Three lessons news sites can take from the launch of The Verge


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Maybe it’s just the 30-something former rock critic in me, but I keep accidentally calling new gadget site The Verge The Verve instead. But whatever you call it, The Verge’s launch today is one of the most anticipated in the online news space in some time. The chance to build a new platform from the ground up, with talented editorial and tech teams attached, combined with the months of buildup at the placeholder site This Is My Next, meant a lot of people were waiting to see what they’d come up with.

And it is impressive: bold, chunky, and structured, all at the same time. The gadget/tech space has no shortage of competitors, and building a new brand against some established incumbents takes a bold move. Which of The Verge’s moves might you want to steal for your own news site? Here are three.

Don’t be afraid of big, bold visuals

Engadget, the tech site from which most of The Verge’s core staff came, has long committed itself to having big, 600-pixel-wide-or-so art on each of its posts, be they short or long. But the Verge takes that a step further. Just look at the home page — big beautiful images with lovely CSS-driven tinting in the top promo area, then more photos attached to nearly every linked story. Because every story has all the visual fixings, they can ebb and flow as the story moves down the front page. (The movement is still blog-style reverse-chronological.)

The story pages expand the photo well even more and feature page-width headline slots with a nice slab serif, Adelle Web. (Slab serifs are all the rage these days.)

The Verge’s short, aggregation-y posts get a bigger design treatment than most news sites’ feature stories do. (They also carry over Engadget’s highly annoying habit of burying the credit links for what they aggregate in a tiny box at post bottom.) But if you really want to see the power of big visuals, look at one of the site’s feature stories, like its review of the iPhone 4S or this takeout on survivalism — photos over 1,000 pixels wide, bold headlines and decks, structured story organization, embedded galleries, columns that don’t all stick to a common template well, page-width graphics. And check out the gallery and video pages, both of which stretch out Abe Lincoln-style to fill the browser window. In all, it’s the kind of bold look that you’re unlikely to see on most daily news sites; its design DNA lies much more in magazine layout.

That bold look comes with some tradeoffs, of course. While the front-page content is still generally newest-up-top, it’s not quite as obvious what’s new if it’s your second time checking the site in a day. And the front page has far less information density than a typical news site; on my monitor, the first screenful of The New York Times homepage (to go to the opposite extreme) includes links to 32 stories, videos, or slideshows, while The Verge’s has only eight. But that’s okay — while prolific, The Verge produces a lot less content than the Times, and I suspect the appealing graphical look will encourage scrolling more than a denser site would. And each story on The Verge homepage gets a bigger sales push — between a headline, an image, a deck, and an excerpt — than all but a few newspaper stories do on their front pages.

I suspect we’re going to see more of this big, bold, tablet-ish design approach finding its way back into more traditional news sites in the next year or so; you can already see movement in that direction comparing the Times’ (redesigned) opinion front to its (almost unchanged since 2006) homepage. In a world where an increasing proportion of traffic comes from social media and search — that is, from some place other than the front door — it makes sense that the burden of a site’s homepage to link to everything might be lightened.

Layer your reporting on top of structured data

It’s telling that the first item in the top navigation on The Verge is “Products.” Not “Articles” or “Latest News” — “Products.” Just about every significant product in the gadget universe — from cell phones to TVs to laptops — gets its own page in the underlying Verge taxonomy. Here are all the cameras, and here are all the gaming systems, for instance, and here are some sample product pages. (Intriguingly, you can search through them by using filters including “Rumored,” “Announced,” “Available,” “Canceled,” and “Discontinued.” Did you know there were 129 different tablets out there?)

The product pages feature basic information, full tech specs, related products, and in some cases “What You Need To Know” sections. These will be good for SEO and pageviews, and they’ll likely be useful to readers; stories about a product link prominently to their related product pages. (I’m actually a little surprised the product pages don’t take the logical next step and slap “Buy Now” links next to everything, with affiliate links to the appropriate vendors.)

