11 november 2013

A beautiful beast with a complicated life

THE LAUNCH OF THE DAILY BEAST, 6 October 2008, must be a textbook example of bad timing. Media mogul Barry Diller’s ambition was to revolutionize how news and, not least, advertising were presented on the web. But his news- and blogsite aired exactly three weeks after the Lehman Brothers collapse which triggered a financial crisis that would send shock waves deep into the media industry and, for some time, shatter its economic foundation by bringing advertisers to their knees.

The fact that the Beast – named after a fictional tabloid paper in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Scoop – has managed to survive long enough to now celebrate its five-year anniversary probably has a lot to do with the stubbornness of its publisher. While the main competitor, The Huffington Post, seems to be cruising down the lane of success, The Daily Beast has had its share of problems. Six million monthly unique visitors may sound impressive, but at HuffPost, they can multiply that figure with twelve. A failed, and recently ended, marriage with Newsweek led an operating loss of $44.8 million in 2012, and recently, two dozen staffers were laid off, leaving the Beast with roughly 65 employees – about the same number it launched with in 2008.

ON THE OTHER HAND, the design has gained wide recognition and won first prize in the News category of the Webby Awards in both 2012 and 2013. Partly because of the Beast’s distinctive frontpage with the signature column The Cheat Sheet – a sharp and uncompromising take at the curator’s role which is how many people see the news editor of the future. Another reason is the site’s simple and consistent architecture which has undergone only minor adjustments, editorial as well as design-wise, compared to the concept thought out by Diller and his superstar editor Tina Brown – with the help from design company Code and Theory – in 2008.

Technically, they were ahead of their time. Typography on the web was subject to a lot more limitations five years ago than now. The contrastful and refined type of the Daily Beast frontpage stood out. And the sharp, vertical page structure seems to be conceived with a portrait format iPad in mind; but Apple did not present its tablet until eighteen months after the launch of The Daily Beast (and the first Android tablets only appeared in 2009).

THIS SPRING, it was announced that The Daily Beast – by that time struggling to make its chaotic relationship with Newsweek work – was in for a redesign. However, this new, responsive design went with the news magazine to its new owner (IBT Media) – and instead, the Beast would have to make do with a facelift which was rolled out 29 October.

Typical to the times, this is a simplification most of all, and the designers have done everything they could to retain the clear frontpage structure, the bold colour scheme, and the powerful typography. Still, the Beast’s strong and recognizable identity appears a bit weaker in this new ”flat” version, almost completely cleansed of shadows and effects. The design looks clean and functional but not quite as unique as it used to be.

NOW, WHEN EVEN TINA BROWN – who was not only one of the masterminds but also the public ”face” of The Daily Beast – has left for new challenges, the current attempt to relaunch might very well be Barry Diller’s final shot. The publisher promises that we haven’t yet seen it all. Well, the rest better be great or this beautiful Beast may soon become history … as yet another proof that looks isn’t everything, and certainly no guarantee of success.

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