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.

'Why do I love online publishing?'

As we wrap up another year at OJR, I wanted to leave our readers with a touch of inspiration for the holiday break. So I e-mailed several people you might know, or least have heard of, in the online business to ask them a simple question:

Why do you love online publishing?

Here’s why I do: As an American, I feel so fortunate to be alive at a time when, 200-some years after the ratification of the First Amendment to our nation’s Constitution, the people of this country finally have a medium at their disposal which allows any person to speak and be heard by a global audience. If freedom of the press belongs to those who own one, now, we all do. And the world, ultimately, will be the better for it.

Unfortunately, the Internet is also being used by those who favor schmoozing the wealthy and well-connected at the expense of promoting the welfare of all fellow citizens. I love that the Internet allows the rest of us a powerful collective voice with which to give all readers an alternative to such smarmy propaganda. Now it is up to us to be smarter, sharper and louder than ever when using this medium during the year to come.

And, now, in alphabetical order…

Len Apcar

Len Apcar is Editor in Chief of The New York Times on the Web

What I love the most is the challenge of trying to figure out how a great news organization like The New York Times can succeed in a big way on the Web. It is a daunting task trying to help lead a transformation from a newsroom focused on producing a daily newspaper to becoming a successful online publisher. But I believe it is important that the Web offer a wide array of content including news and enterprise from the nation’s leading newsrooms.

Bob Cauthorn

Robert Cauthorn is the former vice president of digital media at the San Francisco Chronicle

What do I love about it? What keeps bringing me back?

That’s really simple: the readers. And really, the whole community. Online publishing brings you so close to the readers that they become part of every breath. And that’s one of the greatest feelings in all of publishing.

The readers constantly amaze me with their insights, appetites, intelligence and sheer sense of fun. You learn from them, whether it’s active contact via e-mail or forums or blogs, or from somewhat passive instruction like the contents of your Web logs.

The readers are there when you wake up in the morning and when go to bed at night. They’re passionate. Poetic. Weird, too. Knowing that you’re locked in the hot little tango with your readers is the greatest feeling in the world. And when your readers become writers too, it’s all the better.

What’s next is juicy too. Until now we haven’t really seen an engaged local advertising community to match the engaged readership. A big part of the next wave of development will focus on changing that.

When we see local advertisers as densely involved as local readers, well, this will be a splendid day. Not just because it will be nice for revenues, but because it means we’re well and completely part of the fabric of life in our community.

Pete Clifton

Pete Clifton is the head of BBC News Interactive

The deadlines never end, there is always a story breaking and a race to be first. You can’t beat that buzz – and there are countless readers out there who want to help us with our coverage. That makes it even more intoxicating.

Graham Hill

Graham Hill manages (I found him via Nick Denton of Gawker Media.)

Things I find rewarding about blogging:

Comments from strangers. From someone’s comment, realizing that we are affecting the way people see the world and giving them hope.

Lots of stats. Something about being able to measure your progress in so many ways makes running a blog quite addictive (pageviews, links to you, unique visitors,
ranking compared to other sites etc.). They say “what gets measured gets done” and in my case at least, it certainly keeps me motivated.

It’s pioneering still. It’s exciting as it still feels like pioneering days, where everything is changing all the time and we’re all making up the rules as we go along. the rapid rate of change keeps my restless self happy. It feels similar to 95/96, a time that I found very exciting.

Power moving to the consumer. I love that we can see the power shifting from the company to the consumer. The days of powerful PR and controlling a company’s image are being left behind. There’s something exciting (and a little scary) about the new transparency. My hope is that it helps people to make the right decisions as they realize that doing the right thing will bring them consumers and that cover-ups are no longer possible if they are doing anything shifty.

The world is flat. Love that little guys with great products, e.g. my friend Shayne with the solar backpack ( are getting tons of play in the media due to the power of blogs. I hope that this means that small businesses with great products can be more competitive with larger businesses than before. This is great for all of us as it ups the competition.

Instant Gratification. I love that you can come up with an editorial idea and then implement it really quickly and see the results. It keeps running a blog extremely creative, which I love.

Craig Newmark

Craig Newmark is the founder of

Online, everyone has a voice, and the simpler blogging tools makes the ‘net everyone’s printing press … and tools are being developed to let the cream rise to the top, to address the obvious problem.

Chris Nolan

Chris Nolan is the Editor of

What do I love about Web publishing?

Man, that’s a little bit like asking a kid why he likes a candy store. But I’ll try and contain myself.

For long-time reporters like me, working on-line offers a chance to get back to what this business should be about: Good reporting and great writing that presents new ideas in thoughtful and interesting ways to interested and committed readers.

Inexpensive publishing tools like Moveable Type, inexpensive “broadcast” support like that offered by our friends at Feedburner, the growing strength of on-line ad networks for small publishers – combined with the support and interest of larger, established “brand” sites on the Web – is going to make it possible for real reporters to get great stories and publish them to larger and larger audiences.

This is an exciting time to be working online. Anyone who’s still turning up their nose at what we’re doing is missing the most fun we’re going to have in the news business for a long, long time.

Denise Polverine

Denise Polverine is the Editor-in-Chief of

I often tell people that I feel like I won the lottery when I became the Editor-in-Chief of It is exciting, immediate, experimental at times, industry-changing and adventurous. Publishing on the Web combines the best of all mediums; print, radio, TV, online, wireless and those yet to be discovered. We learned earlier this year when Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, that the Internet and the information it distributes can be life-altering and frankly, life-saving. I get to work closely with my talented editorial staff here, the leaders at Advance Internet and the amazing Plain Dealer editors who are embracing new technology and ideas. I have been at for nearly nine years, almost since the beginning of this company and people ask me if I ever think of leaving. No way. When you wake up each day and think of new things to try, new ways to interact, new ways to engage people and can actually make those ideas reality, it’s a good job. It keeps me energized and keeps me coming back each day.

Lisa Stone

Lisa Stone blogs at Surfette and is the originator of the BlogHer conference

I love the conversation. It’s not like people just started talking about events in their world because blogging and social media tools were developed. These conversations are eternal. But they used to exist far away from printing presses and control rooms. Now these stories have a permanent, virtual seat at the coffee house, the water cooler and the kitchen counter. All we newsies need to know is how to join the discussion.

So, let’s join the discussion. What do you love about online publishing? Click the button below to have your turn.