Topic pages are nothing new, of course, but few news sites make this sort of commitment to being a reference point outside the boundaries of the traditional news story. A newspaper may not care much about the Nokia Lumia 800, but they could build their own semantic structured web of data around city council members, professional athletes, local restaurants, businesses, neighborhoods…whatever matters to readers. Most news organizations will have something that completes the SAT analogy The Verge : gadgets :: Your News Site : _________.

Build a place for community

Engadget has a famously active community — so much so that it had to turn off comments entirely for a stretch in 2010 when things were getting out of hand. (“What is normally a charged — but fun — environment for our users and editors has become mean, ugly, pointless, and frankly threatening in some situations…and that’s just not acceptable. Some of you out there in the world of anonymous grandstanding have gotten the impression that you run the place, but that’s simply not the case.”)

The Verge appears to be doubling down on community, though, adding topic-specific forums to the voluminous comment threads on specific entries. Forum posts get big bold presentation too. The same Josh Topolsky who wrote that rip of Engadget’s commenters above writes today that the new site is designed to let “reader voices be heard in a meaningful way…we think it’s totally cool and normal to be psyched about a product or brand and want to talk about it.” He also promises that active commenters and posters will get “special sneak previews of our newest features.”

Will it work out and generate positive, useful discussions (or at least enough pageviews to satisfy the ad sales team)? We’ll see. But it’s good to see some attention to reader forums, a form of reader interaction a number of news sites have walked away from in recent years.

What’s most promising about The Verge, though, is not any one specific element — it’s the fact that they’re giving a lot of thought to the form of their content, at a time when the basics of the blog format have congealed into a kind of design conventional wisdom. Here’s hoping other sites join that process of thinking about their tools and their structures along with their daily content.

Mother Jones web traffic up 400+ percent, partly thanks to explainers


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February was a record-breaking traffic month for Mother Jones. Three million unique users visited the site — a 420 percent increase from February 2010’s numbers. And MotherJones.com posted 6.6 million pageviews overall — a 275 percent increase.

The magazine credits the traffic burst partly to a month of exceptional work in investigations, essays, and exposes, its editorial bread and butter: real-time coverage of the Wisconsin protests, a Kevin Drum essay on the consequences of wealth inequality in America, the first national media coverage of that infamous prank call to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. The also mag credits the traffic, though, to its extended presence on social media: Mother Jones’ Twitter followers increased 28 percent in February, to more than 43,000; its Facebook fan base grew 20 percent, to nearly 40,000; and its Tumblr fan base grew 200 percent, to nearly 3,000 followers.

In all, the mag estimates, a cumulative 29 percent of traffic to MotherJones.com came from social media sites.

But Mother Jones also attributes the traffic explosion to a new kind of news content: its series of explainers detailing and unpacking the complexities of the situations in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and Wisconsin. We wrote about MoJo’s Egypt explainer in January, pointing out the feature’s particular ability to accommodate disparate levels of reader background knowledge; that format, Adam Weinstein, a MoJo copy editor and blogger, told me, has become the standard one for the mag’s explainers. “It was a great resource for the reader, but it also helped us to focus our coverage,” Weinstein notes. “When something momentous happens, it can be hard for a small staff to focus their energies, I think. And this was an ideal way to do that.”

The magazine started its explainer series with a debrief on Tunisia; with the Egypt explainer, written by MoJo reporter Nick Baumann, the form became a format. The explainers became “a collaborative effort,” Weinstein says — “everybody pitched in.” And the explainer layout, with the implicit permission it gives to the reader to pick and choose among the content it contains, “just became this thing where we could stockpile the information as it was coming in.” It also allowed MoJo journos to “be responsive to people responding via social media with questions, with interests, with inquiries that they didn’t see answers to in other media outlets.”

