Last June, Businessweek released tech essayist Paul Ford’s opus, “What Is Code?” This 38,000-word cover story crossed the social feeds of anyone who even vaguely follows technology during the weeks after its release.
Here’s a reminder of what the top of the story looked like online:
Readers knew right away: Bloomberg’s editors thought this piece important. Its custom border, animated illustrations and extra-giant headline are emblematic of design elements that signal serious editorial investment.
This sort of presentation requires cross-departmental collaboration, between editors, developers and designers. Achieving that is a challenge even for household names such as Time Inc., according to former company executive Fran Hauser, now a partner at Rothenberg Ventures. “This was definitely a pain point,” she said last week from the judge’s panel at the Made in New York Media Center‘s Demo Day in Dumbo.
Pre-launch Codex Press aims to fix this premium content problem, by being what its founder, Tim Farnam, called a “Squarespace for journalists.”
The Washington Post alum opened his pitch by saying that, in most cases, the appearance of a given story online is relatively fixed. The lead picture’s size relative to the headline, how the two relate to each other, how text justifies relative to the screen’s edge—those elements were set long before a story had even been conceived.
Mr. Farnam wants to give editorial teams more of that aesthetic control. “We think these are crucial visual design decisions,” he said at the event. “They should never be automated.”
But they usually are, especially at publications too small to have their own design and development departments. Every post, every story, looks basically the same. There’s no way for the writer to signal to readers when they open a piece that it is either nothing more than a quick update or, in fact, an in-depth feature.
“This is no longer 2005, and we can do much better on the web,” he wrote the Observer in an email.
In short, templates have gone too far. All the big content management systems, such as WordPress and Tumblr, want readers to know which brand they are reading on. “Most platforms take an enormous amount of control,” Mr. Farnam wrote. “The line we drew with Codex was always meant to favor the content over the platform chrome that surrounds it.” He continued, “You can’t even tell it’s a platform.”
Though not yet available, Codex’s software will be by paid subscription. To see a site running Codex now, check out its partner site, Coda Story, a new publication that focuses reporting on one international crisis at a time.
This is not quite the first time a team has tried to open up complex design to people without advanced HTML skills. Scroll Kit built a similar tool, prior to its acquisition by Automattic, in August 2014. Somewhat in contrast, Google, with its open-source AMP project, has recently pushed websites to go much lighter. Everywhere, the experience of news sites is changing fast.
“This giant upheaval that we’re witnessing,” Mr. Farnam said, “is a good time to start a great business.”