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March 05, 2007

USA Today gets a rough introduction for its social makeover

Usat_logo2 by Josh Bernoff

USA Today introduced a redesigned Web site today chock full of community and social features. Here are Steve Rubel's and Michael Arrington's mostly positive take on the new site.

At Forrester we've advocated making online articles like blogs so users can comment on them. USA Today does this one better. Once you sign onto the site you can add comments, recommend articles, even set up your own blog. USA Today is trying to create a USA Today "community." Here is a list of all the new features.

So, what's USA Today's reward for all this activity? If you read the comments, the readers hate it! The two most commented-on stories (easy to find by clicking on the appropriate tab in the news section) are the letter to readers and the list of new features. The letter to readers has 186 comments from readers as of this writing and nearly all of them talk about how much worse the design is than the old design.

Now newspapers always get negative feedback from readers in a redesign -- people like their old familiar look. (It's like when your lover gets a new haircut.) But now it's gut-check time for Gannett, who have got to be wondering if letting readers talk is a good idea. Herewith my advice for the media company and its competitors.

  • Don't look back. USA Today cannot go back to its old design and ditch what must have been a huge redesign effort. The ability for readers to comment is crucial and will be a big differentiator. Plus it will help the newspaper to better understand what people really want and like. So ride it out.
  • But don't stand pat. Clearly people loved some elements of the newspaper's old online design, specifically the ability to see a bunch of news stories and stock quotes in an easy to navigate format. So bring this back, maybe in a "quicknav" button or feature. Your readers are talking to you -- can you listen? This is true test of whether USA Today has made the social transformation, or is it just lip service?
  • Bring the readers into the print paper. The true sign of whether this change is working will be when Gannett changes coverage in its print paper "because you asked for it." For example, top comments on yesterday's stories, or a list of the week's top recommended stories.
  • Why can't the Journal and the Times do this? The Wall St. Journal and the New York Times "know" that people read their papers for the authority of their editorial voice. The tempation will be to look at USA Today and say "this is the desperate move of a second-tier player," plus to feel some schadenfreude at the negative feedback for their competitor. But community comments and feedback would add to the Journal and the Times' relevance. The Journal used to have links to the stories most blogged about, but they seem to be gone now. The Times lets you create a permalink to their story in your blog. In essence they are saying "You can blog about our authoritative coverage," but not "We will listen to you." This will prove shortsighted, but it's always the top dogs that move last. When they do move, they should learn from USA Today and make sure they don't lose what attracted readers to them in the first place -- not just editorial authority, but site design features.

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Comments

Michael Smith

thanks for this posting

Tom Grant

The biggest obstacles seem to be the name brand news outlets' difficulty grasping what all this Web 2.0 hubbub is all about. Bloggers now have the mystique that the Internet (sorry, "cyberspace") once had. They don't know quite want to make of it, but it seems vaguely menacing.

Plus, it's clear from incidents like the Deborah Howell/Washington Post blogging fiasco that these organizations are not quite ready for the kind of very immediate feedback they get. They're also more than a little defensive when people outside the organization correct them. Not only aren't most print and broadcast journalists accustomed to viewing all the letters they receive. The idea that readers can see other people's letters to the editor and comment on them is definitely a brave (and scary) new world.

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