This post is written by Science & Technology specialist Daniel Sieberg who will be an instructor for two upcoming mediabistro courses: Interactive Reporting Essentials and Journalism & Technology Bootcamp.
The acronym soup that is the lexicon of a 21st century journalist should now contain the likes of CMS, PHP, and UGC. If you scratched your head after reading those (or plugged them in Google) then now is the perfect opportunity to come up to speed.
But aside from the backend of programming, it’s perhaps more important to recognize what works for today’s online news audience and why. Deciding how to present content online and for mobile devices is critical to any business model but also for journalists to stay relevant as the media landscape shifts yet again. And yet too many journalists make mistakes that will turn off readers and lose their attention. This blog post is meant as a starting point to avoid those pitfalls.
1. Map out your maps
While maps on the surface seem like a fairly innocuous use of technology to aid the reader, they are not without controversy. Maps can contain inaccuracies, and relying too heavily on them without fact checking can cause serious issues for journalists or others. For example, in late 2010, tensions escalated between Costa Rica and Nicaragua over a disputed region between the two counties near the San Juan River. A Google map showed part of the land as being in Costa Rica, which enraged the Nicaraguan military and government who also laid claim. It was all over an incorrect border marker that appeared online. And there are plenty of other contests territories and locations in the world that could prove sensitive when mapping them out. After all, maps were the original way of laying claim to any location and continue to be politically charged. So take your maps seriously. Errors in accuracy will kill the impact they might have in any story. Do not think of them as token ways to illustrate a story that lacks graphics. Make them unique and inventive. For example, the New York Times obtained data that listed the popularity of certain Netflix rentals in various major cities. It even went further, breaking it down by various neighborhoods and zip codes. The result is a fascinating look at not only people’s entertainment choices based on region, but also how that could be connected to the cultural and demographic data, too.
2. Take time with timelines
Timelines can work well with crimes or wars or obituaries. But timelines can also be effective for showing the life of a product or how a particular model of car evolved or tell the story of a significant artifact. Keep in mind that timelines coded by hand are not all that easy. And certainly it helps to have a graphics and programming background. But there are tools out there to help make relatively straightforward ones and they’ll be outlined in the assignment. Do keep timelines in moderation—they won’t work for every story, and you want your readers to really appreciate when they work. Sometimes, they can make a story more complicated than it needs to be. For example, have a look at this timeline. Clearly someone took a lot of time to assemble information about the high-tech age with various categories. But what are we learning from it? Is it too much information and not enough organization? On the other hand, you might add a sliding bar to a timeline to let viewers adjust it or reveal certain parts of it when they run a mouse over a particular section. Consider this one from the L.A. Times about the death (and life) of Michael Jackson. The bottom line is make a story clearer not cluttered. Handy tools include Storify, TweetMeme and DataSift.
3. Make social media social and passionate
Plunking down a Tumblr, Reddit, Facebook or Twitter icon at the bottom of a news story is the absolute bare essentials for any social interactivity and can simply be ignored by many users. The same goes for a comments page. It behooves any news organization to get more involved and engage the readers. Thinking of a comments page like a live blog can get one-time commentators to come back for more. The social element should not just be between users but also between users and the news organization. An important tip—don’t hide behind corporate anonymity—at least include the initials of whoever is posting comments or interacting with readers. It will go a long way to humanize the connection. You also need to infuse the social media arenas with passion. Readers are savvy these days and will sense when you’ve simply tossed up some links without really wanting to take the story to the next level. If you’re asking for their thoughts and want their engagement then follow up and encourage more of it to happen. There’s no room for social media that’s turned into a dull echo chamber. There are many reasons people love to share their content and make it social—and it often has to do with seeing what others are reading and opining about. Respect the reader.
4. Photos and video duration and usage—don’t drag
The inclusion of photos and video are standard these days but you can lose readers in an instant if you don’t do it in a user-friendly fashion. To begin, any photo gallery should consider dropping advertisements, make it embedded in the page so the browser doesn’t have to reload between images, and of course make them shareable with others. When it comes to video, it’s arguably even more critical to make them web worthy. Videos that don’t play immediately will send viewers to another site, advertisements longer than a few seconds at the top can really turn people off, and anything longer than a few minutes exceeds most attention spans online unless it’s truly compelling and original material.
One tip to consider is to keep track of when a viewer has already seen other video clips on the site and remembering that IP address. Instead of forcing them to watch an advertisement at the start of every video clip just ask them (in text before the clip) to sit through one short advertisement and the rest will be freebies sans ads. It will keep viewers “stuck” to the site for a considerably longer time. And any video player absolutely needs to be a seamless experience for the user. If the player doesn’t work or it freezes midway the value of the video is lost and users will doubt any clicks on it in the future. Consistency is key.
5. Bonus no-brainer tip: Get out the bugs, please
With an increasing number of people getting their news from mobile devices there is no excuse for apps that don’t work or mobile sites that crash and fail. Porting a traditional website to a handheld device can be a complicated process that requires rigorous hours of testing—it’s absolutely worth every painstaking day and delay. Readers will drop off very quickly if their expectation from desktop to mobile isn’t easy, error-free and effortless. It’s critical.