The Gray Lady weaves a new website

Len Apcar is the editor in chief of, this year’s Online Journalism Award winner for general excellence (large sites). Last week, the Times website debuted a new site design, its first redesign in over five years. Apcar talked via the phone with OJR about the process of redesigning a news site the size of the New York Times’. An edited transcript of that conversation follows:

OJR: What is the New York Times staff approach to a redesign, starting with the decision on when it is time to have one?

Apcar: I can’t tell you that there was an meticulous timing decision about it. It was becoming more and more clear to us, I would say, going back a couple of years, that we needed to find a way to service more content on the home page and to improve the article page as an experience in several respects. But the most important one was on the article page: that if you came into the site via the article page that you found other options and other places to go, that you just didn’t come to the article you were finding and leave.

We actually began redesigning the article page and launched a new article page design last year. And that helped us in a lot of our thinking about the site as a whole. We wanted to look at the taxonomy, which we weren’t happy with. We wanted to look at the visual design, which we thought was beginning to look quite dated. It looked too text heavy. And we also knew that people were becoming much more comfortable with larger screens, larger monitors and that we would eventually go to a 1024 resolution.

All those things contributed to a consensus that we’ve got to sit down and talk about a redesign.

OJR: Who participates in the process at the New York Times?

Apcar: We started with drawing up a proposal. And I would say our head of product development — who’s done a lot of information architectural work and product development work — he began drafting a proposal. I worked on it. A couple of other people from IT worked on it, and it was kind of a joint document that we used to set down our goals. We laid down for an outside design firm what our goals were, what our problems were, what our concerns were about site behavior.

It had been, as of today, it’d been six years since we’d looked at this. Even though the previous design was launched in 2001, it was largely the product of thinking from 2000. And the [increase in] traffic on the site, the content on the site, plus that multimedia and video were really in their infancy — all of that needed to be addressed in this redesign.

OJR: How much of the work was done outside the company and how much was done internally?

Apcar: Well, all the build work was done internally. The outside firm [Avenue A | Razorfish] was strictly a visually design consultancy. They came in and we asked them to help us with about 10 or 12 templates that were largely section fronts. Home page, sub-navigational issues and taxonomy issues we basically ironed out ourselves. But they were very, very helpful in having an outside-the-company view of our site. They did a lot of work in getting us to think about different approaches to the problems we were facing with the site.

I think the whole Razorfish experience lasted about six months. If I had to put a timeline on it, it was about two or three months of deliberation, six months of intensive work with the consultant, and then the build phase, with our own information technology department, which was four months. Four calendar months, but a lot of long days.

OJR: Let’s talk about project management in the other direction. How much was upper New York Times management involved?

Apcar: Well, even before the redesign, I’ve always been a fan of integrating the two newsrooms. When various firms were bidding for the job, I invited the assistant managing editor in charge of design, Tom Bodkin, to get involved and he came to some of the presentations. So, at the very highest level of design, he was involved. He later asked me to bring a couple of other people in the newsroom he thought would be able to give a lot of time, day to day, for many weeks. So other folks who had a design sensibility and an understanding of the Web were also at the table for the paper.

Once we locked down the designs, we then took it to the top level of the company. It was presented to the publisher, to the executive editor and then to the business management of the newspaper.

OJR: What are your expectations going forward?

Apcar: I am surprised that this last design lasted as long as it did. [Laughs.] I would probably argue that we should have redesigned at least a year or two earlier. I came in in 2002 and wanted to redesign right away. And I think we probably would have tackled it in 2004, but for the fact that we had so much going on that year — both from a news standpoint, with the election, and we were placing a new emphasis on multimedia. There was a lot going on in the product development side, and I think there was a feeling on the business side of the website that it was probably going to be a stretch to get a redesign.

We needed to fix the article page, because people were coming into the article page and leaving the site, so we decided that since we really couldn’t move fast enough on the site redesign, we did the article page as a one-off in 2005.

Technology will drive this. I would think the site is set now for at least three years. But I can’t anticipate the future.

OJR: As a newspaper website editor who has now gone through this process, what advice could you pass along to your colleagues at other newspapers?

Apcar: Well, newspaper design and Web design are very similar in certain respects and very different in others. The similarities, I would say, are that you want a simple clean logical experience — and if you can add an elegance to that, so much the better.

What is different is that you want a magnetism to a webpage. You want to bring a reader close in and hold them there and give them a reason to go deep. Because you are asking a reader not to read headlines and captions and pictures — to get involved in text, you are asking them to read and click and keep clicking and dig deeper in the site, in layers. And when that happens, that’s what I call the essential magnetism of a successful webpage design. And that, to me, is what one of my colleagues called a “lean-in” design as opposed to a “lead-back” design in newspapers.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. Tom Grubisich says:

    The Times’ redesign is great for accommodating and featuring video and other multimedia, but virtually every day users get the same tranquilized layout with the same 2-column-sized photo. You wonder if the the paper’s web designers think they’re laying out encylcopedia pages for posterity. Worst of all is the monotonous packaging of headlines from “inside,” below the ribbon of highlights. It’s like confronting a telephone directory page, except it isn’t alphabetized. Today — Monday, April 10 — not a single item is highlighted, not even Mickelson’s second Masters victory. How about a redesign that plays off the vibrancy and variety of news events? In other words, less taxonomy, more story-focused news judgment.

  2. Patrick Murphy says:

    Line spacing in print view of articles has increased. Easier to read across the page-width column, but at a staggering cost in paper use. I estimate that a story that used to fit on two 8.5 x 11 pages now consumes three. Consider beyond the costs to forests: landfill space, and hydrocarbons used in transporting paper to and from my printer. Think about it and you’ll realize this isn’t nitpicking.