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First impressions: the Star Tribune's new website will roll out a new design the week of April 4, although it won’t be “.com” any more. The logo will simply say “StarTribune,” recognition that the web is no longer separate from the main business of the newspaper.

I’d love to show you screenshots of the new site, which I previewed with digital vice-president Jim Bernard recently. However, the Strib changed their mind, reasoning that they want to do their own unveiling. (Invited grandees will get a peek Thursday.)

Still, here’s what I can tell you: the damn thing looks a lot better. Designers have been allowed to rediscover the ancient concept of “white space,” the ad count is down, and the main business of the site — the stories — are no longer framed by cacophonous commercials, come-ons, and headline teases. (Click here for the current look.)

Mobile users may be moving to a post-web-page world, but the Strib site is still a big deal. It gets 20 million visits per month, and the home page accounts for a third of the pageviews, Bernard says.

At some point this year, the Strib will start charging for its website, but they’re not rolling out that out now. They hope the new site’s attractiveness and functionality will make paying up more compelling.

The five nicest things I was able to glean in my short visit:

  1. Story pages. The Strib has dumped all the crap on the left border; all the “from the home pages,” ads and Twitter feeds are on the right. This allows stories to take up more of the page, headlines are bigger, columns wider and pictures and videos look much more striking with bigger play at the top. (My only quibble is I don’t like the headline and subhed separated by the byline and dateline.) The Strib has also changed typefaces from serif to the cleaner sans-serif, which is a push for me, but you typeface geeks might have your own opinion.

  2. White space. When the Strib last redesigned in the mid-2000s, the design ethos seemed to be “10 pounds of stuff in a 5-pound sack.” You can breathe now looking at the thing. The home page is organized into subject modules (“news,” sports,” “politics,” “business,” “Twins,” etc.) that can be moved around as news demands. Instead of a stream of bullet-point headlines, each module incorporates graphics and loses the dots. Like the story pages, individual elements stand out more.

  3. Ad sanity. The current Strib site throws ads everywhere on the “picture frame” that surrounds what you really want to read. The new design features fewer ads; the idea is that they will have more impact (and fetch higher prices). On the home page I saw, there was an ad right of the logo (with white space separating the elements), a thin “pencil” ad below the logo, two display ads on the right-hand column a full-screen scroll apart, and a banner at the bottom. That may sound like a lot, but I counted at least twice that many on the current site.

  4. Photo/video anchors. The home page contains a “latest photos + videos” underneath the hottest news modules. Not only is the terminology better (I suspect “multimedia” will go the way of “.com”) but the thick horizontal ribbon stands out amid the news modules. It’s a common element on all pages, and a nice one.

  5. Better organization. The menu bar underneath the logo stands out more (it’s black, not blue) and now has a place for “Business,” “Politics” and, on inside pages, different subsections that may be of particular interest. Each story has a menu hierarchy that better tells you where you are.

Five lingering concerns:

  1. Page loading. At least on the version of the Chrome browser I use, Strib pages load slower than just about any site I know. Bernard says the pages are 20 percent smaller (in bytes) and should load 25 percent faster. We’ll see if that’s right, and if it’s enough.

    (For you geeks, the Strib didn’t change its content-management system, which had whipsawed through several iterations during the late-2000s financial crises. However, sticking with the same CMS may avoid some of the breaking-in problems the Washington Post is currently experiencing.)

  2. More scrolling? One reason sites eschewed whitespace is they worried readers wouldn’t scroll down. Strib pages seem longer (again, mine was only a quick impression). Bernard says Strib readers have shown they will scroll down “a lot.”

  3. Page refreshes. Fewer things are more frustrating than a page reloading while you read it. The Strib isn’t the only publisher to do this, but I find myself cursing them too often – and probably will in the future, since the refresh rate hasn’t changed in the new design. Perhaps once the dust settles.

  4. Still busy. I don’t want to leave you with the impression it’s all simplicity and light on the new Strib site. There are still a blizzard of links, and don’t expect every ad to be demure. While the Strib wants to zap every ad that metastasizes when you accidentally mouse over it, premium advertisers might still get a double-size banner at the top. There will be less obnoxiousness, but still some obnoxiousness.

  5. No customization. You want to specify which sections rise to the top of your home page? Won’t happen; the editors still control all. Too big a programming nightmare, Bernard says.

Finally, I’d note that there’s no mobile redo — yet. Everyone with a smartphone or tablet knows this is where the world is going. The Strib won’t be rolling out new mobile sites or apps with the website redesign, but expect phone and tablet products to come before fall.

