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10,000 Words: MSNBC pushing the envelope of design

Over on the 10,000 Words blog Mark Luckie looks at the use of design behind MSNBC’s websites, which he claims break the mold of a traditional news site design. He asks “does the splashy approach web design actually work or is it all sizzle?” It’s worth navigating around the MSNBC sites to decide for yourself.

A few months ago, MSNBC launched BLTWY (pronounced Beltway), a niche news site centered on the celebrity side of politics. What made the site truly stand out was its unconventional design — instead of a sea of text, the page is a grid made up mostly of photos that serve as links to individual stories.

The 10,000 Words post is at this link

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Design is key to good online journalism, not just coding and data

May 27th, 2010 | 1 Comment | Posted by in Handy tools and technology

The correlation between good design and good storytelling

It is good to see that the internet’s powerful influence on journalism, while not universally welcome, is being enthusiastically tackled. The willingness of some writers and broadcasters to get to grips with programming is one of the most important aspects of this on-going narrative.

Having written a couple of blogs on journalism and coding recently, I have noticed how much of the conversation revolves around learning the technical skills required for developing new apps, the emphasis seems to be on coding and computer science.

Yet in many ways a digital journalist is more likely to struggle with design than coding. Before you can begin coding you have to have this side of things clear, whether you are working on your own independent blog or developing a complex data rich piece for a much larger news website.

Packaged up for perfection

We can all agree that the internet allows for a highly competitive market in which a good producer of quality journalism can thrive without the support of a big media giant. If you are one of these aspiring indie journalists then you are quite likely to be advised things like: be niche, be hyperlocal, be as specialist as possible.

These are fine buzzwords, but remember that regardless of how good your content may be, the first thing people will experience when they click on your site is a subconscious reaction to how your page makes them feel. If they don’t like it they will probably leave in a matter of seconds, unless there is a compelling piece of information that they cannot get elsewhere.

So how do you help your content to make your site a ‘sticky’ one? Our head designer, Cat Kempsell, believes that there are some very basic design rules to follow:

“Articles on a webpage need space to breath and flow. Don’t be afraid of white space and stick to three columns for a news driven site. Above all, make sure that your headings and sub-headings are distinctive, preferably in different colours – Times Online does this really well. People want to feel comfortable, that they can relax and interact with a website without feeling like they just landed in a maze of words.”

It’s strange to see how many news websites don’t do this. I suspect that it’s a hangover from a print history that encouraged every spare inch of white space to be filled, but on a website it just looks horrible. Someone should tell the Sun.

Making sense of data

Data journalism is another area that we are being encouraged to explore. You can build a programme that scrapes large amounts of data from a website, but how do you then organise that information into an easily accessible set of graphs, facts and stats that will deliver the maximum impact in as short a time as possible?

Making an infographic is quite easy; making a good one is an art form. Infographics are incredibly popular at the moment and many of us feel that it is another area that we need to become proficient in. My opinion is that, like coding, you’ll get the best results when you’re working in a team of professionals; that digital trinity of a journalist, a coder and a designer.

As an online editor for a digital media company, I am aware of just how important coding is, although I don’t believe that journalists and coders will ever meld into the same role. I just think that a modern journalist should be able to understand and talk about web architecture fluently. The same applies to basic design principles.

In a space that’s filled with websites clamouring for the public’s attention, how a site makes you feel when you’re on it really matters. Judging by its new design, the Times recognise the issue. If anyone else wants to start charging for content they’re going to have to recognise it too.

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Q&A with an information architect (aka @currybet aka Martin Belam)

March 11th, 2009 | 6 Comments | Posted by in Jobs, Newspapers, Online Journalism

Martin Belam, of the CurryBet blog, has recently been appointed as ‘information architect’ for Guardian.co.uk. Journalism.co.uk asked him what he’ll be doing for the site…

For those who don’t know what you do, fill us in your background and the new gig…
[MB] I was at the Hack Day that the Guardian’s technology department ran back in November 2008, and the talent and enthusiasm that day really shone. I’ve really enjoyed the freedom of working as a consultant over the last three years, much of the time based either in Crete or in Austria, but the opportunity of coming to work more permanently for an organisation as forward-thinking as the Guardian is being with initiatives like the Open Platform was too much to resist.

So, an ‘information architect’ what does that mean and what are you doing?
Information Architecture has been defined as ‘the emerging art and science of organising large-scale websites’.

