Lessons from The Economist’s Blogs

The Economist is without question my favorite newsmagazine. Where Time and Newsweek have spent a great deal of that last decade covering more about trends and celebrities, The Economist stays nearly as constant and high-minded as its title would suggest. And though both of those traits can sometimes be bad things, in this case I quite like them. No other publication gives you regular updates about what’s happening in so many places around the world. And I feel confident in saying that no one on the entire planet (with the possible exception of its editors) knows everything in an issue of The Economist before they read it.

Having said all of that, the magazine’s website is a little drab. Though I like the simple functionality of the “current issue” page, it’s not exactly a groundbreaking layout. The frontpage is also admirable-but-boring, giving you a quick snapshot of some of the sites freshest and most interesting content while doing a great deal to prevent the overload that comes from many magazines and newspapers.

But I recently ventured into the publication’s rather modest blog section, and I feel confident in saying that I understand why the commenters are so few and far between. The section feels rather like an afterthought.

But the biggest problem The Economist’s blogs seem to have — and this isn’t a problem particular too them — is that they look so darn boring. Their economics blog, Free exchange, does a very admirable job highlighting the problem. Upon loading the page, my first though was: “I’m supposed to read this!?” And remember: I’m an ardent fanboy of this publication.

Now before I lay into The Economist too hard, I will readily admit that I experience this often with blogs, even my own (which any fool could tell you I value much more than those of others). Large blocks of smallish text, especially in a readable-but-slightly-dull face like Verdana or Arial, is a sure way to make me think a little before reading. And as anyone experienced in the use of Digg of StumbleUpon can tell you, that second’s hesitation may well send away over half of those who arrive on the page.

Now I dislike those that to tell you that you should front-load a post with photos and pull-quotes and other eye-catching tricky to convince fools to stick around. But after looking at the blogs of The Economist I know understand the advice in a way I didn’t before. I would never advocate pictures for every blog and entry, but they can certainly make things seem a little less drab.

To avoid giving the canned “use pictures” advice, I’ve thought of a few ideas that I think could help improve the blogs of The Economist and probably could improve yours as well.

  • Subtitles for blogs. The first sin Free Exchange commits is that it doesn’t tell me what I’ll find there. If I’m a quick thinker, I may make the inference that the title probably refers to something like commerce, trade, stock markets, or economics. Were I a fool (and we shan’t ever forget that I am) I would probably say “Hmm…” and either leave the site or look down the blog.
  • Subtitles for content. If there is a single flaw that almost every blog on the planet (mine included) has, it’s that you don’t have more to go on before diving in than than the few words that make up a post’s title. But even the most pithy title can strongly benefit from an intriguing subtitle, as both Slate and Salon illustrate (in randomly selected articles).
  • Too much sidebar. This is harder one to judge, and a much harder one to agree on. Some think that sidebars should be stuffed or exploding, I certainly don’t. One of the strongest arguments against a sizable sidebar is made by Free Exchange: a interesting sidebar easily distracts attention from your boring-looking content. This (too wide) sidebar is distracting with its ads and pictures and colorful tag cloud. All of these things make me more likely to click around (and perhaps away) and less likely to realize how good and useful the blog’s contents are.
  • Hard to get around. The Economist seems to be struggling mightily to hide their blog content from outsiders. Not only is it hard to click to the site’s other blogs when you’re in one, but it’s hard to find content within that blog. Other than the distracting tag cloud, there’s the thin-and-nearly-hidden link to their month-by-month archive and a list of recent posts. All of these are rather standards in the blogsphere, but they’re hardly good. The site’s Archives page, when you finally find it, look suspiciously like the default WordPress archive that I’ve worked to correct twice before.

Those four issues certainly aren’t an exhaustive list of the (disputable) flaws in The Economist’s blogs. The clearly-broken look of their American politics blog Democracy in America is perhaps a greater sin than any of the above bullets. But I’m glad to have noticed these sins, and hope they can be instructive in my (and perhaps your) future work.

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