On naming Facebook the World’s Best-Designed™ news website

[Editor’s Note: On April 11, the Society for News Design announced Facebook was named World’s Best-Designed™ news website at its Best of Digital Design competition. Reaction was wide ranging — but mostly critical — and left many in the digital journalism community looking for insight into the process and rationale for the award. Naming Facebook the World’s Best was not a desperation move, as one critic suggested, but a siren call that “news organizations cannot continue to swing for home runs with projects and ignore our own platforms as opportunities for innovation, engagement and sustainability.” We sat down with the panel of three judges, tasked with bestowing the competition’s highest honor, for a retrospective on how they ultimately determined that Facebook deserved to be named the World’s Best-Designed™ news website.

The World’s Best judges were Ted Irvine, Senior Director of Design at Vox MediaMartina Schories, Product Owner for Digital Infographics at Süddeutschen Zeitung; and Fernando Diaz, Senior Editor at Reveal.]

What instructions were you given to evaluate this competition category?

We were told that we had the freedom to establish specific criteria for this year’s competition, as well identify nominees. We queried our peers and based on our personal experience came up with about two dozen contestants. From there, we decided to focus on criteria to measure them against.

We’ve seen the baseline criteria, but were you looking for anything else?

Absolutely. We felt as though that criteria was too limiting, and spoke to an outdated paradigm for news organizations. We decided to establish an even higher bar for this year’s competition. Our criteria were as follows:

  • Audience – Scope of organization, in order to be world’s best recirculation strategy has to be excellent as well. The contestants had to have a significant audience. One of our key measures would be that it serve a lot of people well.
  • Mobile web / responsive vs app – it has to work well across devices and breakpoints, unless strategy is to treat devices separately. Apps are strictly judged on the app experience.
  • Performance – Speed, easy to use / intuitive. We wanted to ensure that we considered function equally with form. If it was beautiful on desktop but broke on mobile, it wouldn’t qualify.
  • Content – Relevant to you, easy to find. All sites are different, and we wanted to be able to establish baselines for photo or video heavy sites, alongside text heavy sites.
  • Presentation – Must be elegant, clean, intuitive. This being a design competition, was the most obvious.
  • Community – A safe place that fosters conversations. Social is a key component of news, and contestants had to have tools or features that enabled interaction among its audience.
  • Portability – Of content, or elements of the site or experience, atomic. Given that news experiences are distributed across multiple devices, sites and networks, we wanted to recognize efforts to innovate content at the micro level.

What led you to start thinking about social media platforms during your discussions?

Very early on in our deliberation we raised the issue of platforms vs. publishers and the move away from search to social as a key means of engaging and consuming news. We felt it was now more obvious than ever that platforms that had risen outside news organizations allowed the audience to dictate the news cycle in much more dynamic ways than mainstream and legacy news organizations had ever done before. That begged us to revisit what qualified as a news organization, and a news site. And ultimately, at a fundamental level, what is news and who decides that? Publishers and news sites find themselves at a crossroads.

While we see that the atomic units of content (the material that is the bulk of contest entries for SND’s digital competition) are getting better all the time, the mechanisms to reach audiences and their expectations have changed. News is now more personal than ever. Our time is more precious than ever. The experience people want and expect is one that provides news at a personal level and feels like time well spent. It must be available and enjoyable across all devices. It should work wherever you are and cultivate community.

We spent a lot of time discussing news consumption and how that impacts design. Platforms are constantly redefining what news is and how it is consumed leaving most news sites, even the best ones, to feel like small walled gardens. The curated experiences that these new social platforms permit have usurped news organizations own sites as the entry points to content.

SND has traditionally been about visual design; how did you, as judges, define ‘design?’

Design is to some degree subjective, and a matter of taste. But on another level, can be judged objectively, especially when it comes to function. As we reviewed all of our nominees, we recognized their contributions to news design. There were elegant solutions to the problem of serving news to users across an infinite number of devices and times of day, as Quartz has done. NPR One was a noble experiment in personalizing what one news organization can offer. The Harvard Law Review redesign is beautiful, no question.

But we also wanted to ensure that we were recognizing digital news design that worked and went beyond aesthetics. We wanted to balance experimental ambitions with practical solutions. Given that this is the digital competition, we wanted to ensure that we were recognizing technical accomplishment, as well.

As our conversation moved from publishers to platforms, we realized it would be unfair to equate a website with a platform that millions of people depend on to stay informed. And in that frame, we were emboldened to dig deeper into the opportunity of recognizing a platform for its design, even if it was not considered a traditional news organization.

SND’s digital competition always looks to make a statement that will push the industry with its announcements; what statement were you making with this decision?

We were encouraged by the contest organizers to consider the responsibility that this award bears. And we certainly did want to make a statement. We were at times concerned, and frankly a bit afraid, of the reaction by our peers. But hours of reflection and many conversations over the weekend assuaged our concerns as we realized that for everyone in the news business who understands digital audiences, this is not, and should not be controversial. We cannot continue to hide behind our paywalls and assume that we will discover sustainability. We cannot continue to swing for home runs with projects and ignore our own platforms as opportunities for innovation, engagement and sustainability.

We wanted to tell the industry that perhaps we should focus less on bespoke works of art that are enjoyed by very few people, require resources most news organizations do not have and distract us from make a deeper contribution to the ongoing conversation around news. What good is a gorgeous interactive if it doesn’t work on mobile and no one sees it? The winners of the SND competition are seen by many in the industry as a signpost of philosophies and practices to imitate, embrace and improve upon. We felt it was time to recognize what for many is the most significant driver of audiences to our content. Facebook has accomplished what most news organizations cannot, to be a worldwide news site. It has managed, through bleeding edge design, to function and be a dependable source of “high news” and personal news, and we fundamentally believe that news organizations should be interested in establishing the same kinds of relationships with their audiences. It could not accomplish this without world-class design. It’s size, and scope, and our increasing dependence on it to reach audiences are testament to its place in our news ecosystem. For many, Facebook is their front page.

How does naming Facebook the World’s Best-Designed™ news website advance the Society’s mission to invent, make, promote and teach the world’s best visual journalism?

Publishers know news, and platforms know people and connect them to the news they want. By naming Facebook the world’s best designed news site, we feel we are making a statement that is both controversial and obvious. We are saying what needs to be said. If somehow you don’t believe it’s a valid news site, stop sharing your stories there. We think most news organizations could learn a lot by understanding what Facebook is doing, and applying those lessons to their digital presence. Other platforms are doing so, whether they are geographically or subject related. What we cannot do, is continue to ignore the seismic shifts that are happening in our industry and with our audiences, and believe that bespoke feats of excellence are the goal. The goal is to inform, educate and entertain our audiences. After hours of deliberation, and reviewing the other nominees, we decided it would be a cop out to choose a news site. All of the finalists were chosen because individually, they have incorporated key dynamics into their design that are truly innovative.

We have seen the effect that praising a news site has on the following year’s entries. The year after Snowfall, there were dozens of “Snowfalls” submitted. It took three years for legacy, medium-market news organizations to go “responsive.” And while their sites now work across devices, they haven’t addressed more fundamental questions about their audience and their content. We feel that news organizations shouldn’t be chasing The New York Times’ winning work from last year, but endeavor to shift the paradigm again, or move it further, as these platforms have done. And will continue to do, leaving us no option but to consider publishing directly to them, as ironically, The New York Times and other are now considering doing.