All websites have an inherent information structure – the navigation, the contextual links on a page, whether there are tags describing content and so forth. It is about how people navigate and way-find their way through the information presented on a site.

What I’ll be doing at the Guardian is influencing that structure and functionality as new digital products are developed. It involves working closely with design and editorial teams to produce ‘wireframes’, the blueprints of web design, and also involves being an advocate for the end user – carrying out lots of usability and prototype testing as ideas are developed.

Is it a full-time role?
I’m working four days a week at The Guardian, as I still have some other commitments – for example as contributing editor for FUMSI magazine – although already it feels a bit like cramming a full-time job into just 80 per cent of the time!

It’s not happy times for mainstream media brands: where are they going wrong?
I don’t think it is only mainstream media brands that are suffering from the disruption caused by digital transition, but we do see a lot of focus on this issue for print businesses at the moment. I think one of the things that strikes me, having worked at several big media companies now, including the BBC and Sony, is that you would never set these organisations up in this way in the digital era if you were doing it from scratch.

One of the things that appealed most about joining the Guardian was that the move to Kings Place has brought together the print, online and technical operations in a way that wasn’t physically possible before in the old offices. I’m still very optimistic that there are real opportunities out there for the big media brands that can get their business structures right for the 21st century.

What kind of things do you think could re-enthuse UK readers for their newspapers?
I think our core and loyal readers are still enthusiastic about their papers, but that as an industry we have to face the fact that there is an over-supply of news in the UK, and a lot of it – whether it is on the radio, TV, web or thrust into your hand as a freebie – is effectively free at the point of delivery. I think the future will see media companies who concentrate on playing to their strengths benefit from better serving a narrower target audience.

Do you see print becoming the by rather than primary product for the Guardian – or has that already happened?
I think there might very well be a ‘sweet spot’ in the future where the display quality on network-enabled mobile devices and the ubiquity of data through-the-air means that the newspaper can be delivered primarily in that way, but I don’t see the Guardian’s presses stopping anytime soon. Paper is still a very portable format, and it never loses connection or runs out of batteries.

Your background is in computer programming rather than journalism, will the two increasingly overlap?
I grew up in the generation that had BBC Micros and ZX Spectrums at home, so I used to program a lot as a child, but my degree was actually in History, which in itself is a very journalistic calling. I specialised in the Crusades and the Byzantine Empire, which is all about piecing together evidence from a range of sources of varying degrees of reliability, and synthesizing a coherent narrative and story from there. And, of course, I’ve spent most of this decade blogging, which utilises ‘some’ of the journalist’s skill-set ‘some’ of the time.

Whilst I’d never suggest that journalists need to learn computer programming much beyond a smattering of HTML, I think there is something to be gained from understanding the software engineering mindset. There are a lot of tools and techniques that can really help journalists plough through data to get at the heart of a story, or to use visualisation tools to help tell that story to their audience.

One of the most interesting things about working at the Guardian is the opportunity to work alongside people like Kevin Anderson, Charles Arthur and Simon Willison, who I think really represent that blending of the technical and journalistic cultures.

You’ve spoken out about press regulation before; why do you feel strongly about it?
In a converged media landscape, it seems odd that Robert Peston’s blog is regulated by the BBC Trust, Jon Snow’s blog is regulated by Ofcom, and Roy Greenslade’s blog is regulated by the PCC.

At the moment, I believe that the system works very well for editors, and very well for the ‘great and the good’ who can afford lawyers, but does absolutely nothing for newspaper consumers. If I see something that offends me on TV, I can complain to Ofcom. If I see an advert that offends me in the street, I can complain to ASA. If I see an article in a newspaper that I think is wrong, inaccurate, in bad taste or offensive, unless I am directly involved in the story myself, the PCC dismisses my complaint out of hand without investigating it.

I don’t think that position is sustainable.

The last thing I want to see is some kind of state-sponsored Ofpress quango, which is why I think it is so important that our industry gets self-regulation right – and why I believe that a review of how the PCC works in the digital era is long overdue.

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Andy Dickinson: Print organisations must make systems open source

January 15th, 2009 | No Comments | Posted by in Newspapers, Online Journalism

In the second of his new year convictions, journalism lecturer and blogger Andy Dickinson says print organisations must break away from network-wide templates for their newspapers’ websites.

“[I]t hampers attempts to upskill journalists and softens the brands that are supposed to be so valuable,” writes Dickinson.

Full story…

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