Journalism and User Experience

In the age of the internet, quality journalism must be matched with quality presentation. This is something I’ve long advocated for, and something I tried to build into my company EdSurge when I was there. Strong brands like the NY Times, WaPo, Economist, and others can for a while longer get away with focusing less on presentation, as their brands indicate to readers time spent reading is unlikely to be totally wasted. Newer publications, however, are stuck between high end brands and content farms, and must find ways to quickly express their brand quality to newcomers. Design is that way.

Newcomers must innovate through design

In fact, newer publications have a leg up on the old guard, as they can establish a new culture where design and journalism can be on equal footing. An example of this is Vox Media, who pride themselves on putting Design, Business, and Journalism on equal footing, with strong cross-functional teams being assigned to articles.

These adaptations allow them to better push the boundaries of journalism and educating users. (This is also true of establishing better business models, distribution channels, and adaptation content to new mediums, but that’s a post for another day). Older brands have struggled with these changes because they’re set in their ways. The New York Times Innovation Report from 2014 is an excellent read that describes the barriers the Times as faced internally as they struggled to adapt to the internet. While they started out better, the rate of improvement at the Times has been dwarfed by Buzzfeed, allowing the latter to move upmarket and build economies of scale in the meantime. Sound familiar? It should.

Where’s the data?

The Times definitely has improved in the past several years, and has done a great job with content innovation in projects like Snow Fall. However, this New York Times Magazine piece on California’s massive methane leak shows that the Times is still struggling with design. The content was a perfect opportunity to use data and charts to visualize the magnitude of the discussed problem, and the timeline of the discoveries and activities. These are hardly new in publishing – the Times even ran Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight for a while.

Instead we get a wall of text, with numbers and dates trapped in paragraphs, and the big number in the lede (97,100 metric tons) lacking context. I’m sure somewhere deep in the article the context is provided, but it isn’t readily available for the reader to quickly assess whether to dedicate 15 minutes to finding out its importance.

Specifically, the lack of subheads and figures make the article really hard to skim, which is rather inexcusable in the age of internet publishing. The only images are a guy with a rolls royce, an overhead shot of the area, a pool, and a gate. Not exactly compelling stuff, nor highly descriptive or additive. The article is very well researched and real journalism went into it, and its a shame it wasn’t put together well. Although this is an NY Times Magazine article, we should be long past the days of magazine-first publishing.

The goal is user experience

Journalism is hard. Deadlines creep up quickly, and the presentation of an article is often the first thing dropped. I’m not even a journalist, and I’ve noticed this in my blogging. But thinking about design and presentation from the beginning helps clarify thought and guide decisions – what does the person know going in, what do they learn along the way, what is the best way to express each constituent idea, what is its structure. As with most things, the goal is a good user experience. Though their methods differ, these same principles apply to all content – textbooks, articles, video, podcasts, and games. This applies to both the content itself, and the context of that content – from discovery to delivery to engagement to reflection and sharing. We all seek to capture people’s attention, and bring them to a new place of greater understanding, and the future of journalism is in building organizations that value and excel in all these areas.