National Journal Goes Responsive, Shuns App

Targeting mobile users

Atlantic Media Co.’s National Journal is adopting a responsive design while moving away from apps, counter to the thinking of other publishers who believe there’s a role for both to play in reaching mobile users.

Whether to go with a responsive site, apps or both comes down to the individual publisher, of course. Some are tethered to apps because they help prop up their print subscription model, or see them as a way to let readers enjoy a lean-back experience that’s different from the Web. For others, the cost and time of designing apps for multiple devices isn’t worth the audience and revenue payoff.

For National Journal, its iPhone app is relatively new (introduced in April as a subscriber benefit) and hasn’t been a significant source of revenue. Meanwhile, its Web traffic from mobile devices has doubled over the past 18 months, so it needed a site that would provide a uniform experience across devices. 

"You just cannot keep up with apps,” said Tim Grieve, National Journal’s editor in chief, adding that the existing app would probably be shut down. “It’s just so much better to have one platform. National Journal also had the benefit of watching its corporate sibling Quartz, the year-old business news brand that launched as a mobile-first site, forgoing apps altogether. And while apps may always make sense for other publications, the National Journal experiment is worth watching.

As far as its website, National Journal is adopting the blocky, visual design that’s popular today with others like Slate and The Washington Post. Grieve has been pushing National Journal to respond faster to the news since he was hired as National Journal’s online editor in May (he added responsibility for the print pub in August), and the new, photo-driven design, simpler navigation and disappearance of the right-hand rail goes a long way in showcasing those changes.

To expand its audience and better compete with newer, fast-paced rivals like Politico and Bloomberg, National Journal has to reach beyond the Beltway. To that end, Grieve has hired several people from Politico and elsewhere and ordered up stories like these on secret Putin worshippers and the Army's ban on tattoos. Grieve said his changes have already started to pay off, noting that traffic in June was up 30 percent versus the average five months prior and that unique visitors in September were the highest they've been in ast least five years. Time will tell if National Journal, with its serious but staid reputation, can become an ongoing must-read outside its base, though. 

The new site also has some advertising upgrades. There’s a new native ad unit that, while labeled sponsored, is consistent with the editorial content design and can run right in the editorial flow. There’s a new display unit dubbed Catalyst (again, a nod to Quartz) that’s meant to be prominent without being intrusive.

But the think tanks and lobbyists that make up National Journal’s core advertisers haven’t exactly been at the vanguard of sponsored content, which means the pub will have to figure out how to get them on board the latest online ad bandwagon.

"Washington is just beginning to discover how to use native,” National Journal group president Bruce Gottlieb acknowledged. “The thing that has to be done is to create policy-focused native that works for advertisers but is also of interest to readers.”

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