It was a format that proved particularly useful, Weinstein notes, during the weekend after Mubarak had resigned in Egypt and when protests gained power in Libya and, stateside, Wisconsin. “All of this was happening at the same time,” he says — “none of us were getting a lot of sleep that weekend” — and “our social media just exploded.” But because MoJo’s Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook pages became, collectively, such an important interface for conversation, “we needed a really efficient way of organizing our content,” and in one conveniently centralized location. So the explainer format became, essentially, “a great landing page.”

The success of that format could offer some insight for any outlet trying to navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of content and context. Explainers represent something of a tension for news organizations; on the one hand, they can be hugely valuable, both to readers and to orgs’ ability to create community around particular topics and news events; on the other, they can be redundant and, worse, off-mission. (“We’re not Wikipedia,”  one editor puts it.)

It’s worth noting, though, that MoJo explainers aren’t, strictly, topic pages; rather, they’re topical pages. Their content isn’t reference material catered to readers’ general interests; it’s news material catered to readers’ immediate need for context and understanding when it comes to complex, and time-sensitive, situations. The pages’ currency, in other words, is currency itself.

That’s likely why the explainers have been so successful for MoJo’s traffic (and, given the outlet’s employment of digital advertising, its bottom line); it’s also why, though, the format requires strategic thinking when it comes to the resources demanded by reporting and aggregation — particularly for outlets of a relatively small staff size, like MoJo. Explainers, as valuable as they can be, aren’t always the best way for a news outlet to add value. “We still do the long-form stories,” Weinstein notes, “and this has just given us a place to have a clearinghouse for that.” For MoJo, he says, the explainer “is a way of stitching together all the work that everyone’s been doing. And we’re thrilled that readers have responded.”

The context-based news cycle: editor John O’Neil on the future of The New York Times’ Topics Pages


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“There’s are a lot of people in the news industry who are very skeptical of anything that isn’t news,” says The New York Times’ John O’Neil. As the editor of the Times’ Topic Pages, which he calls a “current events encyclopedia,” O’Neil oversees 25,000 topic pages, half of which — about 12,000 or so — include some human curation.

While the rest of the newsroom is caught up in the 24-hour news cycle, constantly churning out articles, O’Neil and his team are on a parallel cycle, “harvesting the reference material every day out of what the news cycle produces.” This means updating existing topic pages, and creating new ones, based on each morning’s news. (The most pressing criterion for what gets updated first, O’Neil said, is whether “we would feel stupid not having it there.”) A few of the Times’ most highly curated topics include coffee (curated by coffee reporter Oliver Strand with additional updates by Mike White) and and Wikipedia (curated by media reporter Noam Cohen),  as well as more predictably prominent topics like Wikileaks and Egypt.

The Topics team includes three editors and two news assistants, who work with Times reporters. “People give us links to studies they’ve used for stories or articles they’ve looked at, and this is something that we do hope to expand,” O’Neil said.

But half of the topic pages are “purely automated,” O’Neil said. And O’Neil is even contemplating contracting the number of curated topic pages, as people and events drop out of relevance. (The Topic pages garner 2.5 percent of the Times’ total pageviews.) O’Neil said he had read a statistic that roughly a third of Wikipedia’s traffic came from only about 3,000 of its now more than 17 million pages. “We’re concentrating more on that upper end of the spectrum.”

In a phone conversation, I talked with O’Neil about why the Times has ventured into Wikipedia territory, how the Times’ model might be scalable for local news organizations, and why creating a “current events encyclopedia” turns out to be easier than you might think. A condensed and edited version of that conversation is below.

LB: How did the topic pages develop?

JO: Topic pages began as part of the redesign in 2006. Folks up in tech and the website realized they could combine the indexing that has actually gone on for decades with the ability to roll up a set of electronic tags. The first topic pages were just a list of stories by tag, taking advantage of the fact that we had human beings looking at stories every day and deciding if they were about this, or were they about that. Just that simple layer of human curation created lists that are much more useful than a keyword search, and they proved to be pretty popular — more popular than expected at the time.

