The Redesign, Ctd

Andrew Sullivan —  Mar 1 2010 @ 12:23pm

by Patrick Appel

A reader writes:

I was a Content Manager at America Online back in the mid to late 1990s. Although I had a variety of roles, at the end of my tenure my primary job was to manage one of AOL's 18 content channels. This was the period just *before* AOL tore down the walls separating it from the rest of the Internet, and *before* the much maligned merger with Time Warner. It was very much AOL's heyday.

Our model within these channels? To aggregate material by subject matter into a series of always updating headline driven content areas.

The goal? Through a series of redesigns and reiterations, to make the AOL channels – rather than the partners who provided the content within each channel – the primary point of loyalty for our members.

The result? A mishmash of genericized content that diluted the very thing that had made us so successful – the uniquely identifiable voices that, along with basic features such as email and chat, had brought people flocking to the service in the first place.

As just one example, ask the guys at the Motley Fool, one of the commercial Internet's first true success stories, how it all worked out for them.

I'm sorry to have to say this, but Goldberg's description of the new site ("a thorough reimagining of what a magazine's website could be") could not possibly be more wrong.

What they've done to you, TNC, and the rest isn't new at all. It's AOL circa 1998. I realize that's the Internet's Stone Age, a time no doubt well beyond the memory of most of the people who put this design together, but…. that should underscore the point, right?

You guys are repeating one of the mistakes that I will always believe killed AOL. I have no reason to think anyone there will take my advice – the Senior VPs at AOL ignored me when I fought against this very same model, and they were paying me for my opinion! – but here it is:

Know your strengths. They are your Voices. Don't bury them. Don't integrate them under brand names and channels. Make them louder. And clearer. You should be working to bring them front and center. Instead you are pushing them to the back, putting more distance between them and your readers. That is, in a word, insane.

People don't want a series of headlines. They can get that elsewhere. They want personality. They want community.  They want names and faces they can identify and bond with.

The age of nameless, faceless "editors" is over. It has been over for quite some time, even if many don't yet realize it. People accepted it when the market provided them with no alternative, but as you both well know the moment alternatives became possible they flocked to them in droves.

And most importantly: for the love of all that is holy, please stop trying to "re-imagine" the magazine. That's an entirely backward looking enterprise. Be the entirely new thing that you ALREADY are. Or, I'm beginning to fear, were.

From the very beginning, the Atlantic was about the voices it contained, and not about the package that they came bound in. Somehow, in the move to the web, this magazine kept that tradition alive. Unlike most of its competitors it found success by combining what it had always been – strong voices in long-form articles provided at a more thoughtful pace – with the Internet's greatest innovation – strong voices in short-form updates provided in real-time to a community of not-always likeminded souls. I always assumed that this near perfect mix of 20th and 21st century publishing models was the result of some very forward thinking management. With the last redesign I began to doubt that. With this newest one, I'm on the verge of concluding it was all just dumb luck.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe this model will work this time. Maybe the way forward is to borrow a failed model from the past. But, well….