[Editor's note: Today OJR welcomes Nora Paul of the University of Minnesota and Laura Ruel of the University of North Carolina as contributing writers on the site. Each month, Nora and Laura will examine current research on news website user interfaces and storytelling techniques. Their articles will help news site producers and editors pick the best ways to package their information to increase their site's traffic and influence.]
Goodbye 2006. The tenth anniversary year of the start of many Web-based news sites was the occasion for reflection about how far (or not) we’ve come and speculation on how best to proceed forward. Here we are in 2007 and it’s time to do a measured look at where we are right now.
For the past ten years the features on news websites have evolved and expanded. Thanks to software developments like SoundSlides audio slideshows have proliferated on news sites, expanding experimentation with “multimedia.” The “We Media” mantra has given rise to collaborative community reported news both within and outside mainstream news organizations. RSS feeds have changed the notion of mass product distribution to personalized news channel delivery. The aggregation of news stories on a given topic coupled with additional information (along the lines of Seattle P-I’s Transportation page or Lawrence Journal-World’s Legislation page) is moving news websites away from “your daily newspaper on the computer screen” to a valuable aggregation of community information.
Experimentation with individual story forms continues. The slideshow is getting a remake with the “flipbook” style of choreographed image display set to music (as with the MSNBC “Iraqi Kurdistan” video.) The packaging of series stories with multiple media elements is getting cleaner and more elegantly designed (the Orphans & Angels piece from Florida Today is a good example.) Flash and Google maps interfaces are being used to navigate the user through data and information (take a look at AZ Star’s Sealing Our Border interactive map and the Boston Globe campaign contributions map.)
How the success of these experimentations and evolutions are being measured is still an issue. Page views, time spent on the page, where people enter in from and where they go after can all be measured. But what do we know about how these news features and forms change attitude toward the news product, or how effective the form is at informing, or if a new design is a more effective way to get people to engage fully with the carefully constructed package?
Research into story design effectiveness is happening in newsrooms and universities. In the case of newsroom research, the findings are regarded as competitive intelligence and not readily shared with the industry. In universities, the findings are written in academese and not readily understood by the industry.
In this column, we will ferret out the research and findings about story form effectiveness and profile the people and places who are trying to understand current practices and guide more informed design decisions. Creating stories that engage, inform, and get people to come back for more must be part of the media’s mix of offerings. We hope, in the coming months, to engage and inform you about story design research.
(Special thanks to Interactive Narratives for consistently shining a light on story innovation.)