LB: What’s the philosophy at the Times behind the topic page idea?

JO: Jill Abramson’s point of view when she started looking at this: When she was a reporter, she would work on a story for days on end, weeks on end, and pile up more and more material. You end up with a stack of manila folders full of material, and she would take all of that and boil it down to a 1,200-word story. It was a lot of knowledge that was gained in the process, and it didn’t make it to the reader. The question was: How can we try to share some of that with the reader?

My impression is that people find these pages terrifically useful. Not everybody comes to a news story with the knowledge you would have if you’d been following the story closely all along. News organizations are set up to deal with the expectation [that people] have read the paper yesterday and the day before.

LB: How do you go about transforming news stories into reference material? What does the process look like?

JO: What we found, as we did this, is that the Times is actually publishing reference material every day. It’s buried within stories. In a given day, with 200 articles in the paper, about 10 percent reperesent extremely significant developments in the field. Now we can take a small number of subjects, like Tunisia or Egypt or Lebanon or the Arizona shootings, and keep on top of everything, set the bar higher. We can really keep up with what the daily paper’s doing on the biggest stories.

LB: As you note, there’s a lot of wariness among “news” folks  around putting  effort into topic pages. For instance, when I talked with Jonathan Weber of The Bay Citizen, the Times’ San Francisco local news partner, about topic pages, he told me: ”people are looking for news from a news site….We’re not Wikipedia. You don’t really go [to a topic page] for a backgrounder, you go there for a story.” How would you respond to that?

JO: Our experience has been that that’s never been entirely true, and it’s becoming less true all the time. Look at the pound-and-half print New York Times, and think how much of that is about things other than what happened yesterday. Even in the print era, that was a pretty big chunk.

Then again, it makes sense for folks at a place like The Bay Citizen to be more skeptical about topic pages. A blog, after all, is all about keeping the items coming. And a site focused on local news would feel less need to explain background — hey, all our readers live here and know all that! — than if they were covering the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance.

LB: So what about the Wikipedia factor? Why should the Times be getting into the online encyclopedia business?

JO: I think Wikipedia is an amazing phenomenon. I use it. But there’s no field of information in which people would find there to be only one source. On Wikipedia, there’s the uncertainty principle: It’s all pretty good, but you’re never sure with any specific thing you’re looking at, how specific you can be about it. You have to be an expert to know which are the good pages and which are the not-so-good ones.

Our topic pages — and other newspaper-based pages — bring, for one thing, a level of authority or certainty. We’re officially re-purposing copy that has been edited and re-edited to the standards of The New York Times. It’s not always perfect, but people know what they can expect.

LB: What’s the business-side justification for the Topic Pages?

JO: We know that the people who come to the topic page are more likely than people who come to an article page to continue on and look at other parts of the site. It helps bring people to the site from search engines.

It’s also brand-building; it’s another way people can form an attachment. People can also subscribe to topic pages. (Every page produces an RSS feed.) We’ve begun to do some experimenting with social media. There are lots of people who want to like or follow or friend The New York Times, but a topic pages feed gives you a way of looking at a slice of this audience. It turns the supermarket into a series of niche food stands, so to speak.

LB: The Times obviously has a lot more resources than most local news outlets. Is developing topic pages something of a luxury, or is it something that makes sense to pursue on a more grass-roots level?

JO: At the Times, less than one half of one percent of the newsroom staff is re-purposing the copy. That makes it of lasting value, and makes it more accessible to people who are searching. If you think about a small regional paper, three editors would be a huge commitment. On the other hand, the array of topics on which they produce a significant amount of information that other people don’t is small. There’s a relatively small number of subjects where they feel like, “We really own this, this is key to our readership and important to our coverage.”

If people think of topic pages as the creation of original content on original subjects, it never looks feasible. If you think about it as re-purposing copy on your key subjects, I think it’s something more and more people will do.

