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First impressions: the Star Tribune’s new website

Startribune.com will roll out a new design the week of April 4, although it won’t be “.com” any more.

Startribune.com 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.

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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.)

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  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.