Borg-like Atlantic Redesign Sparks Blogger Identity Crisis

What is a "blogger"? A number of famous bloggers at the Atlantic are getting introspective now that a fancy redesign has assimilated them all (except Andrew Sullivan) into a faceless system of channels and tag pages.

Pre-redesign, each blogger (or "voice" as the Atlantic adorably calls them) had their own blog complete with images, jumps, a little portrait, small design touches, etc. (Full disclosure: We can barely remember how the old Atlantic website looked.) On the main Atlantic site, all the Voices—Andrew Sullivan, James Fallows, Ta-Nehisi Coates, etc.—lived in a sidebar, and you could see their latest posts. There in the little Voices village, they chattered happily amongst themselves, each one a distinct individual who wandered around the magazine and the web at large, only loosely attached to the editorial identity of the Atlantic . The Atlantic gave the Voices each a piece of land and allowed them to tend their crop of words as they liked in exchange for a share of the traffic.

But with economic pressures came the restructuring of labor into a familiar form. The Atlantic has subsumed all the voices (save Andrew Sullivan) into "channels"—politics, business, culture, international, science & tech, national, food. The Voices "anchor" the channel, and their content is fed into the same stream as the rest of the Atlantic riff-raff churning out stuff in that channel's purview. The anchor's small portrait makes their posts float to the top a bit, but clicking their name only brings you to a bare-bones list of all the articles they've written for the site. (Andrew Sullivan still has his fancy personal blog, because he probably draws more traffic than all other Voices combined.)

The Voices are now more the voices of a columnist speaking from the editorial page of the Times . Or maybe more like a blogger at a certain Manhattan-based gossip website. Each has their own personality, maybe, but is ultimately beholden more to the overall brand than their own point of view. The Atlantic has bought back the land and now the bloggers just drive the tractors. The only reason it is safe for us to say that the Atlantic website has been Gawker-ized is that Andrew Sullivan said it first.

The Voices are generally pissed. James Fallows writes:

it is no secret within our organization that I think the new design creates problems for the magazine's "personal" sites, like the one I have been running here these past few years. In particular, the new layout scheme — in which you see only a few-line intro to each post but no pictures, block quotes, or other amplifying material — unavoidably changes the sensibility and tone of personal blogs.

Ta-Nehisi Coates was probably most screwed by the redesign, as his frequent, highly-personal posts are least suited for the "channel" format. In a sprawling entry, he admitted to having approved the design, but also that "If I'm truly honest, I have to say that there were better ways to strike the balance between the channel, and this blog's identity."

Jeffery Goldberg manages maximum point with minimum words: "There are a lot of buttons on this thing. "

But Andrew Sullivan gets at the crux of the problem facing the professional blogger today. At one point, we too went from unfettered hobbyist hanging out on the web to a guy with a hardhat and a thermos clocking into the Content Management System:

treating blogs as a series of headlines, designed to maximize pageviews, is a deep misunderstanding of blogs, their reader communities and their integrity. I hope they get restored to their previous coherence, and these amorphous "channels" gain some editorial identity. I hope writers like Fallows and Goldberg aren't treated as random fodder - anchors! - for "channels". I believe in the Atlantic as a place for writing. The redesign seems to me to ooze casual indifference to that and to the respect that individual writers deserve.

It has been noted that every web publication is becoming eerily similar in layout, which begets (is a symptom of?) a convergence of content. Many of the weird corners of the Internet are being smoothed out to fit in a nice row of skyboxes and even fancy magazine writers have to get in line. But it's not the death of the classical blogger. Far from it. As outlets like the Atlantic and Gawker become more well-oiled content-generating machines and less "cool," personality-driven insider conversations, the new generation of auteur blogs are seriously challenging this model. If you ask Nick Denton who threatens Gawker the most he'll say Nikki Finke, Perez Hilton and The Superficial—not the AOL news borg. The voices count more than ever, but only pageviews show up on Alexa.