Mashable, tackling info overload, launches a Follow function keyed to user networks and interests


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Mashable currently boasts 12 million unique visitors per month — making the social media-focused news site the largest independent tech news site on the web. It churns out huge quantities of stories, every day. And while that’s great for the site — not to mention its 3.4 million followers, spread across the Internet’s social networks — it also creates what you might call a nice problem to have: How do you scale in a way that doesn’t overwhelm your readers? How do you serve tons of users with tons of content — without contributing, at the same time, to information overload?

Today, Mashable is launching, in closed beta, its response to those questions: Mashable Follow, a new social layer intended to help users personalize their experience on the site. “With Mashable Follow,” an explanatory video notes, “you can have a custom tailored experience by only following the topics that interest you and ignoring the ones that don’t.”

Follow has four key features:

— “Follow” buttons on every story that let users subscribe to that story’s topics via a “My Stories” feed;

— A one-button sharing tool that allows readers to add their Facebook, Twitter, Google Buzz, and Digg accounts (with more options coming soon) to their profile pages and share to all of these services with one click;

— Profile pages that let users promote their social media accounts and connect with other Mashable community members who share their interests; and

— Badges that members can earn for sharing stories, connecting with other Mashable users, commenting on articles, following topics, etc. (“Over time,” Mashable notes, “we’ll create more substantial rewards for our most engaged readers, awarding more influence to our most dedicated community members.”)

The idea for Follow has been in the works for about a year now, Vadim Lavrusik, Mashable’s community manager, told me. And it came from the need for controlling the chaos that is a lively, and constantly updated, website. “When you come to the site, you just see all these new stories, constantly being posted,” he notes. “And all of them have hundreds of shares. It’s just an overwhelming experience, I think.”

Follow, Mashable hopes, will streamline that experience by offering a customized, centralized space for users to consume the kind of information they’re most interested in. (And also: to interact with the users who share those interests.)

To create that space, Mashable is leveraging some key tenets of social curation: that people like customized news experiences; that they like social news experiences; that they like to be rewarded for consuming and sharing information. The Follow features aren’t, on their own, new; the features being rolled out today are similar to the ones you’ll see on HuffPo, Digg, Facebook, and similar sites. What’s intriguing about them, though, is the way they combine extant experiments in the social news field with the aim of creating a truly centralized experience for their users.

“We didn’t want to try to recreate the wheel, necessarily,” Lavrusik says; rather, the point was to combine features users are already familiar with — sharing functionalities, badges, and the like — in a smart, seamless way. “We took ideas and bits and pieces,” Lavrusik says, “and added some of our own that would make the most sense from our readers.” With Follow, “we’ve tried to think, as much as we can, about the user experience.”

In that, the Follow features tackle another problem besides information overload: user fragmentation. The web is, in general, a peripatetic place, an environment and an experience that encourages hopping and moving and exploring. That’s perhaps its key virtue; but it can also be, from a UI perspective, its key vice. All that moving around can become, for the user, exhausting. Mashable’s solution is to offer centralization in place of fragmentation: to provide a one-stop shop where its multi-million-member community can both consume and share information. On most social platforms, from Facebook on down, the content comes from elsewhere; with Follow, the content will be integrated. The content will come from the platform itself.

“This is a place where you can now curate Mashable content as a user and really personalize your news consumption experience,” Lavrusik says. “And I think the potential it has for bringing our community closer together in one place — not just on the outskirts of Twitter and Facebook and all our other social platforms — can really strengthen our community.”

The core logic of Follow is that curation itself is a community function. And that’s a fascinating proposition — one that’s only beginning to be explored and, in the best sense, exploited. As Pete Cashmore, Mashable’s founder and CEO, put it in his announcement today: “Beyond personalization, we believe that curation is the next great wave in news, and empowering our community to choose the news of the day is the ultimate aim of the Follow project.”