CAN design create a better user experience that engages readers and drives revenue? Can it fight fake news and help save real journalism at a time when news organizations large and small are underfinanced and under attack?
These questions drove the Poynter Design Challenge, “a project to create new visual models for digital news publications” sponsored by William R. Hearst III, hosted by the Poynter Institute, and directed by publication designer Roger Black.
The challenge began October 17–18 in New York, with five pundits and five designers, of whom I was honored to be one, workshopping a project brief during a two-day conference event at the Columbia Journalism School. (You can watch videos of all these sessions courtesy of Fora.tv.)
The next phase took place yesterday in St. Petersburg, Florida, as the four other designers and I presented our work to a live audience. In this short piece, I’ll talk about the designs my colleagues presented; in the next, I’ll discuss my own.
Reconnecting with the people: the challenge for digital news
Roger Black described the difficulties facing digital news publications:
The challenge is serious. Fake news crowds real news. Numbers no longer add up for publishers. Readers jump from site to site without knowing where they are, or staying for long. You can see the brief for this project here.
Can design help? Well, as a I designer, I think it can. I mean, the design of most news pages is not what you’d call attractive. But the solutions proposed at Poynter will be much more strategic than cosmetic. And they’re strategies that can be combined.
—Five design answers that add up, Roger Black, January 20, 2017
“A news publication might think a bit more like Fitbit”
Between us, we designers had about a century of experience designing digital publications—internally, as consultants, or both. This means that, even though an open “design challenge” brief necessarily omits an unknown number of the specific requirements any actual publication design assignment would include, all of us were aware of, and to some degree addressed, typical news publication requirements not included in our brief.
Kat Downs Mulder, Graphics Director at The Washington Post, shared a prototype for a big-brand news site. Kat had just given birth to a healthy baby boy (congratulations!), so her work was presented by two of her colleagues from The Post. Kat did not design with the avid, committed news reader in mind (since those folks are not the problem for most publications). Instead, she pondered how to engage the typically fragmented attention of today’s distracted and passive news reader:
“A big-brand news site [should be] aware that people have a lot more to do in their lives than read the news,” Kat posited. Thus, “A news publication might think a bit more like Fitbit. That is, it should make you feel like it’s working for you. A reader should say, ‘I’m reading everything I need to know.’”
Keep that dopamine pumping
Kat presented a multi-paned prototype. The wider pane on the right contained news content; the narrower pane at left was navigation. As I’ve just described it, this isn’t much different from the current Post website, but Kat’s prototype was very different, because it prized reader control over editorial director control; kept track of what you read; encouraged extra reading the way Fitbit encourages extra steps, and rewarded it the same way Fitbit does, with an accumulation of points that give the reader dopamine hits and create the perception that the “news app” is working for her—as a rewarding part of her busy lifestyle.
An Operating System for your city
Mike Swartz, Partner at Upstatement, a design and engineering studio in Boston, took on the challenge to smaller publications (such as his original hometown paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) which lack the resources of a Washington Post or New York Times.
Mike’s presentation, “information OS for a city: redefining the opportunity for local media,” turned the journalistic prowess of a good local paper into a superpower, connecting readers to their city the way the “terrible towel” stunt concocted in desperation by radio announcer Myron Cope in 1975 reconnected Pittsburghers to their hometown football team, and helped the Steelers win Super Bowl X over the Dallas Cowboys.
There’s a potential for an operation like the [Post Gazette] to rebrand itself as more of an “informational operating system” for its city. With different types of products that are focused and useful and not necessarily bundled into a traditional news format, we can create more enjoyable experiences and more useful products readers will love.
Building reader interest and finding a way to pay for it all
Where the rest of us avoided the elephant in the room, in her design Lucie Lacava, president of Lacava Design Inc., boldly confronted the challenges of advertising and monetization. Algorithm-driven advertising frustrates users, who, in desperation, block it. Choked for income as a result, publications and advertisers create more and more intrusive forms of unwanted advertising. Nobody wins.
And while subscription models have worked, at least partly, for some of the very top news publications, such models are not likely to help most news publications in the near term.
Digital publication as digital application
Lucie’s design addressed these challenges by recasting the news as a hyper-customized application targeted at younger users, who get to choose news streams and ads that are relevant to them. “The elusive millennial” was Lucie’s target. I cannot do her idea justice with a couple of paragraphs and a single screen shot.
Affordable, immersive VR is here
Jared Cocken, brand and product designer for hire and co-founder of STYLSH.co., approached the “attention war” by showing how any size publication could create “video or VR driven stories that enrich a user’s understanding of the world around them.”
Because VR video is immersive, it holds viewer attention. Because it is reality-based, it fights fake news. (It’s hard to call bullshit on a scene you can explore from any angle.) VR also, potentially, builds compassion. It’s one thing to read about conditions in a Syrian refugee camp, another to visually experience them in VR.
Until now VR and video have been cost-prohibitive, but, working (and co-presenting) with VR startup founder Anna Rose and Hollywood producer/actor Banks Boutté, Jared showed how even woefully under-financed newsrooms can use newly designed, super-affordable tools to create “video or VR-driven stories that enrich a user’s understanding of the world around them.”
Parting thought for now
Blogging about a conference is like tweeting about a sexual experience. You had to be there. I wanted to record and share the outlines of what my fellow designers presented, but these few paragraphs should in no way be considered authentically representative of the deep thinking and work that went into every presentation.
You may see holes in some of the arguments presented here. In some cases, I might agree with you—some ideas, while dazzlingly creative, did not seem to me like the right way to save news. But in most cases, if an idea seems wrong, blame my telling. If you had been there and heard and seen everything, the value of the proposal would have far more apparent than it can be here.
I love that each of us took on a quite different aspect of the problem, and addressed it using very different tools. I’ll be back soon with a short write-up of the design approach I took. Meanwhile, I want to thank all the pundits, designers, and attendees in New York and St. Petersburg—and the Poynter Institute, Roger Black, and William R. Hearst III for making it all possible.