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Comments (18)

Could anyone explain the purpose of the compulsory reload? The only purpose I can figure is to increase the number of ads displayed, which strikes me as dishonest to the ad buyer besides being user hostile.

I'm glad to hear it's going to look nicer - now if they would just focus on real news, instead of having sports and entertainment front and center most of the time. I'm pretty sure that if I just read the Strib, I'd have no idea what was going on in Minnesota, much less the world.

Christopher -

In the past, Strib web execs have said it's to refresh the content on a site that's constantly changing. (More about the headlines surrounding story than story itself, tho it sometimes changes the story if new facts are added.)

Cynics say it's about blasting new ads in your face and artificially upping page views. With visits becoming the preferred metric, I think the latter is more overblown than it was.

Elsa -- on the web, you always know exactly what people are reading. So the predominance of sports and entertainment reflects what your fellow citizens are most often clicking on.

People have a great appetite for that stuff, and the Strib can't ignore that. It's why T&A TV shows do better in the ratings than documentaries. At some point, you've got to give your audience what it wants.

Thanks for the interesting review. However, I just want to cast a vote for serif fonts. Although I scan sans serif rapidly, I read serif fonts more comfortably.

The Strib has always had one of the worst page sizes for a media site around. If they're using the same CMS, there's only so much they can do to make it better. Sounds like they haven't done much. Have their developers never heard of ySlow or Google Page Speed?

The page refresh is one of the most disingenuous and dishonest practices I've seen on the web. The fact that they're keeping it tells me they're not serious about thinking of the redesign as anything other than a re-skin.

That said, I don't see the scrolling or customization stuff as a big deal. People know how to scroll a web page. And customization is overrated, under-utilized, and adds a lot of complexity.

Will delivered-newspaper subscribers get a free ride online? That's how NYTimes is doing their thing.

Because I don't watch TV, I sometimes check Strib online for story updates (usually disappointed) and sports scores (that are rarely close to real time).

Blah, blah, blah.

Justin - the Strib definitely agrees with you about customization ... their reasoning is almost identical to yours.

My sense with refresh is that reform is coming. I don't know the technical barriers when you're mostly concentrating on appearance. I know we'll both be watching closely!

Barbara - yes, like NYT, if you are a print subscriber you get the web stuff free even after metering begins.

John - sure, that's part of it. But at a certain point (I would think) an entity should decide what its mission is and consider whether that mission is being fulfilled. Is it a newspaper? Is it important that a newspaper be informative? Should it draw attention to "news" stories? In the end, should there be a difference between the Strib and Entertainment Weekly?

For that matter, people click on sports stories more because they're bigger, and they're bigger because people click on them more - sort of a self-perpetuating cycle, isn't it?

In any case, I guess it's good for MinnPost that the Strib buries the local political stories. We might not look for it here if it were more obviously covered there.

I didn't realize how bad the Strib's website was until I loaded it on a browser without all my Javascript blockers. It's horrid! The ads literally chased me right off the site. I hope for the best with the new site, but it's hard to shake my skepticism.

They can do whatever they want with the new site in terms of layout. I'll just fix what bugs me with a greasemonkey script. It's easy.

^^^ I didn't realize how overloaded the site was until I viewed it on a browser without AdBlockPlus :)

Interesting rundown, and good news too. I'm not the biggest fan of the Strib website currently, and I'm not supportive of the refresh tactic either. It's nice to hear that they are valuing the stories more than the ads in the redesign.

MinnPost easily trumps the Strib website, but I did hear that MinnPost will be making some improvements in its website this year. Any news on when that will be happening?

Have they done anything about the runaway scripts on the site? I can't leave a browser open on it because of the alerts those cause.

It would be nice if they would only put pieces up for a limited period of time. They run stuff that is days, sometimes weeks old, on the website. When I read today's paper I don't have to page through all of last week's to get what I want. If they're going to charge for it they should only run new material.

Will the StarTribune have a permanent archive? Right now their stories usually cannot be used, for example, for Wikipedia references because they disappear. What I'm looking for is a realization that "cool URIs don't change".

The strib is back only when their new direction in reporting also changes. The overwhelming advertising was only the straw that ripped off the pigs prom dress.

Their paywall has been implemented poorly, with certain stories being too 'special' to be read by non-subscribers.

Most newspapers with a paywall allow casual browsers to read a few stories before being treated like an unwanted guest.