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March 5, 2007

USAToday Redesign: An Unwanted Downgrade

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USAToday underwent a much publicized site redesign this weekend. As part of the site shuffling, USAToday got rid of several traditional front page staples and added a host of social networking type features intended to build a stronger USAToday community.

The initial response to the redesign seemed to be positive. The big industry blogs applauded USAToday for embracing the new medium and trying to leverage some community appeal. But as with most things, the redesign didn’t look so shiny the morning after. In fact, Don Dodge stated that 92 percent of USAToday readers don’t like the redesign. Don’t believe him? Check out the comment section on the post announcing the changes.

Ouch.

Not to jump on the bandwagon, but I’m with the 92 percent, sort of. I’m not head-over heels-over the redesign, but my reasons for not liking it are probably very different from theirs.

You can’t fault USAToday for trying to benefit from the momentum created by social sites; however, it doesn’t work for them. Before you go Web 2.0 you have to remember who your audience is. Is your audience reading the print version of your paper on a grimy subway eating a bagel they just bought from a vendor for $.75 (extra if you splurged for cream cheese) or are they reading it over half a grapefruit and a tall glass of Metamucil? For USAToday, your demographic is closer to the latter. I’m just saying; they’re not the early adopters you’re looking for.

USAToday may have thought they were making improvements to their site, but what they really did was de-emphasize everything their readers liked about it. They cluttered up the site navigation, took the Dow Jones Average off the front page; got rid of the simple look and feel it once had, and started forcing users to scroll for miles. In essence, they got rid of everything that readers liked about the site and traded it in for user comments, profiles, avatars, voting systems, tagging and other social features. Of course, readers are angry.

My reasons for not liking the redesign have nothing to do with the layout complaints expressed by most of USAToday readers. I’m probably very alone in this stance but I don’t think community features belong on a traditional news site. I know, I’m suddenly Susan (Esparza, not Brooke Shields). Granted, USAToday is not The New York Times, but I think news sites have an obligation to present the news in a clear format, void of personal opinion. I don’t care what Joe Reader thinks about the story he just read. For me, community profiles, voting systems and avatars distract from that. [That's why they have Opinion and Editorial sections, because they don't belong in the rest of the reporting.--Susan] – March 5, 2007. The day we finally agreed on something. Huzzah!

There’s a place for news in the land of Web 2.0, but I enjoy a separation of news and community. If I want to read the community response to today’s tech news, I’ll head to TechMeme. If I want to hear the gossip about the entertainment piece I just giggled through, I’ll look up my secret friend Perez. Journalists spend a great deal of effort trying to remove themselves from the story. They don’t remove themselves so you can insert yourself.

Clearly, my weird preferences are irrelevant and probably fall into the Keep Your Mouth Shut section of SEOmoz’s blogging flow chart. The fact is USAToday shot themselves in the foot by not listening to their readers. There’s nothing wrong with adding social features to a Web site and changing things around, but these should be changes your users have asked for. And if not asked for, they should at least be changes that are aligned with the interests of your readership. USAToday is a traditional news site. Their readers are likely equally traditional. They’re not interested in profile avatars. They just want the news. And their stock quotes.

What’s your call? Upgrade or downgrade?

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3 responses to “USAToday Redesign: An Unwanted Downgrade”

  1. Bud Caddell writes:

    I’d definitely agree with you that change should be welcomed, not forced. (Although you shouldn’t have to wait for users to explicitly ask for features.. good market research should answer the question for you..)

    I would disagree about community involvement on news sites.. Why not? Since when is the news bias-free and not already the product of community involvement? I wouldn’t go as far to call it complete bias, but definitely having the news provider closer in relation to the news reader is a GOOD thing.

  2. Lisa writes:

    Ideally, I think there’s a place for news and a place for opinion, otherwise it all gets jumbled.

    I don’t know if I agree that the news provider should have a relationship with with the news reader (Where’s the benefit?), but even so, why not make it somewhere separate of the “real” news. Give them their own message board or a place to leave comments that isn’t on the actual news page. I come from a journalism background so I may be somewhat biased, but for me news is news and editorial is editorial.

  3. Bud Caddell writes:

    The benefit is reality. I come from a journalism background too and I’m well aware that the process of journalism dictates the news more often than the actual news itself.

    Moreover, I think that the change comes from having to realize that the landscape itself is changing. I think it’s safe to assume that sites like digg, youtube, slashdot and others have already blurred the line between news and viewer and this isn’t going to reverse. Obviously it’s not a perfect marriage and the kinks have to be worked out, but let’s not ignore the elephant in the room.



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