were scalable to use on a weekly basis." But they hope the final product is one that will prove both flexible and simple--a template that doesn’t actually look like a template, from the reader’s perspective. Essentially, the aim was to deliver some of the visual dazzle and polish of "Snow Fall" without relying on a team of designers to custom-tailor the product every week.
But a scalable, user-first experience is only part of the equation. Web publishing is linked inextricably with advertising, and Shetty thinks the redesign has a chance to push the envelope there, too.
All the content will be freely available to start, though eventually the plan is to introduce a pay wall and a encourage subscription for frequent readers. In the meantime, though, Shetty thinks the site’s approach to on-screen ads could break new ground. Instead of a standard display ad model, Newsweek's pursuing a sponsorship system, where a limited number of brands will get prominent placement on the site.
The ad units, which will debut next month, will be "big and beautiful and highly impactful," Shetty says, but "used sparingly." Individual stories will have no more than one unit; the home page will typically show two. More importantly, Shetty says they’ll be "in complete harmony with the rest of the design of the product." Essentially, the approach to ads is the same the redesign takes to the social sharing tools: they’re not foreign material to be awkwardly shoehorned in, but rather part of the product itself. "It’s not going to be the sea of rectangles you typically see," Shetty says. "It’s all part of one piece of thinking. If we had a conventional business model, we’d have to have a conventional site design."
Of course, ads are ads, and they’ll still ultimately be a distraction. But if Newsweek is going to survive, they’ll be a necessary one. On today’s fast-flowing, source-saturated web, it’s going to be hard to operate purely, or even partly, on a subscription-based model, even with big, pretty pictures, deft curation, and a user-friendly reading experience.
But whatever its own fate, Newsweek's redesign does give an enticing glimpse of what web publishing could look like going forward. It’s a bet that some readers won’t be satisfied by quick hits and listicles, and that a weekly dose of thoughtful editorial signal can find a foothold amidst a web full of noise. Is that naive? Maybe. But it’s certainly readable.