Digital design cues change every day as imaginative ways to experience the news crowd the landscape. Time is the variable that has not changed, which makes it more precious than ever. With that in mind: What are the signposts for success? And to what standards should we aspire?
The judges this year have honored The Marshall Project and Quartz as SND Digital World’s Best. The shortlist also included AJ+, BuzzFeed News and NYT Now. The two winners were announced on Saturday evening at the conclusion of SND’s annual workshop in San Francisco.
Here are the signals for all media:
Meeting the audience where it’s gathered: This is crucial as devices and platforms proliferate. As storytellers, publishers must be open to the idea of any platform where readers and viewers see their work, while understanding deeply how to tailor content to needs and play to strengths.
Engaging members of a community of interest: Publisher are in peril if they don’t understand what drives people — and that can be everything from personal passions to a brand’s voice and authority. Knowing who you are engaging is imperative.
Having a clear — often narrow — focus: Work that understands why it exists and what audience it’s aiming to serve wins. Extraordinary discipline is often required to achieve a clarity of focus, whether that a single-purpose app or the reason behind a long-form project or the entire mission of a publication.
Creating gorgeous, useful experiences: Consistency of voice and design across platforms is important and rare — and, yet, there also should be moments of surprise and serendipity. Having rich content always work. Having it resonate and work seamlessly is even better.
Respecting users by solving problems: Whether it’s how fast a page loads or the way a story reveals itself across devices, publishers have more control than ever in delivering on technology and UX so it’s a responsibility to engage in smart ways. Hierarchy never goes out of style.
Being ambitious and audacious: New technology — things like virtual reality and natural language speech — must be a consideration for publishers, which necessitates experimentation. Beautiful new ways of experiencing the world are in full flourish and are capturing attention. What else is? The idea of editing and delivery paired to save time. Some ambitions are in technology, some are in imagination, some are in editing. The best work toward all.
Acting like a trusted source, not merely a publisher: Focus on the interests of an audience, and be a source of information for people in that audience, even if that news is from elsewhere. Newsletters that don’t merely promote content, they get you caught up, and give you more to read if you’re interested (skim and dive), and importantly, they link to other people’s great work. Authority is expressed by reporting and writing — but also curating, selecting stuff that they think their audience will think is important.
Indicating what’s worth it — news that’s the most important can be finished: All the news that’s fit to read. (To link?) None of these ideas are particularly new – newsletters are pretty old-school. And links out are the building blocks of the web. But newsrooms have rarely done these things well, and these places are smart to do so. These are solid, audience-first choices.
Why we picked Quartz
Quartz exemplifies what a medium-sized news organization can achieve. The low-key ambition here is admirable and creates a frictionless experience.
The content and delivery inside this narrow business vertical are superb — and the team is finding unique, surprising ways to engage with a passionate community, by meeting needs for readers and advertisers alike. The team is also fearless at eradicating things that don’t work and experimenting wildly.
Visual distinction sets apart content, and lovely small touches enrich the experience being part of the Quartz community. All interactions are moments to be designed.
There’s a mobile-first focus on social distribution that keeps Quartz users happy on several emerging platforms (and the money follows, with 42 percent of ad revenue delivered through mobile).
Take the Quartz Daily Brief, for example, which has voice and tone, written by humans for humans, and is a terrific example of “skim and dive” as a way of understanding news in a manageable, finishable fashion. The widely read newsletter has become indispensable.
The new Quartz app is an unusual experiment — the judges were divided on it’s merits, but it does seek to be audience-centric, skimmable and dive-able, and has an end — it’s like the newsletters we love so much, but delivered in parts. You can be done for the moment. But come back an hour or two later, and there’s a couple more things that you really need to know, and be done again. Until tomorrow morning.
Quartz, which is currently owned by Atlantic Media, shows the kind of design innovation that can happen on a small team inside a mammoth media powerhouse. And that’s something we can all learn from.
Why we picked The Marshall Project
The Marshall Project has nailed every. Single. Thing.
The publication has an incredibly strong design language that works in every place it manifests itself — on the web, on mobile, on social, in email newsletters. All in a beautiful design vocabulary that travels easily from place to place.
The newsletter isn’t just well-designed, it’s an excellent example of the kind of publishing that we all should aspire to – brief and useful, with way-pointing to deeper dives if needed. The email hosts cover their beats, not just their stories. It’s great to read, and informative even if you don’t click a link. (Unlike most email newsletters and social accounts — and homepages for that matter — which are pure promotion.)
The site itself, with incredible attention to detail, is a standard-bearer for the industry and a shining example of less is more (check out how they use that X!)
The Marshall Project’s special features are among the very best in the industry, and the deft use of illustration and information graphics is superb. The Next To Die is one of the best examples of using a social channel to inform on important, timely problems, while also appealing in its design to the underlying data in a way that moves you with its clarity and simplicity.
The publication has high regard for readers. The Marshall Project is urgent and respectful, insightful and contextual. This is audience-first design, at its best, and in service of great, important, difficult journalism.